You don’t become the president of one of the nation’s largest universities without mastering the diplomatic art of silence.
But when the president of the United States restricts immigration or signals he may roll back protections for students brought into this country illegally as children, the calculus changes.
“The times are different,” Robert L. Barchi, the president of Rutgers University, said in a rare sit-down interview.
“Once the campaigns are over and we start having actions taken that directly impact my students at my university — my ability to do what I need to do and our ability as a university to carry out our mission — I have to speak out,” he said. “And that’s what is happening.”
Since President Trump’s election, many college presidents have been weighing the question of when to comment publicly.
“I’ve been a scientist all my life and the last thing anybody could drag me to do was to say something in public politically, right?” Barchi said. “We just didn’t do that.”
Barchi founded the neuroscience department at the University of Pennsylvania and chaired its neurology department before being named provost in 1999. He moved to Thomas Jefferson University as its president in 2004 and then to Rutgers in 2012, where his annual base salary is now $676,260.
Like his peers, the Rutgers president has been drawn into on-campus flare-ups over freedom of speech and academic expression. He has been most visible when pulled into the spotlight by controversies directly affecting his campus, declaring it “fundamentally important to maintain a safe and inclusive climate” in 2013 after basketball coach Mike Rice was caught on video hurling basketballs and antigay slurs.
Barchi wrote that “Rutgers can thrive only when it vigorously defends the free exchange of ideas in an environment of civil discourse” after protests in 2014 over the selection of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker, and that “both academic freedom and our First Amendment rights are at the core of what we do” after right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at Rutgers-New Brunswick last year.
Different since the election have been his statements in other areas: Advocating for the extension of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which temporarily shields undocumented students from deportation, criticizing the travel ban as targeting Muslims, and describing elements of the immigration restrictions as “counter to the academic and social mission of higher education.”
“I fundamentally believe what I’m talking about here. This is stuff that I can get up on a podium and cry about,” Barchi said. “I don’t do that very often, but it seriously bothers me and I think I have a very serious responsibility to speak out about that. And there aren’t a lot of things that I’ve seen in higher education over the years that rise to that level for me, and this does.”
Last month, Barchi joined hundreds of students, faculty, and community members protesting Trump’s travel and immigration restrictions.
Standing on the steps of Brower Commons on Jan. 31, Barchi directly criticized Trump’s actions: “I am bothered the most by the inherent way [Trump’s] act singles out a single group of individuals who hold dear to the Muslim faith.”
He also sent an email to students earlier that day with his prepared remarks, concluding with a call to action: “I urge you to join me in working with our senators and representatives in Congress to push back on immigration policies—and, indeed, all policies—that are counter to the spirit and vitality of higher education and research.”
Such calls to action can be powerful, coming from the president of a university with nearly 69,000 students and more than 486,000 living alumni.
In January, Barchi sent a letter to students about bipartisan legislation that would extend DACA protections. Making clear that participation was optional — “I would never presume to tell you what to do with respect to legislative advocacy” — he provided a link to a form where students could send a prewritten letter to their lawmakers.
Within 24 hours, 6,116 students had used the form to contact Congress.
Speaking out can have the immediate effect of influencing Trump and lawmakers, Barchi said, especially when different groups — college presidents, big-name CEOs, state attorneys general — push back together on policies.
Longer term, Barchi said, the environment he creates and the positions he takes can have a ripple effect through society.
There can be drawbacks to speaking out.
Some presidents say they wear the title of college or university president at all times and feel unable to express personal views; others say private views can be separated from public views — carefully.
“A university president speaking as a private citizen can be very difficult to untangle from the university president speaking in his public role,” said Peter Bonilla, the vice president of programs at the Philadelphia-based civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Barchi said he has separated his personal and public views on only one issue. When Barchi says Trump’s immigration and refugee restrictions are selectively focused on Muslims, he is doing so as a citizen and faculty member, not head of the university.
Otherwise, he speaks as president of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. And those statements — which he says he has also always personally agreed with — are meant to express and defend the university’s mission and values.
A statement of values from the top can also carry the danger of chilling free discourse on campus, and university presidents often struggle to find the right balance, Bonilla said.
Barchi said he is careful about those boundaries and notes in his statements that others are free to disagree.
“He has always been careful to say that faculty and students are free to express their agreement with Trump’s positions,” said David M. Hughes, head of the faculty union.
Asked about navigating state politics, since Rutgers depends on public funding for a significant portion of its budget, Barchi acknowledged that “you have to be mindful of the political realities of a state like this if you have a university that spans so many counties and so much of the state” but that state politics “should not be a major consideration.”
On the grand piano in the Rutgers president’s house, a collection of framed photographs include two with Gov. Christie; “Bob — let’s keep moving Rutgers forward together!” the governor wrote on one.
Barchi said he does not worry about potential fallout with Christie, a vocal Trump supporter, noting that they have not spoken directly in 18 months, but their offices are in contact.
Barchi was also careful to note in the interview that his positions may appear political but are not partisan — and they’re not about Trump, per se, but about actions or positions the president takes. (Barchi did not register with a political party when he moved to New Jersey; in Philadelphia, he was registered with the Democratic Party.)
Looking forward, Barchi said, his concerns could include funding of research, consideration of facts and scholarship (“What the heck is an alternative fact, I don’t know”), free exchange of information and data between government and academia, and accessibility of higher education.
The common thread, Barchi said, is defending his university and its values.
“When those get challenged,” he said, “you have to speak up.”