When most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey became part of Rutgers on July 1, 2013, to form Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS), the seemingly impossible had taken place. Two large state universities were participants in the biggest merger in the history of higher education. Rutgers, by adding medical, dental, and other schools as well as clinical practices to its existing health sciences presence, was now positioned to be a truly comprehensive public research university. An exuberant celebration, held at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, heralded the official establishment of RBHS.

Preparing for the big day—put into motion by the 2012 passage of the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act, a piece of legislation enacted in large part because of the political will of Governor Chris Christie—had been a gargantuan Rubik’s Cube of logistical troubleshooting. Overseeing the transition had been Robert Barchi, who was recruited as the 20th president of Rutgers to specifically manage the transition and now lead the burgeoning health sciences division, RBHS. 

Barchi, whose tenure began in September 2012, had extensive experience building academic health care systems, first as the provost of the University of Pennsylvania for five years and then as the president of Thomas Jefferson University for eight more. A neurologist by training, he was a perfect fit for the job. At the time he was approached to gauge his interest, however, Barchi was planning to retire, but the opportunity to lead Rutgers at this pivotal time was, he saw, too good to pass up. Amid the revelry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, with one milestone reached and more arduous ones still to come, an onlooker couldn’t be faulted for wondering: “Is this guy gonna be able to pull this all off?”  

As the past seven and half years of Barchi’s presidency have demonstrated, the answer is a resounding yes.

Stepping Down After Eight Years

In July, Barchi announced that the current academic year, which concludes June 30, will be his last. During his tenure, Rutgers has taken enormous strides, most visibly by adding the health care component to its considerable education, research, and outreach endeavors. But there have been other achievements, from the construction of new academic and residential facilities to the recruitment of top faculty to the improvement of the student experience to record-breaking fundraising. Meanwhile, the reputation of Rutgers has grown nationally through events like the university’s 250th anniversary celebration that featured President Barack Obama as commencement speaker and student and faculty undertakings and achievements that have garnered national attention. 

“Initially, I wasn’t seeing Rutgers as a long-term project for myself; I was here to be the turnaround person,” says Barchi, speaking from his office in Winants Hall in New Brunswick. “But there were other things that snuck up on me that made it clear that there were a lot of other things that could be done and should be done and were equally interesting. Next thing you know, I got deeper and deeper into change management. This was a university ready to move.”

But how, in Barchi’s estimation, was Rutgers going to get where it had to go if it didn’t know where it was going? Early in his administration, he put the question to the Rutgers community in a series of town hall-style meetings where he canvassed observations and opinions, making frequent stops at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Rutgers University–Newark, Rutgers University–Camden, and RBHS. “Where do we want the university to be five years from now?” “What steps are necessary to raise Rutgers to the highest ranks of public universities?” The consensus that emerged after the yearlong inquiry formed the basis for A Strategic Plan for the New Rutgers. The document—a detailed list of priorities that addressed everything from infrastructure to fundraising to faculty excellence—would be the North Star for Rutgers, guiding the university forward with Barchi at the prow.

The president instinctively knew that the areas requiring attention, however, couldn’t be addressed in isolation; progress had to be made on all fronts simultaneously. How, for example, could capital improvements occur if funding was lagging? And if you don’t have buildings to facilitate learning, how are you going to improve the student experience and attract future generations of students? Barchi, an accomplished craftsman who in his spare time builds and repairs antique clocks and timepieces (and has a handsome collection of them), likens the functioning of a university to the intricate mechanisms of a precision timepiece.

“You can’t have a clock with just a dial, and you can’t have a university with just a president,” he says. “Precision mechanical clocks are complicated mechanisms that require every piece of them to be working. And a university requires everyone who is there to be working together.”

Five images as identified in caption

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The personal highlights for President Barchi as the university’s lead executive were many and varied. Top row, left to right: then New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, and President Barchi celebrate the founding of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in July 2013. The two governors were instrumental in supporting legislation that called for the integration of most of the units of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers to form its new health sciences division. Barchi presents President Barack Obama with an honorary degree moments before Obama gave the 250th Anniversary Commencement address on May 15, 2016, when he declared: “America converges here!” Barchi, at the president’s residence, listens to Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi, the president of Botswana. Bottom row, left to right: the 2015 opening of the Honors College at Rutgers–New Brunswick represented a unique way for the university to attract the best and brightest students. The Rutgers Academic Building provides students with the latest in technology, thanks to smart classrooms.

Photography: 
Nick Romanenko

Academic Buildings and Residence Halls

Barchi was drawn to certain facets of his presidency more than others, although they all received the attention to detail that has been the hallmark of his leadership. Near the top of the list was his interest in capital improvements. As he has said, “My favorite bird is a construction crane.” Already in the works when he arrived in fall 2012 was the College Avenue Redevelopment Initiative at Rutgers–New Brunswick, a campaign to build academic buildings and student housing for the first time in decades on the flagship campus. It was possible, thanks to money made available through the passage of the New Jersey 2012 Building Our Future Bond Act. Barchi made suggestions that led to significant alterations. To facilitate learning and student interaction, he reconfigured the interior of the new Honors College. The idea behind the residence college had a particular resonance with him: each year, it would be the home for 500 of the top first-year students who were scholastically qualified to attend any college in the nation. He even designed the clock tower, and chose the materials for it, to conceal the cooling towers along the roof line. 

Next door, the proposed Rutgers Academic Building, which would incorporate the latest in classroom technology and amenities, got the Barchi touch. He recommended changing the roof line and using certain exterior materials. The Yard at College Avenue, a project featuring a U-shaped structure that combined retail space and student housing, was set for construction on College Avenue. Barchi wanted to see the plans. Christopher J. Paladino, the president of the New Brunswick Development Company (DEVCO), which partnered with Rutgers on the College Avenue Redevelopment Initiative, sat down with Barchi to discuss the proposed building, which was represented by a model made of styrene. The president was concerned that the 12 floors of student housing, now known as the Sojourner Truth Apartments, would cast too much shadow on College Avenue. Retrieving a Swiss Army knife from his bag, he cut through the styrene model and rearranged the three principal segments of the complex. No more shadow on College Avenue. The project soon broke ground.

“I have never worked with a Rutgers president who has been more actively involved in the design of projects than President Barchi,” says Paladino RC’82, CLAW’85, who has led DEVCO for 25 years. “He was truly engaged; he wanted to know everything. And all of the changes that he strongly recommended made all of these projects better.”

Eight images as identified in caption

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Top row, left to right: The Sojourner Truth Apartments, part of The Yard at College Avenue, opened in 2016 at Rutgers–New Brunswick, the first student housing constructed in decades on the College Avenue campus. MyRutgers, a software application, allows students to do everything from looking up class schedules to staying abreast of financial aid concerns from their smartphone or mobile device. The new home of the Honors Living-Learning Community at Rutgers–Newark, opening in 2020, holds unique potential for educating students to be tomorrow’s leaders. The Nursing and Science Building at Rutgers–Camden reflects the growth in the health sciences in Camden. Bottom row, left to right: The Alumni House at Rutgers–Camden was the first of three houses to open. Students who attend Rutgers Law School, some located in Newark and others in Camden, can participate in the same class discussion simultaneously, thanks to telepresence classrooms, in which video feeds link professors and students in lecture halls that are miles apart. Three students at the School of Nursing–Camden practice on a patient simulator. A student conducts research in the new Chemistry and Chemical Biology Building at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

Photography: 
Nick Romanenko; Robert J. Laramie; rendering by Perkins Eastman

The Role of Private Giving

During his presidency, other structures have sprung up seemingly overnight with others nearing completion, among them the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Building and the Richard Weeks Hall of Engineering at Rutgers–New Brunswick; the Honors Living-Learning Community at Rutgers–Newark; the Nursing and Science Building at Rutgers–Camden; and alumni houses at all three university locations. A detailed vision for future construction projects at each Rutgers location is contained in the physical master plan, an outgrowth of the strategic plan. To finance future projects, Rutgers will benefit from strong bond ratings, thanks to its sound fiscal health. Nonetheless, the university increasingly will have to rely on private donations, which have climbed from $95 million in 2012 to $251 million in 2019, with a record- breaking $1 billion being raised in the last five years alone. 

Since entering the Big Ten in 2014, facilities to benefit student-athletes have been built or are close to opening their doors as a result of the R Big Ten Build fundraising campaign to raise $100 million. One of the buildings under construction is the Gary and Barbara Rodkin Academic Success Center. It was financed in part by a $13 million gift from the Rodkins, alumni who have donated money to fund several initiatives at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

“From the beginning, Barbara and I were impressed with President Barchi’s way of thinking,” says Gary RC’74, who with his wife, Barbara DC’76, frequently dine with President Barchi and his wife, Francis Barchi, who is an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. “He had a great vision for how to take Rutgers to the next level and, even more importantly, a tremendous bias for action. Early in his tenure, we discussed his idea for a Rutgers honors college and decided to make a lead gift to help accelerate the project. That was only one early component of how much he has dramatically improved the facilities and programming at Rutgers.”

“The Rutgers University Foundation, under Nevin Kessler’s leadership, has made dramatic progress in fundraising,” says Barbara. “This would not have happened without President Barchi’s vision and leadership. The future is bright, and his legacy will not be forgotten.” 

Team Effort

Barchi has often said that he has put together one of the best management teams in higher education, and they deserve the credit for the changes at Rutgers. The team comprises senior-level vice presidents who oversee the major administrative and academic areas of the university. Then there are the four chancellors: Christopher J. Molloy, at Rutgers–New Brunswick; Nancy Cantor, at  Rutgers–Newark; Phoebe Haddon, at Rutgers–Camden; and Brian Strom, at RBHS (who is also executive vice president of Health Affairs). They have been indispensable in fulfilling the goals of the strategic plan, versions of which were developed for each unit to address its distinct needs. Barchi has encouraged their autonomy and invited them to forge identities for their units that leverage their unique strengths, many of them outlined in the strategic plan. 

“Leading a major public university is a little bit like working with a cooked noodle,” Barchi says. “You can pull it—but not too hard because it will break. And you sure can’t push it. If you think you can run a university by force of will, you are mistaken. But that’s what makes a university a university: it’s an academic community. All I can do as a leader is to help people express their own vision and get them excited about it and try to be the catalyst for that vision. If I am not doing that, I’m not doing my job.”

Another strategic priority has been renewing and adding to the excellence of the Rutgers faculty. To that end, Barchi has earmarked $42 million to recruit a talented, diverse group of scholars. The president has also created 30 additional professorships and chairs to attract top scholars. Another encouraging sign has been the growth in the number of endowed professorships, which have increased from 41 to 89. Indeed, world-class talent is now choosing Rutgers. 

Student Benefits

Students are benefiting from the teaching and research talent. But they are reaping rewards in other ways, too. Alumni old enough to know would be stunned by the amount of convenience afforded today’s students, who literally have the control of their college experience at their fingertips. MyRutgers, a software portal, allows students to view their course schedule and manage financial aid necessities from their smartphones. New classrooms, known as active-learning classrooms, are high-tech wonders. What’s more, students don’t have to travel as much, whether making the journey from campus to campus in New Brunswick or between university locations. Students attending Rutgers Law School, for instance, some located in Newark and others in Camden, can participate in the same class discussion simultaneously, thanks to telepresence classrooms, in which video feeds link professors and students in lecture halls that are miles apart. The advances help fulfill Barchi’s vision of moving ideas, rather than bodies, around the vast geographic footprint of Rutgers. 

Meanwhile, advice and personal counseling services for students have been expanded and improved. Diversity in the student body, a hallmark at Rutgers, remains a priority. In a promising trend, the very best students are regularly receiving prestigious scholastic recognition nationally and internationally—Gates Cambridge and Goldwater and Truman scholarships as well as Fulbright fellowships, to name a few. And the academic reputation of Rutgers continues to climb. U.S. News & World Report has ranked 29 Rutgers graduate schools and programs among the top 25 in the nation. College Factual rated Rutgers No. 3 in the nation for providing an undergraduate education in the health sciences. 

Unheralded but Vital Improvements

Less apparent, but vitally important, have been vast improvements universitywide in the information technology infrastructure as well as in compliance and ethics standards. And accounting methods have been updated—vital for a university that operates on thin margins to keep student costs down. “We touched every single initiative that we said we were going to touch in the strategic plan,” Barchi says. “Some we have knocked out of the park; others we have made less progress on. But there isn’t anything that we haven’t moved forward in a substantial way.” 

It’s been a whirlwind of activity and accomplishments for the past seven and a half years, although there was a brief, early learning curve for Barchi as he adjusted to the political dynamics of New Jersey and the culture of Rutgers. Coming from Thomas Jefferson University, a small private institution, Barchi says he underestimated the public scrutiny that Rutgers receives, especially among state legislators, because of its status as The State University of New Jersey. But he says the relationship between Rutgers and the New Jersey Legislature has never been better, and Barchi has successfully made the case that the university is an economic benefit for the state, generating $7 of revenue for every $1 invested by Trenton in Rutgers. That adds up to $5.2 billion in annual economic activity in New Jersey.

A Groundbreaking Partnership

In 2018, Barchi announced the formation of a partnership with RWJBarnabas Health (RWJBH) to create New Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive academic health system. RBHS, which, Barchi says, has flourished under Chancellor Strom’s leadership, will lead all aspects of medical and health-related research and education while RWJBH will head up the clinical enterprise. RWJBH has already made an initial investment of $100 million to develop Rutgers’ academic and research initiatives in the health sciences and will contribute $50 million a year over the next 20 years in operating support.

President Barchi announcing that Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) had formed a partnership with RWJBarnabas Health (RWJBH).

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In 2018, President Barchi announced that Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) had formed a partnership with RWJBarnabas Health (RWJBH), creating New Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive academic health system. Jack Morris, Barry H. Ostrowsky, Brian Strom, Vicente Gracias, senior vice chancellor of clinical affairs at RBHS; Kathleen Bramwell, senior vice chancellor for finance and administration at RBHS; and Marc Berson, vice chair of RWJBH Board of Trustees.

Photography: 
Nick Romanenko

“The signing of the agreement with Barnabas was, and is, gigantic,” Barchi says. “I’m not sure that people fully appreciate how big this is. That agreement—to basically align our two organizations in the health care delivery system—creates the biggest academic health care system in the state and one of the biggest in the country. It is a tremendous step and it stabilizes RBHS.”

The parameters of the Rutgers- RWJBarnabas Health partnership were actually drawn by Barchi and Barry H. Ostrowsky, who is the president and CEO of RWJBH, when the two men met in fall 2012. Ostrowsky RC’72 had stopped by Old Queens to introduce himself; moments later, Ostrowsky remembers, the two men were deep in conversation and understood what it was going to take to form a successful partnership between these two health care entities.

“In my world—running a large health care system—making sure you have the right partner on the education side is critical,” Ostrowsky says. “It was invaluable for me to be able to sit down with Bob, who not only knew what I was talking about, but had also executed it in developing Thomas Jefferson University into a health care powerhouse. Bob says what he means, and I tend to be the same way. So, that trust facilitated the institutional relationship ever since that moment. We were off to the races.”

When he steps down at the end of the school year and completes a yearlong sabbatical, Barchi is looking forward to contributing as a member of several boards, RWJBH included, where, when asked, he can continue to offer expertise on the subject that has defined his presidency. Barchi also plans to join the faculty as a University Professor to pursue his area of academic training, neuroscience and neurology.

The Future Bodes Well

As the final months of his presidency wind down and he performs many of his executive duties for the last time—he prefaced his address to the University Senate on September 20 by saying the occasion was bittersweet for him—Barchi believes the university is a stronger institution to hand off to his successor, whom he encourages to develop a fresh strategic plan to guide the university. 

A rendering of the Gary and Barbara Rodkin Academic Success Center

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The Gary and Barbara Rodkin Academic Success Center, now under construction, is part of the R Big Ten Build fundraising campaign. It was financed in part by a $13 million gift from Gary and Barbara Rodkin, alumni who have supported several initiatives at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

Photography: 
Rendering courtesy of Rutgers Athletics

But any plan will have to address the persistent trouble spots for any major university operating in today’s higher education climate, one in which the value of an education has been called into question: finding the money to underwrite a multibillion dollar operation; keeping a grip on tuition costs; maintaining and replacing aging infrastructure; and attracting a high-achieving, diverse group of students and scholars. Barchi also underscores the need to engage alumni, who are vital to the university enterprise. 

Despite the weight of these responsibilities during his presidency, Barchi is grateful for the many special moments that he has been part of: the day of celebration recognizing the establishment of RBHS; opening day at the Honors College at Rutgers–New Brunswick; sharing the stage with President Obama during the 250th Anniversary University Commencement; finalizing the partnership with RWJBarnabas Health; and putting his stamp on Rutgers, almost literally, with his conceptualization of the new university shield, which is used throughout the university.

“There are not many jobs of this caliber where I would have the opportunity to make change in a positive, substantive way. And that opportunity was wide open during my time here,” says Barchi. “It was very satisfying—and challenging—but it’s something that I can look back on and say, ‘We made significant changes together, and the place is better because everyone came together to accomplish what we did.’ To me, that is the essence of the reward: I will walk away and there is something here now that wasn’t here before.” •

To view a video highlighting capital improvements at Rutgers, visit universitystrategy.rutgers.edu. View a preview of a video of Robert Barchi discussing his presidency in an interview with Ernie Lepore, Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy at the School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers UniversityNew Brunswick.