"Will we be a University of Michigan in five years? No. But that doesn't mean that's not what we should work toward," he said.
In Barchi's vision, Rutgers will be recognized as "preeminent in research, excellent in teaching, and committed to service."
He challenged his audience to propose sweeping, university-wide changes that could bring Rutgers special prestige.
Citing concepts that emerged at a brainstorming session earlier in the week, he gave as examples for areas of focus: ethnicity and diversity; research and contributions to public health; and innovations for how to shape the natural and man-made environments.
When someone asked if every university would not pledge commitment to ideals like diversity and innovation in science, Barchi replied, "So get it out of [the plan], then. If it's something that's so banal that everyone would have it, then we shouldn't have it in there."
He noted that certain basics - like adequate IT services and infrastructure - should not make the list because a school like Rutgers should be able to take them for granted. He also pointed out that Rutgers possesses natural assets that allow it to excel in some areas where others can't. Ocean research, for example, cannot be easily duplicated at the University of Iowa.
Nor does every school have satellite campuses in cities like Camden and Newark, which have brought expertise in urban renewal. Perhaps most important, he said, is that no other public college is geographically located to draw from the demographic diversity and artistic opportunities of both New York and Philadelphia.
The retreat group, he said, vacillated between working toward improving the school's stature nationally or internationally, and finally decided that striving for international prominence would be premature given that Rutgers has not yet achieved the national recognition it seeks.
Margaret Marsh, a former Rutgers-Camden dean of arts and sciences, asked Barchi how the university might take advantage of the strengths of each of its campuses in a strategic plan that aims to advance the university as a whole.
"What does the Camden campus do that's of high value to the rest of the university?" she asked. "This is a face-to-face culture that lends itself to targeted and focused Ph.D. programs."
Barchi agreed that each campus possesses individual strengths, targets different kinds of students, and conducts distinct research. He then compared the university network to a Venn diagram, in which the plan's shared components will overlap in the center, with the constituent campuses concentrating on developing the outer sections which most apply to each.
Over the next few months, Barchi's team will gather feedback on the plan through personal interviews, focus groups, advisory groups, retreats, surveys, website comments, and more town hall meetings before presenting its final report to the school's two governing boards in September or October. The team has already conducted 120 personal interviews and sent surveys to every student.
In the 10 days since distributing the survey, 3 percent of students had returned it.
Former Rutgers president Francis Lawrence was the last university leader to commission a formal strategic plan, which the governing boards adopted in 1995. After Lawrence resigned in 2002, two successive presidents outlined general goals for the university. When Barchi began his term last year, he promised to make a strategic plan one of his top priorities.
At the end of Thursday's session, Barchi expressed support for a proposal to combine the law schools at the Newark and Camden campuses, which now operate independently.
In remarks that seemed well aware of the outrage last year after the legislature failed to sever the Camden campus from Rutgers and merge it with Rowan University in Glassboro, he reassured the audience that the administration would continue to support both law school campuses while unifying admissions, graduation requirements, and some academic coursework.
Following the meeting, the Rutgers board of trustees met at the Camden campus center to hear more about the law school merger plan and elect new executive officers.
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