Rutgers’ President Releases Final Draft of Ambitious Strategic Plan

Tara Nurin | December 4, 2013 | Education
Barchi candidly assesses school's weaknesses, outlines what must be done to become one of the country's leading universities

robert barchi rutgers
Almost a year to the day after initiating the development of a university-wide strategic plan to steer Rutgers University through its next five years and beyond, President Robert Barchi presented a final draft of the plan to the school’s Board of Governors yesterday.

And in a refreshingly frank presentation, Barchi outlined a long list of weaknesses the school must address if it is to meet its goal of becoming, as the president put it, “broadly recognized as among the nation’s leading universities.”

Comparing Rutgers to its research-focused academic peers in the 62-member Association of American Universities (AAU), which includes Big 10 schools as well as Harvard and Princeton, Barchi said the state university ranks poorly for total endowment and fundraising, state funding, student selectivity, graduation rate, out-of-state attendance, and infrastructure.

What’s more, he said, four out of five national polls show Rutgers’ academic rankings consistently dropping, and Rutgers’ student-to-faculty ratio of 14-to-one pales next to the AAU average of 12.5-to-one. To reach parity with the association, Rutgers would have to create 300 new faculty positions. To match the 11-to-one ratio enjoyed by the AAU’s top 10 public universities — the so-called aspirant group Barchi aims to join — Rutgers would have to fund 1,000 new faculty positions, something he admitted “is not going to happen.”

The school can, however, continue to support the academic areas that do raise its reputation — humanities and natural science programs that rank with the best in nation, a small but highly ranked visual arts program, and branch campuses that are climbing in the rankings – while applying new strategies and attention to those areas that don’t.

For example, he named student experience as his number one priority for improvement. While data gathered from 80,000 surveys and countless townhall meetings and retreats show that students “almost unanimously” value the Rutgers education, they report feeling less than satisfied with their overall experience.

The university is addressing this need by breaking ground on a residential honors college in New Brunswick that should allow qualified students to live and study together by the fall of 2015. Barchi wants to further foster student identity and kinship (and eliminate the need for some expensive and time-consuming buses) by building live/learn communities throughout campus to keep students close to classes and other students with similar academic interests.

“That’s something we have to take very, very seriously,” he told governors of the student experience. “It is considerably harder to come to grips with things we are not doing as well. (But) it is so important to understand that if we are to understand where we’re going in next 10 years.”

Of the many initiatives proposed in the final draft of the plan, Barchi highlighted:

  • The creation of two major faculty task forces — one to explore opportunities to use technology in new ways and another to examine the university’s academic organization. Barchi believes these two topics require up to 18 months of intensive study.
  • New graduate programs to attract high-quality faculty.
  • The identification of potential efficiencies within processes. For example, how can the university’s IT backbone be modernized. Where can corporate service departments outsource or find other savings that might be applied to academic programs instead?
  • The management of reputational risk, an area Barchi addressed by announcing a new Risk, Compliance and Ethics Office charged with “break(ing) down the silos and establish(ing) a universitywide system to recognize potential problems and to take appropriate steps to mitigate and resolve them before they become actual problems,” according to a press release distributed at the meeting. Former New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Ted Brown will head the office, which is being founded after the basketball scandal that led to the termination of former coach Mike Rice.
  • Using capital projects to enhance public image and add infrastructure designed to bolster academics and the student experience. A physical master plan will be released six months after the strategic plan to designate structural and networking needs. This plan will cast an eye 20 years in the future and will require “big concepts,” according to Barchi.
  • At the end of the meeting, Gordon MacInnes — president of New Jersey Policy Perspective and a member of Rutgers’ Board of Governors — commented, “It’s typical of most draft strategic plans in that it covers a very wide waterfront, a very broad variety of issues. We’re a complicated university.”

    Barchi did not offer specifics on financing the plan, which as yet carries no cost estimate. He did say that both the Newark and the Camden campuses are already working on implementing elements that pertain to them, and that he’ll make his final plan public at the next Board of Governors meeting in February.

    The university communications department refused to provide reporters with copies of the draft plan received by governors or Barchi’s slide presentation.