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Rutgers President Unveils University's First Strategic Plan in 18 Years

Barchi promises not to go it alone, instead soliciting stakeholder input every step of the way.

Robert Barchi, the president of Rutgers University, wants to give the school something it hasn't had in almost two decades: a long-term strategic plan. His ultimate goal, as he told the audience at a town hall meeting on the Camden campus yesterday: make New Jersey’s primary public institution of higher education one of the best in the United States.

For the moment, though, Barchi is at square one.

At the first of five initial public comment sessions, Barchi stressed that his plan will be shaped by stakeholders at every stage. His team will seek to identify eight areas where Rutgers can differentiate itself from other universities and build on its strengths to eventually reach the top tier of schools that comprise the Big Ten conference.

“Will we be a University of Michigan in five years? No. But that doesn’t mean that’s not what we should work toward,” he said.

Barchi shared his aspiration to see Rutgers recognized as “among the best universities, preeminent in research, excellent in teaching and committed to service.” He then charged the audience to propose sweeping ideas for improvement over the next few months, ones that cut across the entire university and could bring Rutgers special prestige.

As examples, he listed some possibilities that emerged at a brainstorming retreat earlier in the week. They include ethnicity and diversity, research and contributions to public health, and shaping the natural and manmade environment.

When asked if every university wouldn’t pledge a commitment to ideals like diversity and innovation in science, Barchi replied, “So get it out of there then. If it’s something that’s so banal that everyone would have it then we shouldn’t have it in there.”

He noted that certain basics -- like adequate IT services and infrastructure -- shouldn’t make the list because a school like Rutgers needs to devote enough resources to ensure that students and faculty can take these for granted. He also pointed out that Rutgers possesses natural assets that allow it to excel in some areas where others can’t. Ocean research, for example, can’t be duplicated at The University of Iowa.

And not every school has satellite campuses in cities like Camden and Newark, which have brought expertise in urban renewal. And perhaps most important, no other public college is geographically located to draw from the demographic diversity and artistic opportunities of both New York and Philadelphia.

In examining the values that should guide the university, Barchi said retreat participants ranked diversity first and excellence second. Yet no one recommended that Rutgers build on its international reputation by following the trend to establish campuses abroad.

The group did vacillate between working toward improving the school’s stature nationally or internationally, and finally decided that striving for international prominence would be premature, given it hasn’t yet achieved the national recognition it seeks.

Former Camden Dean of Arts and Sciences Margaret Marsh changed the conversation from a macro to a micro scale by asking Barchi how the university might take advantage of the strengths of each campus in a strategic plan that aims to advance the university as a whole.

“What does the Camden campus do that’s of high value to the rest of the university?” she asked. “This is a face-to-face culture that lends itself to targeted and focused Ph.D. programs.”

Barchi agreed that each campus possesses individual strengths, targets different kinds of students, and conducts distinct research. He then compared the university network to a Venn diagram, in which the plan’s shared components will overlap in the center, with the constituent campuses concentrating on developing the sections that most apply to them.

Over the next few months, Barchi’s team will gather feedback on the plan through personal interviews, focus groups, advisory groups, retreats, surveys, website comments, and several rounds of town hall meetings before presenting its final report to the school’s two governing boards in September or October. They’ve already conducted 120 personal interviews and sent surveys to every member of the student body. In the ten days since distributing the survey, only three percent of students have returned it.

Former president Francis Lawrence was the last university leader to commission a formal strategic plan, which the governing boards adopted in 1995. After Lawrence resigned in 2002, two successive presidents outlined general goals for the university. When Barchi began his term last year, he promised to make a strategic plan one of his top priorities.

At the end of yesterday’s session, Barchi expressed support for a proposal to combine the Newark and Camden law schools, which now operate independently.

Perhaps in light of the outrage generated last year by the failed legislation to sever the Camden campus from Rutgers and merge it with Rowan University in Glassboro, he reassured the audience that the administration would continue to support both campuses while unifying admissions and graduation requirements and some academic coursework.

After the meeting, the Rutgers Board of Trustees met at the Camden campus center to hear more details on the law school merger plan and to elect new executive officers.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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