Rutgers University will be launching a national search for the successor to a near irreplaceable member of its faculty. A man whose guidance on population demographics, housing and the economy have been invaluable to policymakers in both Washington and Trenton, and to journalists as well. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams spoke with outgoing Dean of the Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University James Hughes.
Williams: Twenty-two years at a deanship, that’s like dog years. Why step down now?
Hughes: Well you realize that your shelf life is ultimately going to come to an end and you look for an exit strategy of when is the best time to step down and let the next generation take over. And this just happens to be an extraordinary, special year that after this year it’s going to be anticlimactic.
Williams: Because of the 250th anniversary?
Hughes: Well, it’s the 250th anniversary of Rutgers, it’s the 25th anniversary of the Bloustein School, it’s the 70th anniversary of our planning program which became part of the Bloustein school and 40 years of another program in the school. So it all coincided at one point in time so this is going to be a celebratory year and that’s a good point to step down.
Williams: You took over at a time when the tech sector was just beginning to explode, the info tech sector. Now, the business leaders are in big data. How has the school changed to keep up with that radically changing economy?
Hughes: Constantly increasing our use of technology. We now have 96 dedicated workstation class computers that our students can access 24/7 hours per day. We have very sophisticated instructional activities in all forms of big data and the like, so we are keeping pace. It’s expensive to do and you have to continually reinvent yourself.
Williams: So does this state. New Jersey was on the cutting edge of many economic sectors, pharma being one of them, now not so much. How does New Jersey get back?
Hughes: Well we have to realize we are now in a post-suburban economic era.
Williams: You’ve written a book about that.
Hughes: New Jersey thrived in the great era of suburbanization, particularly the suburbanization of economic activity in the 1980s and we reinvented the economy at that point in time. Looking forward, we have to begin the process of reinventing it a second time. We see it emerging on the Hudson River Gold Coast. We see it at some suburban outposts where some developers are trying to create 24/7 live/work/play environments. So it’s a work in progress.
Williams: Because it’s attracting millennials who aren’t in the suburbs anymore. They’re going to cities with transportation.
Hughes: Correct. Millennials are suffering suburban fatigue. They were raised there, they were happy they were raised there, but it’s time to go.
Williams: What about transportation infrastructure? As you know we’ve been stuck in this underfunded Transportation Trust Fund situation and there’s been a halt on all road repairs. How does that affect the state economy?
Hughes: To have a world-class economy you have to have a world-class transportation system and that really was the case in New Jersey until the last 10 years or so. We had the first state highway department. We had the finest state highway system in the country in the ’30s and ’40s. We had nation-leading toll roads. We have NJ Transit taking over the bankrupt railroads. We had the interstate system. Every one of those improvements and advances in transportation led to future economic growth.
Williams: But we haven’t kept pace with it.
Hughes: That is correct. We have been adding capacity, and the one place we’ve added capacity we can see the economic implications. We have the largest roadwork in terms of expanding the Turnpike to 12 lanes down into the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Exit 7A boomed because of that in terms of warehouse distribution.
Williams: And 8A, being able to get through 8A. Will you continue to provide guidance on policy, here in Trenton and also in Washington?
Hughes: Absolutely. I think I’ll be able to do that more since I will not be burdened by administrative duties. So technically after this year I’m going on sabbatical. I’ve never had a sabbatical in 45 years at Rutgers.
Hughes: That’s true. Technically I’ll be on sabbatical leave, but I’m going to be doing research, speaking engagements, whatever I can do to help New Jersey.
Williams: You and your wife met at Rutgers.
Hughes: That is correct.
Williams: And you have now put in your will, I understand, a $3.5 million donation to Rutgers. Why are you doing that?
Hughes: It’s a bequest to Rutgers. It will be the remainder of whatever assets we have left. Although my wife says if I die first, it’s party time. She’s going to spend it all. Seriously, she graduated from Rutgers also. She had a long career, 33 years in state government. Her last position was president and commissioner of the Board of Public Utilities, so she feels highly connected to New Jersey even though she was born in Pennsylvania. But she became a Jersey girl after that. So we really feel an obligation to the university, to the state of New Jersey and it’s our final gift back.