Robert L. Barchi, outgoing president of Thomas Jefferson University, to take Rutgers helm

Robert L. Barchi at the announcement of his new job as Rutgers president. He will focus on finding new revenue streams, partnerships. JULIO CORTEZ / AP
Robert L. Barchi at the announcement of his new job as Rutgers president. He will focus on finding new revenue streams, partnerships. JULIO CORTEZ / AP (Robert L. Barchi)
Posted: April 12, 2012

After spending 40 years of his career in higher education in Philadelphia, Robert L. Barchi, the outgoing president of Thomas Jefferson University, is crossing the Delaware River.

Barchi, 65, of Society Hill, was named the 20th president of Rutgers University on Wednesday. His appointment as head of New Jersey's flagship state university comes during a challenging time, as the school faces a highly contested plan by Gov. Christie to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University under the Rowan banner.

Barchi was named after a nine-month search process, and will begin at the more than 58,000-student Rutgers system Sept. 1. He replaces Richard L. McCormick, university president since 2002, who announced in May that he would step down. He will earn $650,000 a year.

Barchi said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he would not offer an opinion on the proposed merger until he had discussed the matter fully with others.

"I've thought a lot about it. I've read a lot about it, but I am just getting here," said Barchi, who is a former University of Pennsylvania professor and provost.

In a strategy designed to enhance Rutgers' medical and science credentials, Christie wants to shift some of the institutions belonging to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey - including the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School - to Rutgers. The university would hand over its Camden campus to Glassboro-based Rowan to create a large research university in southern New Jersey.

The plan has the support of key South Jersey Democrats, including insurance executive George E. Norcross III, who is chairman of the board of the Cooper Health System and Camden's Cooper University Hospital, and a managing partner in the group that recently purchased the parent company of The Inquirer.

But it has met with intense opposition from students and faculty at Rutgers-Camden, who see themselves as unwilling participants in a behind-the-scenes political deal.

In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Budget Committee, McCormick said he had been meeting with legislators to work out a deal to appease the protesters. State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), George Norcross' brother, has floated a compromise that would create a more independent Rutgers-Camden, with its own board of governors and own finances. The Camden school would continue to be part of the larger Rutgers system and would create partnerships with Rowan in areas such as science and medicine.

On Wednesday, Christie dismissed talk of a compromise.

"Again, I'm not going to let anybody keep the Rutgers name unless they're being governed by Rutgers," he said. ". . . We're going to move forward with my plan. . . ."

Barchi has run Thomas Jefferson, a health sciences university, since 2004 and was due to step down this summer. He was approved unanimously by the Rutgers Board of Governors at a special meeting Wednesday on the main campus in New Brunswick.

Though born in Philadelphia, Barchi spent much of his youth in Westfield, Union County, not far from Rutgers' main campus. He returned to Philadelphia to attend St. Joseph's Preparatory School.

A neuroscientist, he received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgetown University and his doctorate and medical degrees from Penn. He began his career as a faculty member at Penn in 1972 and was named provost in 1999.

During his time at Jefferson, it expanded from three to six schools, increased enrollment by 51 percent and doubled its fund-raising.

He is married to Francis Harper Barchi, a senior fellow in the Center for Bioethics at Penn. The couple will move to the Rutgers president's house in Piscataway.

Barchi will focus on finding new revenue streams and partnerships, as the university - like other land-grant institutions - faces a transition to more of a private model while maintaining its public mission.

"I believe Rutgers is one of the schools positioned to set the new dynamic," he said.

Some faculty have called for Rutgers to focus more on academics and less on athletics, a familiar refrain at many large public universities. Both have a role, Barchi said, but "we are here for the academics. That's the bottom line."

More than 250 people were nominated for the Rutgers job, and about 70 were considered, Rutgers officials said.

At Rutgers-Camden, some were left to wonder Wednesday what Barchi's appointment would mean for the campus' future.

"Those who want to see this as a hopeful sign, they're saying he'll look at this [merger] deal on its merits and see it stinks," said Ellen Goodman, a law professor. "I don't know. It is all so mystifying."

Barchi won't take office until two months after Christie says he wants to see action taken on the proposed mergers, so it's unknown what role he could have.

But Barchi won points on Wednesday when, in a speech to the Rutgers board members streamed on the university website, he described the Rutgers-Camden and Newark campuses as also integral to the university.

"The room went wild," said Rutgers trustee Jeanne Fox, a nonvoting board member who has opposed the merger. "I'm hopeful. [Barchi is] very smart 'small p' politically."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq

Staff writer Matt Katz contributed to his article. 

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