Profile: University Chancellor Crossed the Delaware to Make His Mark

Colleen O'Dea | February 5, 2014 | Profiles
Philadelphia native has overseen period of growth at Rutgers Camden, helped fend off merger proposal

wendell pritchett 2
Name: Wendell Pritchett

Age: 49

Where he lives: Philadelphia, PA, with his wife, Anne Kringel, and two daughters

His job: Chancellor of Rutgers University’s Camden campus

Where he came from: Pritchett grew up in Center City, Philadelphia. His family moved to Society Hill, an urban redevelopment project, in 1967. “My family was the only African American family living on the block,” he recalls.

He credits that early experience with fostering his commitment to reviving cities. Three years ago, he started the Office for Civic Engagement at Rutgers Camden to help renewal efforts in its troubled home city.

Wanted to play baseball, but…: College chancellor was not his first career choice: Pritchett really wanted to be a baseball player. “By high school, when I knew that was not going to happen, I thought I would become a lawyer.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brown University, Pritchett got his law degree from Yale Law School. In the early 1990s, he worked for Wolf Block, at one time one of Philadelphia’s most elite law firms. He then worked as a staff attorney for Regional Housing Legal Services in his home town. But he was never really interested in practicing law with a major firm.

“There are lots of ways to use a law degree,” he said. He has also worked as a college professor and for two politicians.

Flirted with public office: Pritchett’s political science degree would serve him well in several of his jobs – and not just his position as the head of Rutgers Camden during the tumultous first six months of 2012.

Pritchett worked in 1996-97 for U.S. Rep. Tom Foglietta from Philadelphia. Then, in 2008, he spent a year working
for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter as deputy chief of staff and policy director, working on the city budget, its five-year plan and reorganization of the city’s anti-poverty efforts.

And at one point Pritchett considered running for public office himself, but ultimately decided he didn’t have the
right disposition. “It is just a 24-hour job and I kind of do like having a private life,” Pritchett said.

“Everything you say is analyzed very carefully. I’m not sure I could censor myself enough to be successful.

Crossing the Delaware: When the position of Rutgers chancellor opened, several friends and former colleagues suggested Pritchett for the job. He resisted at first, but the more people pushed, the more interested he got. He took the helm in July 2009.

Rapid growth: Since then, Rutgers Camden’s enrollment has grown to about 6,800. It has added a nursing school, graduated its first Ph.D. candidates, and built a 12-story residence hall that also includes retail space for use by both students and city residents.

Caring about Camden: Pritchett has focused many of the university’s community service efforts on helping to improve the city’s schools. But he is realistic about how much the university can help.

“Rutgers Camden is not going to save Camden, but we can help Camden, number one, by being the best academic institution we can be,” he said, “and number two, by trying to build human capital … so they can improve the city.”

Thrust into an epic battle: In January 2012, an advisory committee studying the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey recommended that Rutgers Camden be merged into Rowan University to create a major research institution in South Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie endorsed the proposal.

This set off a firestorm of protests from Rutgers students, faculty, alumni and, eventually, the Rutgers University Board of Trustees.

As chancellor, Pritchett found himself in the eye of the storm.

“A lot of my faculty were so upset by that specific proposal,” he said. On the other hand, then-Rutgers President Richard McCormick — Pritchett’s boss — “was very interested in getting Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, so he was willing to consider it.”

Pritchett agreed that cooperation between the two South Jersey schools would be positive, but took a stand and opposed merging his campus into Rowan. After months of lobbying and legislative maneuvering, the opposition paid off, as Rutgers University got nearly all of UMDNJ and kept its Camden campus as well.

“It was a very good outcome, an amazing story, really a grassroots effort,” Pritchett said. “People frequently say that this is a case study that should be written up. I don’t know about others, but I do not want to relive it.”

What’s next: Pritchett decided last summer that he wanted to step down from the position of chancellor, effective July 1.

“If you look at my resume, you’ll see I like to move around,” he said. “I don’t want to get stale. And I want to do it on my own terms.”

The son of two teachers, Pritchett decided to return to teaching – he taught previously at Baruch College in New York City and at the University of Pennsylvania Law School – and do research. He will join the Rutgers Camden faculty, teaching law and history – he holds a doctorate in history from the University of Pennsylvania.

Working as a professor will provide an added benefit, according to Pritchett. “It’s a relatively flexible thing that allows you to do a lot of things you don’t get paid for.” Among those: He serves as co-chair of the World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative and member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.

But Pritchett said he is not likely to remain a professor for too long: “I expect some time to move back to being an implementer.”

Something you don’t know about him: In what was perhaps a portent of his future, Rutgers Camden was visible from the roof of the house where Pritchett grew up.