Kevin Riordan, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Real Estate, introduces a keynote speaker at the center’s recent conference on affordable housing in Newark.
By Joshua Burd
A crowd of more than 150 descended on the Newark Museum in mid-December, as industry experts gathered to help untangle the history of New Jersey’s affordable housing crisis.
For the Rutgers Center for Real Estate, which hosted the event, it was the latest attempt to break the mold of the typical industry conference. Since its founding nearly three years ago, the center has held symposiums on new urbanism and on health care and real estate, along with lectures that showcased industry legends such as Jon F. Hanson and Jerry Gottesman.
But it’s just one piece of the Center for Real Estate’s broader goal — becoming the top academic and research program of its kind, one that helps improve the industry and provides a link between the state’s top real estate firms and the next generation of professionals.
“There’s clearly a demand for the students,” said Kevin Riordan, the center’s executive director. “And we actually have board members that have strongly encouraged us to create other avenues of education because there’s a lot of opportunities for employment.”
The center will mark a milestone this spring when about two dozen students — a mix of undergraduates and MBA candidates — graduate with a minor or concentration in real estate. It will be the first crop of students who have been able to do so under the nascent program, which only started offering courses in 2015.
Executives with the center ultimately hope to see that number rise to 150 or more, but they know they have plenty of work ahead. It’s why they are taking stock of how the program has developed and looking ahead to their next set of objectives, which include growing enrollment, expanding the curriculum and starting a major capital campaign to help ensure the center’s long-term viability.
To date, the center has received approval for three new programs: a minor in real estate for undergraduates, an MBA concentration and a newly announced certification in development and redevelopment with the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Several others are in the works, including a planned industrial real estate offering in conjunction with Rutgers Business School’s supply chain program.
“We’re laying the foundational curriculum and starting to push forward on some of the things we think are going to be special,” said David Frame, the center’s director of curriculum and industry research, later adding: “I think we’re on the ground and ready to go, and we have interest from students.”
The roughly 25 students who will graduate this spring are just a fraction of those who have been exposed to the program in some way. Morris Davis, the center’s academic director, said that around 200 students have taken a Center for Real Estate course, including 85 undergrads that took real estate finance courses last summer.
The question now is, “How many of those are going to convert to being serious about real estate?” Davis said. Ultimately, he hopes to see as many as 450 students engaged with the center at any given time.
When it comes to growing enrollment, the leadership team hopes to start offering courses at Rutgers’ New Brunswick-Piscataway campus within the next year or two.
Davis added that, “ultimately, we’d like to have career tracks for our students, but to have career tracks requires offering more classes than we currently offer.”
That means getting to students “a little earlier in the cycle” and being able to build cohorts to accommodate the different professions that they would like to focus on, from development to finance to property management.
“That means you need a really thick base to feed all of those branches, and our base right now isn’t thick enough to feed those branches,” said Davis, who was appointed to the Paul V. Profeta Chair in Real Estate in 2014. “Part of it is working within Rutgers to figure out ‘When is the right time to introduce — and what are the right requirements for introducing — the foundational real estate courses of law and finance?’
“These are the kind of tweaks we’re pursuing.”
The center’s goals beyond the classroom are equally ambitious. Davis said the university is in discussions with New York University Abu Dhabi about organizing an international conference later this year, while exploring partnerships with the University of Wisconsin such as a joint seminar on industrial real estate.
And the program is preparing to launch its first research platform with a goal that is critical to the state’s real estate sector — identifying the number of school-aged children in newly developed apartment buildings. Davis said future research topics could include tracking how many vacant or underutilized industrial parcels there are in New Jersey, a paramount issue for a sector that is supply-constrained.
Building that platform will depend on another one of the center’s main objectives: fundraising. The center hopes to establish an endowment for research, but the headliner in its planned capital campaign is a $30 million naming gift, which Davis said would help establish a permanent set of scholarships that could total as much as $1 million annually.
He knows it’s ambitious, but said the capital campaign “enables us to execute our goals and to establish the permanent legacy of excellence at Rutgers.” The naming gift would both fund operations and help improve the quality of the students, in part by allowing them to not “worry about a paycheck to live day to day or worry about how much debt they’re going to have upon graduation.”
“We have very ambitious plans for the future,” Davis said. “And our advisory board has been great in helping us establish the permanence of a real estate center, but what we want is to create an institutional legacy for Rutgers, so that no matter what happens to any of us, the excellence that’s being created here is permanently established.”
In the meantime, the center has built on what was perhaps its greatest strength to begin with. Last June, it announced the formation of an Emerging Leaders Council, a collection of real estate professionals who range from roughly 28 to 40 years in age. The group of 30 is meant to provide a link between the center’s advisory board members, a who’s who of seasoned industry leaders, with students in the program, while also setting up the next generation of governance.
Riordan said the growth of the advisory board and Emerging Leaders Council has been a major plus, especially when it comes to expanding the scope of the disciplines that are represented.
“There’s more diversity in the Emerging Leaders from a male-female standpoint than there is at the advisory board,” Riordan said. “The energy level that they bring and their willingness and desire to work with not only the center, but with the students, is really quite strong.
Why real estate needs to be a major
Creating a real estate major for Rutgers undergraduates will go a long way toward building enrollment in the Center for Real Estate. Aside from the obvious reasons, it will help the program break into a system that is course-heavy and doesn’t allow for much exploration outside one’s major.
“One you declare a major, there’s not much room for wiggle,” Davis said. “And what we’re trying to do is figure out how to give our students more wiggle room so that they can take real estate earlier, so that we have a thicker base.”
For now, the center’s leadership said there is still fertile ground among Rutgers’ existing undergraduate programs, including accounting, finance and economics. Riordan said that’s especially true for the school’s vast accounting program, with linkages that he knows all too well as a CPA with decades of real estate experience and a Rutgers-Newark alumnus.
“Regardless of what aspect you go into this business, it doesn’t matter — it’s going to revolve around the numbers and the budgets at some point,” he said. “And therefore, from an accounting perspective, that gives you a good ability to talk that language if need be.
“There are students there. We’ve just got to get to them.”