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Embattled Barchi Defends Rutgers-UMDNJ Merger, Leadership

Democratic budget chair criticizes lack of budget detail, while faculty question Barchi’s intentions for Rutgers' future.

Rutgers University President Robert Barchi.
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi.

Embattled Rutgers University President Robert Barchi yesterday not only had to defend his controversial handling of basketball coach Mike Rice’s firing, but also the pending merger of Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and his vision for the future of Rutgers’ three campuses.

Barchi, who was chosen last spring as Rutgers’ new president principally because of his record building Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University into a medical research and development powerhouse, told the Assembly Budget Committee that the Rutgers-UMDNJ merger remains on track, despite the controversy swirling around the basketball program and calls for Barchi’s firing by some faculty members.

Gov. Chris Christie has steadfastly defended Barchi during the firestorm of criticism over his handling of the Rice firing. But ultimately it is likely to be how successful Barchi is in reorganizing Rutgers that will decide his fate, as well as the future of the institutions he has been entrusted to lead.

Barchi’s straight-ahead leadership style since coming to Rutgers in October -- a trait he shares with Christie -- and his recent declaration at a Rutgers-Newark public meeting that he envisions the New Brunswick-Piscataway campus as the “research” flagship, with Newark and Camden serving less prestigious roles as “diversity” and “social service” campuses, has the fiercely independent faculty up in arms.

Meanwhile, Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) yesterday pronounced himself profoundly dissatisfied with various “unanswered questions” and a lack of detail on how Barchi plans to implement the massive merger of New Jersey’s two large public research universities by July 1.

"This reorganization plan is a great opportunity for our state, but it almost seems like it’s being slapped together by the Christie administration without much thought or planning. That was definitely not the Legislature’s expectation,” Prieto said.

Prieto noted that the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved the Rutgers-UMDNJ merger last spring despite concerns over the absence of concrete cost estimates, but now finds itself with even less information than the merger bill required.

“The law called for separate budget line-items for each of the three Rutgers campuses in Newark, New Brunswick, and Camden, as well as the School of Biomedical and Health Services, but we have none,” Prieto pointed out.”We’ve heard estimates for transitional costs, but there is no appropriation for them. And the budget does not provide any specific funding for University Hospital.”

Barchi, however, insisted that the complex reorganization -- one of the most ambitious in the history of American higher education -- would strengthen Rutgers’ New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden campuses and would create new public-private R&D opportunities for its medical schools.

Coming up With the Cash

However, how to pay for the estimated $75 million cost of putting together Rutgers and UMDNJ -- and the $1 billion and $484 million in debt the two schools currently owe -- remains an open question, although both Christie and Barchi have promised that the cost will not be borne by students in higher tuition bills.

Barchi said the university would figure out how to absorb some $15.5 million in onetime merger bills that will come due by the time this fiscal year ends June 30, and acknowledged that another $25 million to $33 million will be needed in the upcoming fiscal year -- although the $487 million in state aid proposed for the newly combined Rutgers and UMDNJ contains no appropriation for that purpose.

“Let’s face it: Regardless of what anyone thinks of Barchi, he’s been given an impossible task to accomplish in an impossible timeframe,” said one Barchi critic on the Rutgers faculty. “There is no way this should be rushed through in one year, especially without the financing to do it right.”

While Barchi’s handling of the Mike Rice firing has captured the national headlines over the past 16 days, it is his seemingly single-minded -- and understandable -- focus on the Rutgers-UMDNJ merger and his vision for Rutgers’ long-term future that has faculty members worried.

Barchi has made it clear that he was brought in to turn Rutgers into the premier institution envisioned by Christie’s blue-ribbon higher education task force, which was chaired by former governor and former Drew University President Thomas Kean. In fact, Barchi told members of the search committee that selected him that change would require strong leadership and that he would not be popular with everyone, especially among the faculty.

An Unwelcome Announcement

While Barchi’s predecessors, Francis Lawrence, who died earlier this week, and Richard McCormick, emphasized a vision of “one Rutgers,” Barchi aroused dissension at Rutgers-Newark recently when he expressed the view that the New Brunswick-Piscataway campus should be the “research” institution, Newark the “diversity” campus, and Camden the “social service” school.

Such a change would follow the University of Michigan model, which has Ann Arbor as its research campus and most nontraditional students going to the Flint and Dearborn campuses.

However, Barchi’s comments seemed to relegate Newark to a second-class status, which was the main reason that Rutgers-Newark faculty members launched the petition drive calling for his resignation after the Rice crisis. Similarly, his view of Camden’s role seemed to reinforce the long-held fears of South Jersey political leaders that the Camden campus would continue to be treated like a stepchild by Rutgers’ latest administration -- one of the reasons that South Jersey political leader George Norcross originally called for Rutgers-Camden to be combined into Rowan University.

Barchi suggested at another meeting with faculty and administrators that the New Brunswick-Piscataway campuses should no longer admit transfer students. Administrators explained that Rutgers needed transfer students to replace the hundreds of freshmen and sophomores who dropped out or transferred, but Barchi’s suggestion angered faculty who viewed it as showing a lack of understanding of how many working-class students go to community college because they cannot afford to pay for four years at Rutgers.

Faculty have been whispering for weeks about Barchi’s “tone-deaf” remark to a Hispanic faculty member that he knew what it meant to be discriminated against because he faced discrimination as a young white male faculty member because of affirmative action programs -- a story that was eventually reported in The New York Times.

Finally, Barchi raised eyebrows during his nationally televised press conference announcing the firing of Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti when he characterized Rutgers as a school that had been “fallow” for almost two decades.

“That comment showed a complete lack of understanding of what this institution and its faculty have accomplished over the past two decades in providing a quality education to hundreds of thousands of New Jersey students despite low levels of financial support from the state compared to what other state universities receive,” said Ray Caprio, vice president for continuing studies at Rutgers, New Brunswick. “Frankly, it was insulting, and I was incredulous that he would run down his own school on national television.”

The Rice Misstep

It was Barchi’s decision to suspend, not fire, Rice last December when he was first told of the coach’s homophobic slurs, abusive language, and his practice of firing basketballs at his players during practice -- an embarrassing pattern of behavior that ESPN recycled endlessly on its national broadcasts for almost a week -- that has weakened the new Rutgers president just six months into his tenure.

Some Barchi supporters said privately that the president’s lack of experience with major college athletics while president of Thomas Jefferson University and previously as provost at the University of Pennsylvania left him unprepared for the glare of unwelcome publicity that followed the release of the Rice tapes on ESPN. Not only did Barchi not ask to view the tapes of Rice’s actions in December, but also he continued to follow his regular meeting schedule without watching the tapes on the day that ESPN broke the story; he didn’t view the tapes until that night after the Rutgers story was already dominating sports talk radio and hitting news programs nationwide.

Barchi didn’t help his credibility with the Legislature when he announced originally that University Counsel John Wolf had “resigned from his leadership position,” only to have it discovered the following week that Wolf had merely been reassigned at the same salary -- a disclosure that prompted harsh criticism by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), Christie’s Democratic challenger in November’s gubernatorial election, and led to Wolf's subsequent buyout and resignation.

Barchi still enjoys the staunch support of Christie and Ralph Izzo, President of the Rutgers Board of Governors, but that doesn’t mean his personal period of crisis is necessarily over.

“The question is whether there are other shoes waiting to drop,” said Adrienne Eaton, President of the Rutgers American Federation of Teachers/American Association of University Professors. “There’s still the outside investigation of how the Rice case was handled.”

While the outside investigation could very well take months, Barchi has taken quick steps both to reassure the Legislature and to get the varsity basketball program back on track as Rutgers heads into the Big Ten Conference next year.

Barchi brought in John Farmer, the highly respected Dean of Rutgers-Newark Law School, on a 12-to-18-month assignment as University Counsel and Senior Vice President to replace Wolf. Farmer, a former state Attorney General and frequent columnist for the Star-Ledger, has earned deep respect for his political acumen on both sides of the aisle in the Legislature after serving as chairman of both the legislative and congressional redistricting commissions in 2011.

Yesterday, Rutgers reached a tentative agreement with Eddie Jordan, a veteran NBA coach who was the star point guard on Rutgers’ best basketball teams in the 1970s, to replace Rice and attempt to salvage a program that is in danger of seeing three of its best players transfer to other schools. Jordan would be a popular choice with Rutgers basketball fans and boosters.

Ironically, Jordan, who has wanted to coach at his alma mater for years, was a finalist three years ago when Rice was hired instead.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer) sharply criticized Barchi yesterday for approving more than $1 million in buyouts to get Rice, Pernetti, and Wolf to leave their posts.

“For every $1 million spent on these deals, the university could have provided 76 students with a scholarship covering full tuition and fees for one year,” Watson-Coleman said. “Funding for higher education is precious, and to see it flittered away like this is disappointing and disturbing.”

Barchi said yesterday that while he signed off on the $1.2 million Pernetti and $420,000 Wolf contract buyouts, he fully expects to contest the $1.1 million owed to Rice under the terms of his contract. “We may go to court over this,” Barchi told the Assembly committee.

Last night, Barchi announced that a court challenge to Rice’s contract would no longer be necessary. Rutgers, he said, negotiated a settlement with Rice that will pay him just $475,000 of the $1.1 million he is owed on the last two years of his contract.

Barchi said in a statement that the new settlement “is in the best interests of the university.”

Don’t expect Watson-Coleman to agree.

Mark J. Magyar is an editor at large for NJ Spotlight and a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University.

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