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Cover Story: Living for the City

Wendell E. Pritchett—distinguished scholar of cities and their histories, noted administrator as a law school associate dean and congressional and mayoral aid—is applying his professional passions at Rutgers–Camden where, as its new chancellor, he is putting his research into practice by engaging the campus with the city and the region. 
By Robert S. Strauss
 

It’s a Saturday in early May, and Wendell E. Pritchett is facing a tough crowd. Dozens of people have come to attend the evening reception for Reunion on the River, held in the foyer of the refurbished Rutgers–Camden Athletic and Fitness Center. The atmosphere is appropriately boisterous, the space festooned with newspaper clippings as well as athletic trophies and memorabilia celebrating the 60 years of campus history.

But the foyer was built, evidently, for function, not acoustics. The audience, representing all of the alumni classes, has consumed its share of hors d’oeuvres, wine, and Flying Fish beer (thanks to brewery owner Gene Muller CCAS’77), creating a din that has washed out the voices of the speakers who have preceded Pritchett at the podium. Yet Pritchett, the new chancellor at Rutgers–Camden who is attending his first reunion celebration, is unfazed. He seems pleased by the sight of the raucous crowd, which is happy to be at the new Rutgers–Camden while reveling in old memories.

“One thing I have learned,” says Pritchett, as people quiet down to listen up, “is that you don’t get in the way of a Rutgers alum and a good time.” Many in the crowd let loose with a cheer. “This is your university. You are the ones who built it.” Pritchett’s talk takes only a couple of minutes, and then he steps from the podium to do what he does best—mingle and make connections.

“Chancellor Pritchett has a passion for urban centers, and what we really want is to have a dynamic leader at this time in Camden’s history,” said Dana Redd SBC’96, the new mayor of Camden who made Pritchett the co-chair of her transition team. “He worked smoothly with the volunteers, but he also connected me to some of the big-time foundations in the area. His whole strength is networking to the advantages.”

Pritchett comes by his connections as a matter of course. Before taking on the role of chancellor on June 30, 2009, he had been an academic, researcher, administrator, and a governmental liaison. He is Ivy League pedigree, grew up in Philadelphia, and has lived and attended schools in cities all his life. He speaks quickly, moving from topic to topic smoothly. A trim man who is dressed in a handsome suit, Pritchett smiles with confidence, neither too often nor too little.

These are not easy times for universities, and Pritchett acknowledges the challenges that Rutgers–Camden will face. A drop in state funding has forced campus cutbacks, and rising tuition complicates the academic lives of students, most of whom commute to the campus and must hold down jobs to cover school costs. The Rutgers–Camden students, he points out, tend to work off campus more than students attending other state schools. He intends to develop more connections between the campus and the Camden community—its businesses, hospitals, and government agencies—to find more jobs closer to the classrooms, sparing students the need to work at local shopping malls and travel to campus. “If we can make their lives revolve more around the school,” he says, “we can help them be successful in ways that will add value to their education.”

A Lifelong Educator
Pritchett himself has never been far from education. He grew up in Society Hill, the section of Philadelphia near Independence Hall. His parents were public school teachers in Philadelphia. His mother, Carolyn, was a high school English teacher and his father, Wendell, was a classical pianist who directed the school district’s music program. They sent him to the private Friends Select School in Center City; Pritchett lives in West Philadelphia, near the University of Pennsylvania, and his two young daughters attended the same Friends school (they now go to a public school in the city). He went to Brown University and worked for his congressman, Thomas Foglietta, before enrolling in Yale Law School. He returned to Philadelphia and worked for two law firms before deciding that he would rather teach. After receiving a Ph.D. in history from Penn, he taught urban, legal, and modern American history at Baruch College of the City University of New York for five years.

“My original idea was that I was going to be a history professor and a lawyer on the side,” Pritchett says. “I couldn’t really imagine teaching law school.” But in 2001, he did just that, taking a job at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, eventually becoming an associate dean of the school in 2006. In 2008, he took leave from the law school to work as deputy chief of staff for Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter. He intended to work in the mayor’s office for a year or so, “putting out fires,” and return to academia. The opportunity to become the new chancellor of Rutgers–Camden was fortuitous for Pritchett and Richard L. McCormick, the president of Rutgers.

“Everyone was really impressed by his personal characteristics—his friendliness, charm, and eloquence, his ability to speak with a variety of people,” says McCormick. “I knew he would do well with faculty and students and with external constituencies: civic and nonprofit organizations as well as business and political leaders. He has been extremely effective in connecting the Camden Campus with those communities.”

McCormick says Pritchett’s arrival prompted the decision to broaden the parameters of the job. The top position at Rutgers–Camden had been provost, one responsible for overseeing the faculty. McCormick says the position of chancellor, which is also the designation for the top post at Rutgers–Newark, held by Steven J. Diner, was not a superficial consideration. “The chancellor is the head of just about everything on campus,” says McCormick. More important, the job will direct Pritchett outward as well as inward. “He is the ambassador to larger communities.”

A Vision for the Campus—and Beyond
Pritchett says that he did not come to Rutgers–Camden to be a caretaker. He intends to expand the campus in as many ways as possible. By building two new dorms, quadrupling the number of students who live on or close to the campus, and increasing student enrollment, he wants to establish a new ethos, one of more inclusion and cohesion. Creating a nursing school, recruiting Jaishankar Ganesh as the energetic new dean of the School of Business–Camden, and adding two new Ph.D. programs (in public affairs and computational and integrative biology, to go with the degree in childhood studies) will attract a richer variety of students to Rutgers–Camden.

Citing the excellence of the Rutgers–Camden faculty as the core strength for the campus’s growth, Pritchett plans to advance the campus’s reputation as a center for scholarship. “We produce an exceptional quantity and quality of research, even more remarkable considering our relatively small size,” he says, explaining the launch of the Rutgers–Camden Faculty Research Day in November 2009. The new annual event challenges junior faculty to present their research in short, easy-to-understand presentations. Pritchett is also directing his attention to assembling national conferences that attract peer scholars to Rutgers for substantive discussion about research and subjects that cross disciplines on the campus.

“He has treated us remarkably,” says Jon Maddison CCAS’10, who was the president of the Rutgers–Camden Student Govern­ment Association when Pritchett arrived on campus more than a year ago. “He makes himself available most any time of day. I’ve worked with the administration a lot, and it is refreshing that the chancellor addresses student concerns.”

Dear to Pritchett’s heart will be broadening the relationship between Rutgers–Camden and its surrounding area. Over the next five years, he intends to at least double the amount of university money invested with Camden and Camden County vendors. Two initiatives introduced at the beginning of the year are the Center for Urban Research, which provides enterprising research to address poverty-plagued cities such as Camden, and the Office of Civic Engagement, which coordinates all of the programs between the university and Camden and the surrounding area. Pritchett wants to make sure that more Camden high school graduates know about and come to the university. He presided over a January symposium on civic engagement during which he declared that he wanted to make Rutgers–Camden a “national model for a civically engaged university.”

“There has always been criticism that Rutgers, in the middle of Camden, doesn’t do enough there,” says James J. Florio CLAW’67, the former governor of New Jersey. “The new chancellor is committed to not having the university cloistered from the rest of the city and to bringing the skills and knowledge of the university to benefit the people of Camden.”

A Sixth Sense for Diplomacy
Pritchett, a born diplomat, according to mentors, says he is advancing a recent priority among the leadership of Rutgers–Camden. “There has been a lot of engagement with the community. My job is to continue the momentum,” he says. “What we did in January is celebrate the things we were already doing.” Those efforts include the LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Partnership) Academy University Charter School that the university helps sponsor, and legal clinics, provided through the Rutgers School of Law–Camden to offer residents free legal advice.

The idea of civic engagement is certainly not new to Pritchett. He has written two books on urban history and pol­icy (both published by the University of Chicago Press). Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto examines race relations in Brooklyn in the 20th century, and Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer is a biography of the first African American to serve as a secretary in the cabinet of a U.S. president (Weaver was the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson).

“There are not a lot of people who in almost every aspect of their lives focus on one central issue. For Wendell, it is improving cities,” says Michael Fitts, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a former colleague of Pritchett’s. As chancellor, Pritchett will be able to influence what is going on in a city instead of merely studying it. “He cares about cities. For him, Rutgers is just a marvelous opportunity to continue that passion.”

Rayman Solomon, dean of the Rutgers School of Law–Camden, is ecstatic about Pritchett’s arrival. The law school has long been involved in the Camden community, and Pritchett’s reemphasis of that relationship will improve the law school’s reputation within it, Solomon says. “His strong knowledge of urban issues and his thoughtfulness about the role of the university in the city are advantages for him. He is a consensus-builder.”

There was a time when Pritchett briefly left the East Coast urban culture he so loved. He followed his wife-to-be, Anne Kringel, a Milwaukee native, when she took her first job in the legal profession in Minneapolis. Within months, she says, he pined for the East and returned to Philadelphia to practice law. She followed him (she is the director of the legal writing program at Penn’s law school), and neither has regretted it. “We still live in the house we bought 17 years ago,” says Kringel. “West Philly is a wonderful neighborhood, a really diverse community, especially for someone like Wendell, who studies cities. He has had so many different jobs in his career. He has had political jobs but also a number of academic, administrative, and legal jobs. His new position draws on all of those things—different from all of those things but incorporating aspects of them. This is a job that needs someone who is effective in a lot of different areas. That is a large part of Wendell’s strength.”

Pritchett relishes the variety of demands that his job entails, from evaluating faculty initiatives and fundraising, to attending myriad university events, to talking to community leaders and contractors to discuss capital improvement plans. “Even though I was only in the mayor’s office for nine months, my experience was very useful,” he says. “What I did there was very similar to what I do here, which is to spend half an hour on a bunch of different things.”

Helping to Expand the Number of Students
Pritchett is adamant that he wants to broaden Rutgers–Camden’s appeal beyond the immediate area and then make it grow. He would like to see the student body increase by 20 percent, to 7,500, and have the administration make a concerted effort to recruit students from not only communities in southern New Jersey, but also those in Philadelphia, southeastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware.

He also wants to build a better network with alumni, who may not quite recognize the Rutgers–Camden that he envisions a few years down the road. The photos all around the reunion foyer, especially from the 1950s through the 1970s, showed a lot of cement and not much “campus.” There are no dorms and few students who weren’t commuters. “Wendell wants to work with the alumni body to reestablish, and establish in some cases, a relationship with the university, to reconnect them to Rutgers, to really display the high regard the university has for alumni,” says Jim Rhodes CCAS’94, the chair of the Rutgers University Alumni Association.

Pritchett is excited about the passion and directedness of the students, and revels in their difference from the students at the University of Pennsylvania whom he had taught for a decade. “The families of the students attending Penn have a fairly long history of higher education. They have grown up in communities where that was the expectation,” he says. “A lot of people here are the first in their families to go to college.

“The students—and this is significant—have an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives and their families’ lives,” he goes on. “I would argue that people here are more serious about their education than the students at Penn. They understand the stakes better.”

At the beginning of a day organized to celebrate admitted students, Pritchett and several students hosted a discussion, only to notice that prospective students were turning on heel to leave. Was it something he said, he wondered? “All the people who were leaving knew that they were coming to Rutgers. They didn’t need the sales pitch. They didn’t care what we had to say. They just needed the information.

“So my job is to make sure that the sale is appreciated,” he said. “Check back with me in five years and see what I have done. That will be the real report card on Wendell Pritchett.” •