Stuart Rabinowitz has been president of Hofstra University for 20 years. Soon to retire, he reflected on June 28 about some of his accomplishments and changes to the school he's overseen. Credit: Howard Simmons

Stuart Rabinowitz first arrived on the Hofstra University campus in 1972 to teach at its fledgling law school, drawn by its newness and ambition. The Bronx native, a lawyer with degrees from the City University of New York and Columbia University law school, felt the school aspired to become "as good as any law school in the country."

"I didn’t think the university had that same ambition," he said in an interview in his Hofstra office in Hempstead on June 28. "And I couldn’t understand that because there were so many advantages they weren’t taking advantage of."

When he steps down as Hofstra’s president at the end of this month, he will have led a 20-year push to transform the private university.

What to know

Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz retires July 31 after 50 years on campus. A law professor, he became law school dean in 1989 and president in 2001.

Since 2001, Hofstra has added six schools: medical; nursing; engineering and applied science; government, public policy and international affairs; health professions and health services; and honors college. Enrollment has fallen, however.

Students of color went from 22% of student body in 2001 to 46% in fall 2021, and students in the top 10% of high school class went from 12% to 32% by fall 2020.

Hofstra proudly lists the achievements under his two-decade watch: six new schools, including the Zucker School of Medicine and the Hofstra Northwell School of Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies, both in partnership with Northwell Health. There are more than eight new academic centers, including the National Center for Suburban Studies, four new buildings, an endowment 10 times larger, and rising academic standards for incoming classes.

Rabinowitz, 75, who became the law school dean in 1989 and president in 2001, said Boston University and George Washington University served as his models for what Hofstra could become: regional schools that grew to acquire national reputations.

"I don’t think we’re quite there yet," he said. "But it’s doable."

What they had that Hofstra didn’t, he said, "was a big endowment and a fully textured science program. We got a medical school in eight years" and established a separate engineering and computer science school, a nursing school — first graduate and now undergraduate — and programs in the health professions.

"I’m really proud we were able to do all that during one presidency because that can take decades," Rabinowitz said.

Stuart Rabinowitz.

Stuart Rabinowitz. Credit: Howard Simmons

"I was motivated especially because of the Great Recession, where for a while there it looked like nobody wanted to send their kids to private schools that couldn’t guarantee a return on investment in terms of jobs at the end of their educational experience," he said. "It was clear then and now [that] there are tons more opportunities in engineering, computer sciences and health sciences than in other areas."

As for Hofstra’s endowment, he sees its growth as critical for the university’s success. The endowment — the invested donations and assets that spin off income to pay bills, fund scholarships and hold down tuition growth — has risen from about $90 million in 2001 to close to $900 million now, he said.

"I really think the endowment is on the way to being adequate," he said, adding that if the school remained the same size, he'd like to see it rise to $1.25 billion to $1.5 billion, "and that's very doable." While the endowment is not large enough for Hofstra to compete as a top-tier school, he could see Hofstra as a "top 75 school."

As the university added schools, overall enrollment declined from about 13,000 in 2001, according to the university’s online records to more than 10,400 last fall, a trend that reflected greater selectivity in admissions and external forces such as the pandemic.

Expansion's effect on faculty

Faculty at Hofstra say they have seen the benefits of expansion, in the improved academics of incoming students drawn to its programs and in the school’s growing reputation. But it also has added some strains on faculty and traditional liberal arts, said Elisabeth Ploran, associate professor of psychology and president of the Hofstra chapter of the American Association of University Professors, representing its 750 full- and part-time faculty.

Students in its new health and science programs must take undergraduate biology, chemistry and physics classes. But these traditional liberal arts departments — like departments in universities nationally — are increasingly forced to rely on short-term contracted contingent teachers instead of full-time tenure track faculty, she said.

"Without replenishing the faculty, it’s difficult to simultaneously support the expansion of new programs and maintain traditional liberal arts," she said. "The frustration of the faculty is to watch all this amazing growth and to feel like the traditional disciplines are being left behind."

Hofstra ended its football program in 2009, freeing up $4.5 million...

Hofstra ended its football program in 2009, freeing up $4.5 million a year. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Rabinowitz said the university was "scrambling at the last moment to add more chemistry, biology and physics professors and labs because the demand of freshmen students to major in the sciences is unprecedented. If they wanted to major in the sciences, they wouldn’t have been coming here 20 years ago."

His strategic initiatives have involved sometimes controversial choices. When the university wanted to better fund its shift to the sciences, it took the step in 2009 of ending its football program, freeing up $4.5 million a year.

"I did take a lot of heat about that decision, but I don’t have a single regret," he said.

As the academic strength of entering classes has risen, so too has the percentage of students identifying as people of color, rising from 22% in 2001 to 46% in fall 2021.

But top administrators at the university do not reflect that greater diversity. Bringing more ethnic and racial diversity to faculty and administration remains an ongoing challenge as schools compete with top-tier schools to woo candidates for positions, Rabinowitz said.

"Yes, it is an unfinished business — there has to be a better way of figuring this out," he said.

According to Hofstra statistics for fall 2020, 19% of faculty was non-white.

New president arrives Aug. 1

The next president, Susan Poser, who is coming from the University of Illinois Chicago, where she was provost, has said diversity would be an important part of her mission. When she arrives Aug. 1 as the university’s ninth — and first woman — president, she’ll have a hand in the search to fill another top post, the successor to retiring longtime Provost Herman Berliner. Janet Lenaghan, Hofstra’s business school dean, will act as interim provost.

Looking forward, the coronavirus pandemic-induced pivot to online courses has hastened a move toward a lucrative market for online, especially graduate, education. An increasing number of courses will go online that, Rabinowitz acknowledged, "should have been online already."

"I'm going to sit back for a while and see...

"I'm going to sit back for a while and see how I survive without a 24/7 job," Rabinowitz said. Credit: Howard Simmons

And like higher education institutions nationally, Hofstra will continue to grapple with rising costs and tuition, as its sticker price before financial aid approaches $70,000 a year for tuition, room and board, fees and books. Ninety-five percent of students in fall 2020 received financial aid, according to Hofstra.

"A strong challenge is to keep tuition under control, but at the same time not water down the academic experience you offer," Rabinowitz said. Public institutions "are always going to cost lower, so you have to have programs and a kind of pedagogy that persuades people it’s worth the money to go to your university."

Looking back at past highlights, he points to the three presidential debates hosted by the university that he saw as an opportunity to raise Hofstra’s profile. When he applied to the Commission on Presidential Debates, he said, few took it seriously. To the surprise of some, Hofstra was selected to host one in 2008, then two more, in 2012 and 2016.

"It got our name out internationally and demonstrated that we could do things and do them well," he said. "At the same time, you’re trying to persuade the world that we are better than they may think we are, [and] we have to persuade ourselves we can do better than we think we can."

As president emeritus, Rabinowitz said he likely will teach an undergraduate Introduction to American Constitutional Law course and finish his ongoing work as regional co-chair of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council.

But first, the Woodbury resident plans a vacation to Colorado, visits with children and grandson, and some time off, as he considers future activities.

"I’m going to sit back for a while and see how I survive without a 24/7 job," he said.

Latest videos

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months