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Explainer: How New Master Plans Are Shaping NJ’s Flagship State University

Can ambitious plans transform Rutgers into 'one of the nation's great universities?'

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Student protests, commencement speaker cancellations, and the return of a Senate president-led political power grab -- despite its best efforts, Rutgers University has had a hard time keeping itself out of headlines in recent months. But that apparently hasn’t kept its top administrators from forging ahead on big plans to revitalize an aging campus and chart broadly a course for the future.

Two initiatives -- a strategic plan, approved earlier this year and now in various stages of enactment, and a physical master plan, still being formulated -- are working to reshape the state’s flagship institution for a new generation of students and faculty.

The strategic plan, the first since 1995, will serve as a road map for the university, establishing its long-term goals and ambitions over the next five years. The physical plan is a blueprint for a campus that’s already undergoing serious physical upheaval, thanks to newfound funding made possible by recent capital-improvement legislation like 2012’s Building Our Future Bond Act.

At the same time, chancellor-led strategic plans on Rutgers’ three individual campuses are currently under way, each of which will leverage the distinct characteristics of their respective branches -- from Camden to Newark to New Brunswick -- within the university-wide plan’s larger framework. Most recently, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Richard L. Edwards announced an extension on the deadline for these plans from June 1 to September 1.

Here’s a closer look at these two plans, and how they promise to affect Rutgers today -- and in years to come.

Developing a Strategic Plan

In late 2012, just weeks after taking office, Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi outlined a new vision for the state’s flagship institution as “one of the nation’s great universities -- we’re playing with the big boys now.”

Drawing on a number of major milestones achieved earlier that year -- including the initiation of a monumental merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the voter approval of millions in capital funding through November’s Building Our Future Bond Act, and a historic invitation to the Big 10 athletic conference -- the former Ivy League administrator emphasized the need for a new institutional agenda. “Let’s capitalize on this momentum,” he announced in a December press release.

Enter “Our Moment: A Strategic Plan For The New Rutgers,” the first undertaking in over 15 years to develop a long-term roadmap for the school and its constituents. Proposed in 2012, submitted in 2013, and officially approved by the school’s board of governors in February of this year, the plan (the final document clocks in at 59 pages) aims to take Rutgers to “new levels” by establishing a clear -- but ambitious -- vision and strategy over the next five years. A 16-page summary of the plan can be found online.

To devise the plan, administrators sought input from all university stakeholders over an 18-month period, circulating surveys, conducting town hall meetings with students and faculty, and holding retreats with staff throughout the Spring of 2013. Thirteen strategic planning committees were also formed in the fall of 2013 to address specific areas of the plan, from its strategic priorities to its integrating themes to foundation elements. The school hired and paid the Boston Consulting Group $3.4 million, covered partly through a $750,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and partly through campus funds, to help craft and collect data for the plan.

It’s important to note, however, that not all of those stakeholders are actually happy with the final product. Mark Killingsworth, vice chair of the school’s Faculty Council, has said the majority of his peers are very, very skeptical” about the final version of the plan, arguing that it failed to take into account the input of all the university’s stakeholders -- specifically, faculty members. “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,” Killingsworth, who is also a professor in the economics department, told NJ Spotlight.

Goals and Initiatives

Generally, the plan aims to bring Rutgers to the point at which it is “broadly recognized as among the nation’s leading public universities -- preeminent in research, excellent in teaching, and committed to community.” Specifically, it aims to address a number of core issues with the school, from its national rankings, which have fallen in recent years, to the financial independence of its athletic department, to its on-campus student experience.

Additionally, the plan endeavors more broadly to:

  • Envision tomorrow’s university: In order to make the nearly 250-year-old school more competitive and innovative, the plan calls for identifying the institution’s “key areas of opportunity and risk.” To this end, Barchi has already called for the creation of two faculty task forces, one to look at the university’s academic organization, the other to investigative the near- and long-term impacts of new technology on quality of education.

  • Build faculty excellence: The plan aims to strengthen core academic areas -- such as the humanities and sciences -- by attracting and retaining high-quality faculty. Over the next five years, the school will hire 150 tenure-track faculty in selected disciplines and create new graduate programs, according to the plan.

  • Transform the student experience: Seeking to correct for consistently low marks on student satisfaction surveys, the plan aims to improve the university’s on-campus student experience through the creation of personalized learning environments (including a first-year honors college), revamped academic services, and programs that capitalize on the school’s proximity to major metropolitan hubs such as Philadelphia and New York City.

  • Enhance public prominence: New Jersey has had one of the highest annual net losses of high school seniors to colleges outside the state than anywhere else in the country. In 2008, according to the Washington Post, more than half of recent high school graduates in New Jersey went out of state to enroll at a four-year college. In addition to a first-year honors college, the plan calls for the execution of local, regional, and national marketing campaigns to improve public perception of the school.

One overarching goal of the plan is to bring Rutgers, which has historically lagged behind many state land-grant universities of similar size and scope, up to par with certain “aspirational peers” -- schools like the University of Michigan, who it joined in the Big 10 athletic conference and the corresponding Committee on Institutional Co-operation this year. Most, if not all, of these initiatives are being undertaken with that aspiration in mind.

Developing a Physical Master Plan

Coinciding with the university’s strategic plan is its physical master plan. Launched in June of this year and expected to continue into the fall, the master plan will take a look at the school’s physical assets -- including 60,000 acres of land containing more than 700 buildings scattered across the state’s 21 counties -- to keep pace with the 21st century.

The new physical master plan will be Rutgers’ first since 2003 and, like its strategic plan, has sought input from all university stakeholders. Administrators have already held over 60 meetings with students, faculty, and staff about the process, including a MyCampus survey that asks questions about what facilities students use most and what areas of campus they frequent throughout the day. They’ve also met with plan consultants -- Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) and Sasaki Associates, jointly known as RAMSA/Sasaki -- multiple times.

Among the plan’s early goals are to:

  • Improve efficiency of physical and energy resources.

  • Use landscape to create legible and cohesive campus environments.

  • Enhance classroom and residence hall learning environments.

+Improve mobility and connectivity within and between campuses.

The school is paying RAMSA/Sasaki $2 million to oversee the planning process.

Why Now?

Administrators say institution-wide initiatives like the school’s strategic and physical master plans are necessary to keep pace with enrollment growth, technological advancements, and regional developments. It’s been nearly 20 years since then-President Francis Lawrence oversaw the last official strategic plan; not since 2001 has it undertaken a physical master plan.

The school’s 1995 strategic plan met these goals and more, as it led to the creation of 25 new undergraduate programs, 28 new graduate degree programs, and over 45 university research centers and institutes. Also, by 1998, it had tripled the number of Rutgers doctoral programs ranked nationally. Similarly, Rutgers’ 2003 physical master plan helped spur millions of dollars worth of on-campus construction, including updates to a historically neglected Livingston Campus in New Brunswick

Today’s strategic and physical master plans may be poised to be similarly, if not more, successful than that plan. Leveraging the infusion of $400 million the school obtained through the Building Our Future Bond Act passed in November, the acquisition of research funding and resources through its merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry, and the prestige gained through its admittance to the Big 10 athletic conference, administrators stress the importance of today’s initiatives. “This really is a singular time in Rutgers’ long history,” Barchi said.

On top of that, both plans coincide with the school’s 250th anniversary, which will take place in 2016.

Chase Brush is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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