SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – With an ambitious new president at the helm, and a record number of undergraduates crowding the 58-acre campus, Seton Hall University is embarking on a dramatic rebuilding project—the largest in a generation—that will substantially transform the way the campus looks and functions.

The long list of construction and renovation projects is expected to provide substantially more space for students and faculty. But the plans for the expansion already are straining relations with people in the surrounding community of South Orange.

  • REBUILDING SHU: Part 1 of 11. Seton Hall University embarks on the biggest campus renovation in a generation, hoping to make life better for students without making life worse for residents of South Orange.

The 157-year-old Catholic university has three major projects already in the works or about to get underway: the enlargement of the Aquinas Hall dormitories, a replacement for Stafford Hall—one of the oldest academic buildings on campus—and the addition of an upscale fitness center to the Richie Reagan Recreation Center.

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Even before those projects are completed, the University will start work on several more ambitious plans, including one to add 500 spaces to the existing parking deck, and another to construct a sprawling new centerpiece University Center that will include a large ballroom, multiple meeting spaces and a new admissions office.

“We felt it was important that the students have an environment where they can live and study, and classrooms were important because we felt like the faculty also needed spaces which were conducive to teaching,” said A. Gabriel Esteban, Seton Hall’s president since 2011. “There are a whole lot of projects—a wish list, so to speak.”

Soon after he took office in 2011, Esteban made rebuilding the campus a priority, compressing a seven-year maintenance program into two busy years. All dorms except Aquinas have already been renovated, and several academic buildings, including Arts and Sciences Hall, have been updated.

With those projects taken care of, and with the availability of money from the passage of a state of New Jersey bond act last November, the university put its rebuilding program into high gear.

Tracy H. Gottlieb, vice president of student services, said the new projects will enhance the academic environment on campus, providing students with more space for meeting and studying, and helping meet student’s housing needs and parking needs.

 “Attending to the bricks and mortar is certainly an important part of lifting the university and its stature,” Gottlieb said.

Esteban also said he believed the construction would drastically enhance the quality of students’ lives while they are on campus, giving them more places to relax and study. An extremely large freshman class enrolled this past fall, making the need for some expansions much more pressing, according to Esteban.

Although the university does not intend to bring in another class as large as last year’s, strategic enrollment changes are expected to keep the campus crowded. Esteban said  the university will try to shrink the incoming class to about 1,250 to 1,275 by being more selective and raising the academic qualifications of incoming students. University officials believe that by doing so, Seton Hall can lower the number of students who drop out without completing a degree. This higher retention rate will cause the undergraduate population to grow, making it necessary for Seton Hall to plan for a larger sustained student population, Esteban said.

If students are going to be spending four years of their life as undergraduates, Esteban said, the university wants to make them as comfortable as possible while they are at Seton Hall.

“The goal is to make students feel like this is home,” he said.

One of his top priorities is providing enough gathering places on campus for resident and commuter student to interact with each other and with faculty. The new university center is being designed in such a way that students will have a central place to hold meetings with friends and faculty, leading to a free flow of information and, it is hoped, more learning.

 “Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom,” Esteban said. “Learning happens when you have interactions with your colleagues and with your teachers in very informal settings.”

While Seton Hall officials feel the new university center project will be a major improvement for the campus, some South Orange residents who live nearby fear that the project will have a negative impact on their lives. A petition was started on by South Orange residents concerned that construction of a new center will cause unacceptable disruptions for the local community. (More on the new University Center will be reported later in the series)

In response to the petition, Esteban said, “I think sometimes that not all of the residents of South Orange realize the benefits of having Seton Hall in South Orange.”

He explained that students provide revenue for South Orange’s economy, Seton Hall provides speakers, special events and Catholic Masses for the community, and students contribute to the town by doing internships and research for businesses. Esteban said he hopes to commission an economic impact study that will evaluate the university’s contribution to the local economy.

Esteban said he does believe that Seton Hall’s relationship with South Orange is evolving.

“Based on talks with our alums going back 20, 30, 40 years, I think it’s improved quite a bit,” he said. He then added, “As with everything else, there’s always room for improvement.”

Esteban believes the South Orange community will come around to see the real value of the rebuilding campaign and the difference it will make in the lives of the students, and the long term mission of the university.

“All of this ties in with our overall strategic plan,” he said. “We wanted to invest in our students, our faculty, and our Catholic mission among other things, and making sure we’re good stewards of our resources.”

This series is reported and written by the Advanced Reporting class at Seton Hall University. This article was written by Kelly R. Carroll, a May 2013 graduate.