HEAD OF THE CLASS
president Ali Houshmand at the school’s
“I am hoping to make
Rowan a place that is
renowned,” he says.
From Rags to Rowan
Education helped Ali Houshmand escape
poverty in Iran. Now he is thriving as the new
president of a growing university. By Robert Strauss
LITTLE IN ALI HOUSHMAND’S childhood suggested that he might someday lead a university as its president. Growing up in
the 1960s in the Iranian capital of Tehran,
he knew mostly hardship.
“We were poor, but it is hard to explain
in an American context,” says Housh-
mand. “Poor like in the worst part of
Camden, and go even further than that.
Poor in terms of not having food. Poor in
terms of not being able to bathe, because
we didn’t even have the money for the
But Houshmand says he was one of
the lucky ones. His father was able to earn
just enough from odd jobs to keep a roof
over the heads of Ali and his nine siblings.
Houshmand had at least two other
things going for him. His parents insisted that their children take advantage
of the one benefit Iran provided at the
time, a free education for all. And he
had the drive to make the most of that
education. His ability to achieve academic excellence would lead him on an
unlikely journey to his current station as
president of Rowan University, the fifth
largest state university in New Jersey.
“We lived in a rough area,” Housh-
mand recalls during an interview in
his office at Bole Hall on Rowan’s tree-
lined Glassboro campus. As a young-
ster, he played soccer in his bare feet
after school and looked for trouble,
“like any teenager.”
But in class there was no nonsense.
The young Houshmand recognized that
learning could lift him out of poverty.
Fortunately, schoolwork, he says, “came
to me naturally.”
Houshmand’s proficiency in English
helped him pass an entry exam for a
prep school in London. With the help
of his brothers, Houshmand scraped
together enough money for a plane
ticket and some expenses. When he
arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport,
however, he discovered his English had
“An immigration officer started
asking me questions, and I had no idea
what he was asking,” Houshmand says.
“Even though I knew a few words, apparently I didn’t know anything.” A fellow passenger translated for him, then
helped the newcomer find his way.
“I started working at Kentucky
Fried Chicken, and I spent the rest of
my time doing schoolwork,” Houshmand says. Within a year, he had
passed Britain’s A-Level exams and
was admitted to the University of Essex, where he would earned a BA in
mathematics and a master’s in mathematical statistics. He contemplated
returning to Iran to teach, but the nation was in tumult. It was 1979 and the
Shah had been overthrown.
He remained in England, but jobs
were hard to find. A professor encouraged him to further his studies at a
university near Detroit—where, the professor warned, “everyone has a gun and
they shoot each other.” Throwing cau-