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The Right Stuff

Robert L. Barchi led the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University to new heights. Now, as the 20th president of Rutgers, he faces the biggest challenge of his celebrated career: elevating Rutgers to the status of an elite research university. By David W. Major

Robert L. Barchi pictured in his office in Old Queens
Robert L. Barchi pictured in his office in Old Queens on the New Brunswick Campus during his first week as the new president of Rutgers. Photography by Nick Romanenko.

Moments before Robert L. Barchi was introduced on April 11 to the Rutgers community as the 20th president of the university, he and his wife, Dr. Francis Harper Barchi, were waiting with anticipation in what would be his new office in Old Queens. As they passed through the presidential suite and entered the stately reception room, Barchi’s eye immediately went to the 19th-century American grandfather clock in the corner. It wasn’t working. A self-taught expert in the repair and construction of antique clocks and timepieces, he walked over to it to appraise the cause of disrepair. The sight of a broken clock was anathema to Barchi. His entire life, professionally and personally, had been dedicated to fixing things, to making them better than they were before he got his hands on them. Barchi would eventually get the clock running again. Now, however, he was facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his splendid career: transforming Rutgers, closing in on its 250th anniversary and at a crossroads in its history, into an elite research university. He replaced the clock’s bonnet and left with his wife for nearby Winants Hall, where—at a joint meeting of the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees, witnessed by throngs of onlookers—he accepted the presidency of Rutgers.

As President Barchi’s tenure gets under way, after successful careers as the provost of the University of Pennsylvania and the president of Thomas Jefferson University, Rutgers is on the cusp of becoming a much different university. Upon approval by the Rutgers boards (see the related story), most of the elements of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) will be integrated into Rutgers, effective July 1, 2013, combining UMDNJ’s demonstrable strengths in medical education and health sciences research with Rutgers’ existing world-class educational and research programs to form a powerful, comprehensive research university. In June, after months of negotiations (much of it to ensure that Rutgers–Camden would remain a part of Rutgers and not be merged with Rowan University), both houses of the state legislature passed the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act, which governor Chris Christie signed in late August.

Robert Barchi talks with students
Robert L. Barchi talks with students on Hamilton Street by the Old Queens Campus in New Brunswick. As he oversees the integration of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers over the next year, one of his priorities is to make sure that Rutgers continues to provide an affordable education. Photography by Nick Romanenko.

“Integrating the two universities, as the legislation requires, will be a major piece of work: difficult, complex, and time consuming,” says Barchi. “There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of complicated financial elements. It’s such a big process that we can’t afford to make a mistake. We have to get it right.”

President Barchi, and his integration team, led by Christopher J. Molloy, will oversee the assimilation of nine UMDNJ units into Rutgers, including two medical schools. It’s an undertaking made less daunting because of Barchi’s extensive background as a leader and administrator of institutions with similar components. The integration will allow the university to make a major expansion in the health sciences and better serve the state and its people. The amalgam­ation of the medical schools and Rutgers’ reputed research strengths will attract far more federal research grants—and even more top scholars and researchers. Combining these key UMDNJ programs with Rutgers will also lead to innovative multidisciplinary projects and attendant educational opportunities. And research and medical advances will foster more partnerships, and employment opportunities, with the health care industry.

Dr. Francis Harper Barchi and her husband Robert L. Barchi
Dr. Francis Harper Barchi is looking forward to joining the Rutgers community with her husband. In addition to her public role as the president’s wife, she will have a joint appointment as an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and as a senior fellow at the Institute for Women’s Leadership. She has been a senior fellow in the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Photography by John Emerson.

“The integration is the business at hand right now, but we can’t lose sight of what we do so well elsewhere in the university,” says Barchi. “We must preserve, and take cognizance of, the excellence that we already have in the sciences and in the arts and humanities, which were ranked number 15 in the world recently. The strengths of the university must continue to flourish.”

Barchi has additional plans for his first year as president. With the assimilation of UMDNJ, whose 7,000 students will join Rutgers’ 58,000, the university’s operating budget will jump 50 percent, from $2.2 billion to more than $3 billion, and will include clinical practices in medicine, dentistry, and nursing. He will reorganize top management, starting with the creation of four chancellor positions, and strive for his “three E’s: effectiveness, efficiency, and execution.” He plans to revamp dated budgetary procedures to ensure transparency and accountability while assembling not annual but multiyear budgets. Barchi, an effective fundraiser, will assist the university’s fundraising campaign, Our Rutgers, Our Future: A Campaign for Excellence, in reaching its goal of $1 billion.

He also wants to redouble the university’s effort to market itself beyond New Jersey, in part to attract more students from neighboring states and beyond. One effective tool in marketing Rutgers, he believes, is the Scarlet Knights athletics program, which, like many Division I sports programs, projects Rutgers into the national media and engenders student and alumni spirit. The university has made the investment in the program, and it should continue, he believes. “People don’t fully appreciate the collateral value of a Division I football or basketball team,” says Barchi, a former football and lacrosse player at Georgetown. “The school’s name is out there in front of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in a way that we just can’t do otherwise.” Moreover, he embraces the scholastic achievement of the team, which has been in the top 10 percent of national rankings for five straight years, according to the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate—a feat no other public school in the nation can claim. Other teams at Rutgers routinely receive scholastic accolades for their student-athletes as well. Of the $60 million cost to operate university teams, Rutgers provides $18 million from the university’s operating budget, $10 million of which underwrite scholarships for high-achieving student-athletes. Barchi plans to close the gap on the remaining $8 million to ensure that the sports programs are eventually paying for themselves. 

Robert Barchi working on clocks in his basement at his Philadelphia home
Robert L. Barchi, who comes from a family of engineers and builders, is a master at making and repairing clocks and timepieces. Equipment from his shop in the basement of the couple’s Philadelphia home, where he also keeps a stunning collection, has been brought to the president’s residence in Piscataway. Photography by Nick Romanenko.

The president is particularly eager to oversee the creation of a strategic plan for the university, one that Rutgers hasn’t produced in more than 15 years, he says. He intends to listen to the entire university community, including the views of alumni; distill the best suggestions; and come up with a game plan for where Rutgers should be in five years. As Barchi saw while leading Penn and Jefferson, a strategic plan establishes a vision and a set of priorities for a university. “Rutgers absolutely needs this,” he says. “If you can’t tell me where you are going, how do you expect to get there?”

As the top executive, Barchi likens himself to a facilitator, somebody who solicits and articulates the best ideas coming from faculty, staff, students, and alumni. He places a premium on looking at problems in fresh ways, and he doesn’t care where good ideas come from, least of all from him. “With me, what you see is what you get,” Barchi says. “You are going to hear what I think, and I want to hear what you think. I like that interaction; in fact, I demand it. I’ll push and you’ll push back, and we’ll arrive at a better solution.” Taking the counsel of his advisers, he makes decisions promptly and doesn’t lose sleep having done so.

President Barchi has had to make some tough calls. While at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, he quickly saw that the university was strapped for funds. Despite howls of protest, he sold a university heirloom, The Gross Clinic, the famous 1875 painting by Thomas Eakins. Surmising that maybe a few hundred people saw this important American masterpiece each year, lost in a remote part of the university, Barchi oversaw the eventual sale of the painting to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, ensuring that it remained in Philadelphia for thousands to see each year while Jefferson received precious funds—$68 million (and another $30 million through the sale of two lesser-known Eakins works)—that were used to expand the university’s endowment supporting student scholarships and professorships.

He had difficult decisions at the University of Pennsylvania, too. Not long after taking over as provost at Penn, the dot-com bubble burst, draining the university’s considerable endowment. Yet, through Barchi’s judicious cuts in spending and deft apportionment of funds, the university was able to ride out the economy and began restoring its coffers. As a leader of the university during 9/11, he was a calming presence for a jittery Penn community. When a student died from alcohol poisoning at a fraternity party, Barchi temporarily banned alcohol on campus and hashed out a new alcohol policy with students and administration officials. Another death—that of Jesse Gelsinger during a gene therapy trial—brought a flood of media attention and called on Barchi to manage the crisis. “That was a tough year for everybody,” says Barchi. “These are the fires that anneal your sword.”

Months before a Rutgers presidential search committee contacted Barchi to gauge his interest in becoming the president of Rutgers, he had announced his decision to step down as the president of Thomas Jefferson University at the end of the 2011–12 school year, take a year off, and return to the faculty. He had earned it. During his eight years leading Jefferson, he doubled enrollment, expanded and beautified its campus, effectively rebranded the university, and shored up the school’s finances, doing so despite a tepid economy. Barchi was leaving Thomas Jefferson far stronger than when he arrived from the University of Pennsylvania, his home across town for more than 30 years.

Barchi was the provost of Penn for five years, beginning in 1999. As provost, he was responsible for its 12 schools, athletic and academic programs, and students and faculty, and he appointed nine of Penn’s 12 deans, some later becoming university presidents elsewhere. Earlier, from 1983 to 1996, he was the director of the Mahoney Institute of Neurological Sciences, which developed into the centerpiece of the university’s emphasis on neuroscience. He also founded the Department of Neuroscience and served as its first chair. He even found time to be a practicing neurologist and eventually to serve as the chair of Penn’s Department of Neurology.

Barchi joined the faculty at Penn in 1972 as a neuroscientist, ultimately becoming the David Mahoney Professor of Neurological Sciences. He proudly notes that his own research laboratory received more than 30 straight years of peer-reviewed funding from granting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. Barchi’s pioneering research on molecular signaling in nerve and muscle cells led to his election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

After he had announced his intention to retire, Robert and Francis Barchi talked more about the next phase of his life. They came to realize that he might grow restless, despite a range of interests that most men entering retirement could only imagine, much less pursue. He researches, collects, makes, and repairs valuable timepieces; builds and sails boats; hikes and jogs (despite a recent knee replacement); plumbs and wires electricity; and otherwise welcomes any challenge that requires building. Barchi, the son of a mechanical engineer and grandson of two carpenters, says that he can look at an engine or mechanical device and mentally envision a schematic drawing that dilates its contents to explain its assembly. Francis Barchi jokes that she likes to give her husband presents that he has to rebuild, like the recent gift of a 1957 Ford tractor. Would all of these pursuits be enough? Not yet, the Barchis concluded.

“My skill set matched what Rutgers needed,” he says. “It looked like an opportunity to take something to the next level, to build. I still wanted to do something on a big scale. I don’t like to just manage things. At Rutgers, I thought I could provide value, from idea to implementation, in a way that excites me.”

Dr. Francis Barchi is also excited about bringing her expertise to the university. In January, she will begin a joint appointment as an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and a senior fellow in women and health at the Institute for Women’s Leadership. She has been a senior fellow in the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, investigating research ethics and women’s autonomy in the developing world. Her work has included programs in Tanzania, Botswana, and Guatemala. She is already exploring with Rutgers faculty the idea of building an interdisciplinary program in the area of ethics.

“The women’s programs here are amazing,” she says. “Some of the work of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children, in the School of Social Work, coincides with one of my areas of interest, which is violence against women in the developing world. So, there is so much for me to learn about Rutgers and sort out. I have found myself saying all the time, ‘Bob, did you know they also do this at Rutgers? And this? And this?’ ”

From the outset of their relationship, Robert and Francis Barchi have always enjoyed discovering challenges together. Married for close to 10 years (each of them has a son and daughter from a previous marriage), they convey a youthful enthusiasm. This summer, they were unfazed when their three residences—the president’s home in Piscataway, their summer home in Maine, and their handsome row house (full of antique clocks) in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia—were in various states of upheaval. “We do a lot of things that people our age aren’t supposed to do,” says Francis Barchi, pointing out that she entered graduate school at the age of 52 to begin working toward the first of her three graduate degrees. “We are just hitting our stride.” Their interest in each other’s career is a fount of conversation, even after a long day of work. “When we make the eight-hour drive to Maine,” she says, “the radio is never on. We talk.”

“Francis is the first person I consult,” says President Barchi. “She always tells me exactly what she thinks. She is usually right.”

They knew that Rutgers was right for them following an impromptu visit to New Brunswick, shortly after Barchi had been approached about the presidency, which he was seriously considering. Hurtling down the New Jersey Turnpike as they returned from Maine with their yellow Labrador, Jack, they took Exit 9 and next found themselves on the Busch Campus in Piscataway, “blown away” by its size and all the facilities. Despite growing up in nearby Westfield before attending Georgetown University for his B.S. and M.S. degrees and the University of Pennsylvania for his Ph.D. and M.D. degrees, Barchi had hardly laid eyes on Rutgers. Little did they know, but the two of them had seen only one of five campuses on the New Brunswick Campus. Days later, after doing some online research, Dr. Barchi called her husband: “Bob, I think we missed a few things during our visit.”

President Barchi looks forward to learning all about Rutgers as he helps prepare it for the future. He knows that, among its challenges, the university faces the task of achieving greater financial independence in an era when public support of state research universities, although still valuable, has fallen steadily. If the univer­sity is to fulfill its expanding mission of research, education, and community outreach, Rutgers will continue to need to cultivate additional sources of revenue. The integration of UMDNJ into Rutgers to form a health sciences juggernaut has the potential to increase government and corporate research grants. It will also improve opportunities for the commercialization of research findings through partnerships with the private sector.

But an important necessity will be increasing philanthropy and donations in order to build an endowment. Contributions from alumni, who have been a big source of support for the Our Rutgers, Our Future capital campaign, will have to be stepped up, too. Barchi appreciates their generous support, but recognizes that Rutgers still needs them—all of them—to help as much as possible. “We need alumni’s financial support, big time,” says Barchi. “We are becoming a hybrid of a public and private university, and we will be more reliant than ever on philanthropy. The days of the public land-grant university supported 60 to 70 percent by the State are gone.” The president intends to meet frequently with alumni to hear what is important to them and what they see for Rutgers’ future. Aside from their financial support, which underwrites priorities such as endowed chairs and student scholarships, they are also the first line of advocacy for the university.

Of all the things that Barchi has seen during his first few weeks as president, he is most impressed by the friendly enthusiasm among the faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Everyone, he has been gratified to see, is eager to get moving under his leadership. “Bob sees change as opportunity; most people see it as trouble,” says Francis Barchi. “Bob, naturally, has a bent for the health sciences, but he sees all of this as exciting. He will go right to the trouble spots. He is a problem solver. It will be fine, though I may never see him. Rutgers will be great.”

In charting a new course for the university, he knows he already has considerable assets at his disposal. Now, the challenge is to build on Rutgers’ excellence. “By our 250th anniversary in 2016,” he says, “we should be recognized as one of the top AAU [Association of American Universities] schools in the nation, recognized for the quality of research and education that we already provide. We should be seen as a full-spectrum university that is strong in the health sciences and strong in the liberal arts and humanities. I believe these things will be done, and I will hold myself accountable to that.” •