What Makes NJIT Unique?

A new self-study reveals NJIT's strengths, one of which is research.

What makes NJIT unique? What are its strengths? And what sets it apart from other universities?

NJIT recently released a self-study that seeks to answers those questions. The report was created in preparation for a visit from The Middle State Commission on Higher Education, which every ten years examines and re-accredits the university.

In examining ourselves, we gained a fresh perspective on what makes NJIT special. Here is a brief overview of what one student leader, two award-winning professors and a senior administrator had to say about the virtues of NJIT.      

Tessy Thomas, a senior majoring in chemistry who is president of the Student Senate, said NJIT excels at offering opportunities to students.  In her time here, for instance, she has gotten leadership experience through the Student Senate; has assisted a professor with a major research project and has worked two internships at Proctor & Gamble. She is also a student in the Albert Dorman Honors College and was chosen by NJIT to be the keynote speaker during the recent Career Fair. And what she especially likes lately about NJIT is its democratic impulse to establish shared governance.

“This year I’ve been working with the university -- the faculty, staff and alumni -- to create a university senate that would represent the whole school,” says Thomas. “The students would have a voice in that shared governance, which I think is great.” 

Robert Barat, a professor of chemical engineering, knows NJIT intimately.  That’s because thirty years ago he was a student here.  Now he’s a prominent professor who’s been awarded for his innovative and excellent teaching.  What NJIT does best, he says, is teach:  It prepares students to enter the workforce with the skills they need to excel on their first jobs and build successful careers.

And much of that good teaching, adds Barat, is informed by research. Many NJIT professors are leading researchers in their field and they share what they learn from their research with their students. Some students also assist professors with research, which gives them an advantage when they enter the workforce.  

When he was a student here three decades ago, adds Barat, he came and went because NJIT, then known as NCE, was a commuter college.

“But now it’s an internationally known research university with residence halls, Division I athletics and a vibrant campus life,” he says. “Thirty years ago, I never would have imagined that NJIT could have become all that it is today.” 

Donald Sebastian, Senior Vice President for Research & Development, thinks research is the bond that unites the university’s strengths. NJIT, with a $100 million dollar research budget, is a top-tier research university. And everyone benefits from that: the students and professors benefit because they conduct the research.  The research leads to the emergence of new technologies. And new technologies often lead to the formation of start-up companies, which benefit the regional and national economy, he says.  

NJIT also runs the oldest and largest business incubator (the Enterprise Development Center) in the state, Sebastian adds.  Hundreds of NJIT students work for the 90 startups housed in the incubator.  And perhaps more importantly, NJIT graduates have founded their own startup firms at the incubator. Given NJIT’s leading edge on technology, moreover, the university works with the state of New Jersey, helping state officials to formulate sound technology policy, he says.  

“Research binds everything together,” Sebastian adds.  “It infuses our teaching, our scholarship and it leads to innovation and technology while and spurring economic development.”  

Katia Passerini, an associate professor in the School of Management, teaches classes in Knowledge Management and Information Systems.  In those classes, she fuses the best practices from the two fields to teach students to make organizations more efficient.

In her view, what is best about NJIT is its innovative teaching.  In her classes, students work in teams on real-world projects.  She doesn’t spend her time lecturing them. She engages them with interactive teaching..

“At least half of the class-deliverables for my students must be done by working in teams,” says Passerini, who has won an NJIT Innovate Teaching Award.  “All students in general and management students in particular need to be prepared to work in teams, which is what they’ll do at their jobs. They must learn the positive aspects of teamwork and the synergy of outcomes.”

She also gives her students real-world assignments, not hypothetical or theoretical ones.  For one class project, for instance, her students were tasked with developing information systems solutions for a nonprofit company in Newark. The students had to meet with company officials and design a website and other web applications for them. They worked on the project for a semester and learned how a project changes based on continual feedback from a client, Passerini says.

She also uses the latest technologies to teach, such as WebCT and Moodle. And she uses podcasts for lectures and synchronous tools such as WIMBA that allow for live and remote interaction. In her eyes, class time should not be used for lecturing. It’s rather a time for students to work individually and in teams to solve real-world problems with hands-on projects. That’s the way it works in the real world, she says, so that’s the way she teaches.

“This is the kind of teaching we do at NJIT and it is what we do best,” she says. “Given that they are well taught, our students enter the workplace and make the companies they work for more effective, efficient and innovative.”  

By Robert Florida