Rutgers president gives students rare interview

Rutgers Tuition
Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi walks past students Thursday, July 11, 2013, in New Brunswick, N.J., on his way to Rutgers University's Board of Governors meeting. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Robert L. Barchi, the president of Rutgers University, isn’t much of a talker. Not in the media, at least. He’ll talk at public events or agree to interviews about specific topics, but it’s rare for him to sit down and have a general, wide-ranging conversation with a media outlet.

So a recent interview with The Daily Targum, the student newspaper at the New Brunswick campus, provides a good opportunity to hear from him directly.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Law students probably won’t be traveling between Camden and Newark.

When Rutgers first began formally looking to merge its two law schools, in Camden and Newark, into a unified Rutgers University School of Law, administrators suggested that some students and professors could travel between the two campuses. One idea was a “study bus” going back and forth.

The two schools have since installed “immersive learning classrooms” where an entire wall is covered by a videoconferencing screen, giving the effect of each room being half of one massive space.

And administrators no longer seem interested in trying to shuttle students and faculty back and forth.

“[W]e can’t move the students — that’s too far for a bus — and it’s tough to move the faculty that way, so what we’re doing is moving the information,” Barchi said.

2. Merging UMDNJ into Rutgers has been tough, and it will take a few more years to figure everything out.

Rutgers absorbed most of the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which was dismantled as part of the 2012 higher education restructuring that took effect July 2013.

The now-defunct UMDNJ was a financial mess and, as Gov. Christie described it in 2012, “a corrupt and ineffective absolute pit of political patronage.”

Rutgers ended up with two medical schools, three nursing schools, and schools of public health, pharmacy, and dental medicine.

But with more than 11,000 staff and faculty members and 8,000 students, there was some friction along the way.

“Like any merger, it takes time to merge the cultures after you merge the businesses,” Barchi said.

He said things are getting ironed out, but getting things totally settled might take “a couple more years of integration to do.”

“We have a lot of underlying issues from a financial point of view and from the point of view of the clinical work environment that needed to be dealt with,” he said.

3. Rutgers is focused on attracting top students, not fighting the state’s notorious “brain drain.”

New Jersey’s net out-migration of students is well-known: More than 30,000 New Jerseyans attend college outside the state each year, while only a few thousand students come in from outside.

School officials and lawmakers talk about this issue all the time, and it’s a major point when discussing the expansions of Rowan University and Stockton University.

And while The College of New Jersey focuses on top New Jersey talent and keeping it in the state, Rutgers is also aiming for the top.

Brain drain? Not Rutgers’ problem, Barchi said.

“[I]t is not Rutgers’ job to provide educational opportunities to 28,000 students, That is the state’s job, and one I talk about every time I go down to Trenton, that the state needs to do more for higher education. It needs to do more for the rest of the university system in the state,” Barchi said.

“Our job is to be the very best academic institution that anyone who graduates from high school in New Jersey could want to go to,” he said.

4. State funding cuts are no surprise.

Gov. Christie’s proposed budget includes flat support for higher education, but that number includes both direct operating aid and employee benefits. With those benefits — e.g. health care — increasing in cost, flat overall support means direct operating money to colleges is being cut.

Rutgers’ direct funding would be cut 3.73 percent. Camden and Newark would see cuts of just more than 0.5 percent, while New Brunswick would see a drop of 4.42 percent.

Administrators have largely kept silent, in part because the Legislature now passes a budget to Christie to sign, meaning the proposal is just that.

At the April 2 Rutgers University Board of Governors meeting in Newark, a spokesman said administrators would not comment on “hypothetical” numbers.

Barchi had no such qualms in the Targum interview.

“We’re seeing a decrease in the amount of revenue from the state each year. The governor has touted it as being flat but … our appropriation includes a part of the appropriation that pays fringe benefits for our faculty and staff and a part that pays for the operations of the university,” he said.

“Health care is going up and everything else and the way the governor keeps the appropriations flat is that he takes it out of this hand and puts it over there. So the operating budget that we have gotten for the last three years has gone down every year,” he said.

5. Alcohol-related problems are on the rise, and the fraternity house party ban is just the first step toward addressing them.

Rutgers last week banned house parties at the 86 officially recognized fraternities and sororities at its New Brunswick campus.

That moratorium lasts only through the end of this semester, but Barchi is hoping to implement other changes to address alcohol-related issues.

“This semester has not been a good semester in terms of harm to our students, the number of transports for alcohol intoxication, death, physical harm, can’t have that,” he said.

So Barchi’s looking at the role of professional bartenders, sober monitors around campus, door minders checking IDs, and other ideas.

“They do work actually to reduce the riskiness of the environment, and that’s what you want to do,” he said. “You’re not looking to remove alcohol use. You’re not even looking to eliminate underage drinking. I’m not that naive. But what you’re trying to do is remove the risk as much as you can.”

Read the full interview at The Daily Targum.