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Outspoken Rutgers Faculty Objects to School's New Strategic Plan

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The newly released Rutgers University strategic plan is coming under fire from some faculty members, who argue that it is undemocratic and was created without real input from them. Speaking three weeks after the Board of Governors approved President Robert Barchi’s much ballyhooed plan -- the first for the school in more than 15 years -- outspoken professors are accusing him of devising a strategy that continues to put New Brunswick above the Newark and Camden campuses and that favors the health sciences at the expense of the liberal arts.

Despite an 18-month research process that included stakeholder surveys, focus groups, retreats, town hall meetings, and 13 review committees, New Brunswick Faculty Council Vice Chair Mark Killingsworth says the majority of his peers are “very, very skeptical” of the plan and don’t believe the administration’s claims that it wants to engage them on academic and procedural matters.

“It’s not like anyone was holding their breath about what the strategic plan was going to say. I think that’s an example of how a lot of really important decisions get made without any faculty input at all,” he said.

The plan has been a key priority for Barchi and highlights the university’s strengths and weaknesses, sets goals to demonstrably raise the school’s performance and reputation within five years, and calls on the three campuses and the new Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) program to use it as a springboard to draft their own strategic plans by the end of the spring semester.

'For Rutgers, by Rutgers'

In the preface to the report, Barchi wrote, “I believe that the bold vision it outlines will enable us to achieve our aspiration to be counted among the finest research universities in the country.” He noted that the committees and a private consulting firm evaluated input from tens of thousands of students, faculty members, staff, alumni, and community residents and said, “This is truly a plan written for Rutgers, by Rutgers.”

Thomas Papathomas, dean of the Busch campus in Piscataway and a professor in the bioengineering department, helped organize the research.

“Preparation of the plan was very inclusive. Whoever says otherwise lives in another world,” he said, before explaining that he views the process as extremely inclusive both horizontally and vertically.

“Horizontally because it cut across students, alumni, staff, faculty, and administrators, and vertically because it started at presidential level but (Barchi) involved everybody from deans down to teaching assistants,” he explained.

But faculty can often be heard grumbling about Barchi’s perceived top-down style, and Killingsworth, who writes frequent attacks on the administration and governing boards in the press, said, “On page seven it says, ‘The university must maintain its ongoing commitment to . . . a responsive, transparent, and communicative leadership.’ I think most of my colleagues read that and thought, ‘There is no ongoing commitment.’ The orders come down from on high and the Board of Governors and administration will go on doing whatever they feel like doing, regardless of what the strategic plan may say.”

Campus Rivalry

“We were very upset when Barchi came. It seemed clear New Brunswick is where all the attention was going to be,” said Newark history professor Beryl Satter, who helped head up protests at a Barchi-led town hall meeting last spring. The meeting attracted media attention and broadcast Newark’s unhappines over Barchi’s proposal to relocate its graduate programs to New Brunswick, plus alleged inequities in funding and academic and capital support.

Satter believes she and her Newark colleagues have been proven right. She says that when a banner was hung near the New Brunswick train station to welcome the incoming Barchi to Rutgers’ “flagship” campus, they complained enough to have the banner removed. According to the “One Rutgers” mantra and the Rutgers Act of 1956 that defined The State University of New Jersey as a single entity, each of the three geographic campuses is to be treated equally. However, page 33 of the plan brings the language back by saying that the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) and the 15-school Committee on Institutional Cooperation have designated new Brunswick as exactly that -- a flagship.

Barchi frequently mentions the prestigious AAU, touting that his aim for the five-year plan is to move Rutgers up to the ranks of its top research universities. But only part of the university belongs to the coalition; the AAU has admitted only the New Brunswick campus and excluded the other two. Benefits of AAU membership include shared lab services, the possibility for group purchases and discounts, and an ability for students to study at other AAU schools while paying Rutgers tuition. (Admissions requirements in New Brunswick exceed those at the other two campuses.)

The timing of the exclusion makes the insult more acute: In 2012 the Newark and Camden campuses won institutional parity when the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act required all campuses to maintain the same leadership structure and connections to the administration. Newark faculty members say they’re even trying to use the term “Central Administration” instead of the colloquial “New Brunswick” to reflect this.

Satter says of the strategic plan that it “overwhelmingly writes us out.”

Additionally, the Newark faculty feels the plan strengthens the perception of inferiority by outlining extensive capital improvements in New Brunswick and few in Newark. Plus, Newark faculty resents Barchi’s insistence on promoting the northern campus’s “diversity” and Camden’s “service.”

“We were being depicted as the diversity campus and Camden as the service campus while the real scholarship was happening in New Brunswick,” said Jyl Josephson, a women’s studies professor who serves on the Newark Faculty Council.

An Optimistic Addition

But not everyone on the smaller campuses is disheartened, and they credit a woman named Nancy Cantor for their optimism Cantor took over as chancellor of the Newark campus -- a position that was mandated by law -- last August, just months after critics barraged Barchi at the spring meeting. Cantor, an academic heavyweight who served as chancellor at Syracuse and provost at the University of Michigan, is lauded for her independent-mindedness and genuine interest in the faculty.

Newark associate women’s studies professor Laura Lomas says the chancellor’s appointment shows Barchi was listening. “Our very loudness speaking out last spring led to a slightly different approach. We were effective,” she said. Josephson, who’s co-chairing the effort to draft the Newark campus’s strategic plan at Cantor’s behest, added, “I don’t want to say President Barchi is irrelevant but because of the kind of pushback he got, he saw he needed to have strong chancellors. We were very encouraged that Barchi hired someone more high-profile than he is. It shows he wants to see Rutgers University-Newark thrive, and that he could see his leadership was not sufficient to make that happen.”

For her part, Cantor says because Rutgers-Newark has the right mix of disciplines and interdisciplinary centers and institutes to take on the questions and challenges of the 21st century, the campus can uniquely contribute to the university and society.

“We’ve designed our particular strategic-planning process to start from an ‘outside-in’ perspective, focused on what our city, our state, our nation, and our world need Rutgers University-Newark to be. We think that this historical moment of cultural and technological change, demographic shifts, and increasing expectations for higher education to increase its impact was, in a sense, made for us,” she emailed.

Arts and Sciences

In crafting their own strategic plan, Cantor, Josephson and Lomas say they’re excited to use Newark’s position as the most diverse campus in the country to transform it into a global model for diversity and linguistic studies.

But Satter and Killingsworth are skeptical. They worry that with Rutgers’ legislatively mandated takeover of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), the creation of a fourth (theoretical) RBHS campus, and the hiring of Barchi to oversee the transition, the university is going to invest heavily and almost exclusively in biomedical programs, faculty and infrastructure.

“On page 33 it says they want to beef up engineering, health and biomedical science, and business, which anyone could have guessed,” said Satter. Programs like English, philosophy, history, fine arts, and library and information are ranked among the nation’s best and make up Barchi’s primary “Foundational Element” that must be maintained in order to achieve his loftier priorities. However, predicts Satter, “That’s not where the money’s going to go.”

Liberal arts professors are particularly concerned about a funding formula favored by Barchi that distributes resources to departments that prove their “productivity” by using metrics like grant awards, number of doctoral students, and graduation rates relative to student/faculty ratios. Not only do awards typically come to liberal arts professionals via leaves of absence and stipends, vs. the powerful National Institute of Health grants enjoyed by scientists, but Rutgers’ College of Arts and Sciences is suffering under hiring freezes, capped class sizes, and a severe shortage of faculty.

According to Killingsworth, the school accounts for roughly half of all students and faculty but runs a cumulative deficit of $25 million, which is approximately equal to the annual deficit of the athletic department. “The dirty little secret of my department is that fully two-thirds of undergraduate classes are not taught by tenured faculty. Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey think their kids are being taught by full professors and they’re not,” he said.

But Ken Breslauer, a vice president of health science partnerships and dean of the department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, counters that the plan itself highlights the need to leverage Rutgers’ geographic advantage near New York, the arts capital of the world, and extols the school’s world-class performing arts and humanities programs. He adds that of some of the 150 promised new tenure track positions, will go to liberal arts. In an evolving world, he says, even biomedical engineering and health sciences students require deep access to the social sciences.

“These areas will require the study of ethics, economic and social impact questions, social media, philosophy, and so on. In so many ways the full spectrum of the university is engaged,” he said.

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