Alumni Spotlight: James W. Hughes, PhD ENG‘65, GSNB'69, '71

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my School of Engineering education.”

James Hughes is distinguished professor and dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and director of the Rutgers Regional Report. A nationally recognized expert on demographics, housing, and regional economics, he has served on Governor Christie’s Housing Opportunity Task Force, the NJ Governor’s Commission on Jobs, Growth and Economic Development and the Governor’s Logistics Council. He has been both a Woodrow Wilson and Ford Foundation Fellow and will receive the 2014 School of Engineering Medal of Excellence Award in October.

What attracted you to the School of Engineering?

I came from a blue-collar family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with limited money options. I was good in science and math, so engineering was a no-brainer and the School had an excellent reputation. At that time, you could get a state scholarship of $400 a year, or $200 a semester, which was too good an offer to refuse. It fully covered tuition at that time. I got a great education at little cost.

What was your major?

In the 1960s, there was a department of general engineering and within that department they offered eight city planning courses. I was basically a civil engineer who took those eight additional courses.

There’s a close relationship – and historic linkage -- between engineering and planning at SoE. On Busch campus, there’s a road running from the football stadium to the academic campus called Bartholomew Road. It’s named for Harland Bartholomew, who is known as the Dean of American City Planners. He would have graduated in 1911, but dropped out because he had no money. In 1914, he was hired by Newark as the nation’s first city planner. He later established the country’s first planning consultancy.

What did you do after you graduated?

I was ROTC in college – it was mandatory then the first two years. In my third year, I had a choice. I would get a stipend if I stayed in – so I did that. I served then after graduation until 1967 as an artillery officer in Korea.

What led you to pursue your PhD?

I’ve taken a Forrest Gump approach to career planning. When I returned from my army service, Professor Ed Wilkins told me he was creating a new graduate M.C.R.P. – Master of City and Regional Planning – program at Rutgers that had fellowship funding available. This sounded good to me, so I went for it.

In a year or two, I found out they were doing a doctoral program and there would be continued financial aid. This sounded good to me.

In 1971, after getting my Ph.D., I started interviewing for jobs. The program directors told me they needed researchers to build up the program. This, too, sounded good to me.

From there, I followed a more traditional route, moving from assistant professor to full professor. In 1992, when the Bloustein School was established, I was asked to be associate dean. I was named dean in 1995.

What does receiving the SoE Medal of Excellence mean to you?

It means an awful lot. It ranks right at the top of the awards I’ve received. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my School of Engineering education.

How has your SoE education helped you in your career?

Basically, it provided me with analytical skills and the discipline to apply those skills. It gave me problem-solving skills. These are highly valued attributes with many applications.

It also laid a foundation for my career. For instance, one of my academic specialties is the New Jersey economy and the regional economy. My knowledge of economics came from a course I took in engineering economics. I still have the textbook, Principles of Engineering Economics, by Grant and Ireson on my bookshelf!

Do you still teach?

I give lectures in individual courses at Rutgers and a lot of presentations outside the University. I get about 100 invitations a year from professional associations such as the American Planning Association, individual firms, chambers of commerce and the like and I accept about 60 or 70. For a lot of these organizations, I am the face of Rutgers. I like to give presentations and I’m happy to perform this public service and interact with the community.

What are today’s biggest demographic trends?

There are two big ones. First, there’s a change in the racial and ethnic population of New Jersey. We have the nation’s second-highest percentage of foreign-born residents – about 1 in 5. New Jersey has traditionally been a gateway. In 1910, 25% of the state’s population was foreign-born.

The second trend is that we’re in the midst of the biggest age structural transformation in history. In 2011, the first baby boomers hit age 65. In 2016, they’ll hit 70. They represent the workforce of the past.

Millennials, who are swelling the ranks of the workplace, are also changing it. They are advanced, sophisticated “digerati,” who want different workplaces and living styles and are changing the definition of white-collar work. The old boomer status symbol – the size of your office – is no more. Millennials like to collaborate in open workplaces. I’ve been working with people in the office industry to find solutions that could make large suburban office buildings attractive to millennials.

What’s the country’s best-planned city?

Washington, D.C., designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, is well planned with its diagonal roadways, circles, and plazas.

But nothing compares to Manhattan. It grew and continues to grow organically.

What do you do in your spare time?

I work on my garden, which is a partnership between my wife and myself. She’s a Certified Master Gardener.

We have 12-and-a-half acres on part of an old farm in Hunterdon County. In 1986, we built a passive solar house on the property in the Arts and Crafts style.

We’ve established a series of island gardens, with native plantings, that are certified waystations for monarchs and other butterflies.   We also have a 40-by-40-foot vegetable garden, where we grow asparagus, berries, turnips, lettuces and the like. We’ve cut back a little on our tomatoes, but have about 50 varieties. They are great right now, but by September, we’ll be saturated!

What about your other acres?

Four years ago, we took six acres of hayfield and enrolled in a USDA Grassland Reserve Program. We eradicated the hayfield and reseeded it with native grasses to create a native tall grass prairie. Now it’s almost completely filled in. It’s wonderful for nesting birds. (You can see photos of Jim's garden below.)

Are you reading anything interesting right now?

I’m reading Jill Jonnes’ book Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and its Tunnels. It’s a great book about a real feat of engineering.

If you take vacation tomorrow, where would you go?

I live in a rural area, so I love vacationing in cities. I’d probably go to Paris, Rome, or London.

What do you think of first when you think of the SoE?

I remember the opening of the new engineering building – everyone was upbeat and happy. It was such a pleasant environment and great place to go to school.


Garden photos courtesy of Jim Hughes: