Reinventing Rutgers: A High-Profile Consolidation Amid Controversy

Roiled by a coaching scandal, new university president Robert Barchi grapples with a long list of monumental tasks—including the merger with UMDNJ.

Robert Barchi
Roiled by a coaching scandal, new university president Robert Barchi grapples with a long list of monumental tasks—including the merger with UMDNJ.
Photo by Patti Sapone/Star Ledger/Corbis.

On an unseasonably cold morning in late March, Robert Barchi, president of Rutgers University since September 2012, was musing about the challenges he faced in the months ahead. They included the upcoming controversial merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ); a merger of Rutgers’s two law schools in Camden and Newark; the ongoing work on a long-term strategic plan for the university; Barchi’s goal of refurbishing the Rutgers brand; and the urgency of finding new revenue streams in an era of dwindling government support for higher education. One thing not on his mind was basketball.

Less than two weeks’ later, that would change in a big way. On April 2, the sports network ESPN aired a now infamous video that showed Mike Rice, Rutgers’s men’s basketball coach, hurling basketballs at his players’ heads and yelling homophobic slurs during a series of practices that spanned the previous two years. The video went viral, along with reports that the school’s athletic director, Tim Pernetti, had viewed it five months earlier and, with Barchi’s approval, had fined Rice $50,000 and suspended him for three games without notifying faculty and students about the actions captured on the video. Within a day, amid outrage from state officials, the Rutgers community and the general public, the university announced Rice’s dismissal.

The move did little to quell what had become a nationwide uproar and a serious distraction from the business at hand for Barchi and the university. In addition to calls for Pernetti’s dismissal, some suggested that Barchi should go as well. On the same day that Rice was fired, a letter from members of the Rutgers faculty began circulating (eventually accumulating up to 50 signatures) calling for Barchi to step down, citing his handling of the Rice affair as well as his “pattern of lack of transparency” and “lack of regard for issues of diversity.” (The latter charge stemmed largely from Barchi’s expressed view that the New Brunswick-Piscataway campus should be the “research” institution, Camden the “social service” campus and Newark the “diversity” school.) Barchi remained at the helm, but Pernetti resigned on April 5, along with John B. Wolf, the university’s general counsel, who had sanctioned Rice’s initial suspension and fine.

Barchi is pressing ahead with the work he signed on to complete—something that’s looking tougher than he might have expected in March. “My goal,” he said then, “is to make Rutgers be appreciated as among the best public, comprehensive, research-intensive institutions in the nation, so that when you think of the best, you think of Rutgers.” The basketball scandal has clearly been a setback in that regard, a media uproar that doesn’t want to subside. In early May, it was revealed that Eddie Jordan, who replaced Rice as coach, hadn’t actually graduated from Rutgers as the university had announced. (He did complete 103 credit hours, just shy of the number needed for a degree.) He was kept on nonetheless. Before the month was out, the Star-Ledger reported that Julie Hermann, hired to replace Pernetti as athletic director, had been accused of “mentally and verbally abusing student athletes” while head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s volleyball team in the 1990s.

But while Barchi admits that the Rice affair and its repercussions have been “a distraction that got a lot of our time and attention,” he also says it didn’t “materially affect the efforts that we were putting forward on the integration of UMDNJ or on any of the academic issues that we had to drive here—strategic planning, kicking off our facilities master-planning efforts, our revisions to the budget process.” All those projects, he adds, “continue to move forward and continue to occupy a major part of my attention.”

To try to ensure that the university isn’t distracted by a future scandal, the board of governors has launched a review of the events that took place between the first discussion with Mike Rice and his termination. “We’re all committed to learning from the experience,” says Barchi.

Barchi, an esteemed neuroscientist with an eye for detail (his hobby is watchmaking), came to the presidency with a reputation for transforming institutions of higher education. As president of Thomas Jefferson University, a highly regarded medical college in Philadelphia, he’d beefed up enrollment by 51 percent, overseen the opening of two new schools and helped revamp the campus. Perhaps most significantly, fund-raising increased by 100 percent. “He was the best at coming up with a vision and communicating that vision to donors,” says Frederick Ruccius, senior vice president of the Jefferson Foundation, which raises funds for the university.

Previously, Barchi was provost at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was responsible for the university’s academic and intercollegiate athletic programs and oversaw a university-wide strategic-planning process.

Upon assuming his current post, Barchi made a strong first impression on the Rutgers community.
Christopher Paladino, a Rutgers grad and president of the nonprofit New Brunswick Development Corporation, met with Barchi in January 2012 and was electrified by what he saw as Barchi’s ability to “speak the language of the successful Rutgers alumnus.” Improving long-term alumni relationships and increasing donations looked like a slam dunk. This is a game-changer, Paladino thought to himself.

Rutgers’s presidential search committee had been equally impressed. Just before the Rice video surfaced, Linda Stamato, a member of the committee and codirector of the university’s Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, praised Barchi’s “fierce intellect” and characterized him as “a take-charge president,” noting that he’d dispensed with a formal inauguration in order to get down to the urgent business of overseeing the merger with UMDNJ and setting Rutgers on a new academic and financial track.

Still, Barchi’s damn-the-torpedoes style offended some in the Rutgers community. In February, the Daily Targum, Rutgers’s student newspaper, reported that Barchi had struck some students as unapproachable at a town hall-style meeting. Giancarlo Tello, then a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences, was quoted as saying, “I think we figured out he’s going to be very much a politician about [student] issues.” Stamato admitted that the new president was “still learning about Rutgers, and that will continue to take time.”

As for the merger with UMDNJ, the nation’s largest state-owned health sciences university, time is not a finite resource for Barchi. Under legislation signed last year by Governor Chris Christie, the merger is to take place by July 1.

Barchi was confronted with a punch list of some 4,600 issues that needed to be addressed. Among other things, the complex legislation required Rutgers to create a School of Biomedical and Health Sciences, comprising UMDNJ; the Ernesto Mario School of Pharmacy; the College of Nursing; and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research, among other schools.

Major financial-planning and labor-management issues also needed to be resolved, including the distribution of resources among the Rutgers campuses and the appointment of a chancellor for the new health sciences school and two new provosts. And some 3,000 contracts—for clinical research, federal grants, and the like—would have to be transferred from UMDNJ to Rutgers.

As a doctor and a former medical school president, Barchi not only had a strong understanding of what needed to be done, but what was at stake. “Having a medical school is not necessarily a good thing from a financial point of view, since most medical schools lose money,” he said in March. So why merge? “It’s an intellectual advantage,” said Barchi. “It’s an academic advantage. It’s an opportunity for us to build on the strong biomedical and life sciences that are present in Rutgers now, along with the basic sciences and the more applied health care sciences that are being done in the medical schools to generate new programs, new research.”

With UMDNJ in the fold, Rutgers, Barchi said, would be in a far better position to “translate new knowledge to drive the economy”—and presumably help the university more successfully monetize its research in the process. In fact, Barchi hopes Rutgers will derive an increasing percentage of its funding from public-private, research-driven partnerships. The goal is to become “a hybrid between a public and a private institution.”

The enthusiasm Barchi expresses for the merger is not universal. Some state legislators, including Senator Bob Smith, who represents New Brunswick and Piscataway, raised concerns about the funding; estimated costs are more than $75 million. Driving that cost, among other factors, are fees for lawyers and other outside consultants, as well as the considerable expense of merging two computer networks and human resources systems. In fact, two previous attempts to integrate Rutgers and UMDNJ failed (during the McGreevey and Corzine administrations), largely because legislators believed they would be too expensive.

In addition to covering the cost of the merger, Rutgers will have to assume UMDNJ’s debt, which is close to $500 million. That burden already has contributed to a downgrade of the university’s bond rating by Moody’s Investor Service. In March, Barchi responded to worries about the rating by noting that the rating agencies (also including Standard & Poor’s) had already done an analysis of Rutgers’s likely financial situation post merger and continued to see the integrated university “as being a strong one.”

That, of course, was before basketball changed the game. In its May 30 announcement of Rutgers’s reduced bond rating, Moody’s noted that the university’s reorganization is occurring “at the same time that senior university leadership is facing external scrutiny and criticism”—citing the allegations against Rice as well as “a new controversy surrounding its recently hired athletic director.” However, Moody’s added, “We do not anticipate these controversies will have a lasting credit impact on the university.”

This wasn’t the first time in Barchi’s tenure at Rutgers that sports had emerged as a source of controversy. The university announced last fall that in 2014 it would join the Big Ten, the country’s oldest Division 1 athletic conference and the most prominent in terms of national media coverage. Barchi considers Big Ten membership an opportunity to increase name recognition for Rutgers. “We see schools like Michigan, Wisconsin, Berkeley, UNC as our aspirational peers,” he noted in March. “Having our brand next to Michigan’s brand on a million TV screens is something that I couldn’t possibly buy in terms of marketing.”

But not everyone at Rutgers believes that these and other potential dividends of the sports program justify its expense. In February 2012, the faculty at the School of Arts and Sciences voted 174 to 3 to support a resolution calling for cuts to athletic subsidies. One of the proponents was Mark Killingsworth, a professor of economics who has been a vocal critic of the university’s athletics expenditures. The athletic program, notes Killingsworth, runs a large annual deficit. (In 2012 the amount was $28 million, which is fairly typical). After his own unit, Arts and Sciences, ran a three-year deficit totaling $25 million, the university essentially instituted a hiring freeze. “When an academic program spends more than it takes in, all hell breaks loose,” says Killingsworth.

He doesn’t see the sports program as the key to building the Rutgers brand. “It hasn’t happened despite years and years of expenditure on athletics,” he says. His concern isn’t with athletics, he stresses, but with what he calls “the wholesale inversion of priorities.”

These days, Barchi’s priority is to make sure that UMDNJ is fully integrated into the Rutgers family, a task that won’t be completed with the flick of a switch. “It will take at least a year or maybe 18 months to go from the point where we’re bolting two organizations together so they function, and merging their corporate infrastructure to the point where they’re operating efficiently as a single entity,” Barchi says.

To his credit, most of the initial “bolts” appear to be in place. As of early May, all essential tasks on the integration committee’s checklist had been successfully completed, according to Barchi; the one remaining roadblock to the July 1 deadline was the establishment of Newark’s University Hospital, previously a part of UMDNJ, as a free-standing, state-funded entity. As of this writing, the state was still looking for a nonprofit company to partner with the hospital, which carries $80 million in debt.

Meanwhile, Barchi continues to oversee the process of setting a strategic plan in place by December 2013. When the administration surveyed the Rutgers community to help establish its goals, the majority of respondents indicated that “a stronger, better recognized university,” improved infrastructure, increased funding for research, and greater affordability for students should be among the top priorities over the next decade.

Clearly, Barchi has a full slate. In addition to the medical school merger, he’s overseeing the merger of Rutgers’s two law schools, a move expected to cost about $1 million. Proponents of the merger contend a single Rutgers law school will be better able to recruit the best students nationwide. (Nomenclature, recruiters say, has always been a problem, with many prospective students assuming that the Newark and Camden law schools are mere satellites to a superior institution in New Brunswick—which, in fact, doesn’t exist.)

Barchi is also committed to burnishing the Rutgers brand in order to better attract out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than their in-state peers. (Fourteen percent of the Rutgers student body comes from beyond state borders, as opposed to 36.2 percent at the University of Wisconsin and 34 percent at the University of Michigan.) Some of that, he says, “is a public relations issue and an advertising issue”; Rutgers needs to get the word out that it has some of the highest-rated programs in the country in areas including philosophy, English and mathematics. Rutgers’s participation in the Big Ten, says Barchi, is part of that PR effort. But critics contend that the administration also needs to concentrate on strengthening the university academically. Killingsworth notes that, in the U.S. News & World Report rankings for best public research universities, Rutgers dropped from 16th in the country in 1997 to 25th in 2012. To reverse the slide, he believes, the university will have to spend more on academics and less on athletics.

Given the complexities of the task, it may take more than 18 months to elevate the brand, especially in light of the coaching scandal. Will Barchi stay on as president long enough to oversee what could be his greatest challenge? His contract with the university has no specific term; he serves, as he has said previously, “at the pleasure of the board.” As of this writing, the board of governors seems to be in Barchi’s corner. But some have questioned whether Barchi may still have the enthusiasm for the job he brought with him last September.

Would he consider leaving the presidency earlier than planned? Citing the projects with which he has grappled, he says, “I haven’t changed my commitment to the board.” The response skirts the issue of duration, thereby suggesting he might leave as soon as those projects come to fruition. Then again, if he can put the basketball scandal behind him, he may stay on to preside over a shiny, new Rutgers.

For now, it’s an enigma that even a watchmaker would have trouble unraveling.

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a long-time contributor.

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