Pritchett, 49, who was raised in Philadelphia and lives in University City, will take a one-year sabbatical starting in July, followed by a return to his faculty positions in Rutgers' history department and law school.
He announced the move at an annual breakfast for faculty, staff, and student leaders. An e-mail was then sent to the rest of the campus, followed by a university-wide e-mail from Rutgers University president Robert L. Barchi.
The university "will launch a national search for his successor, with the goal of appointing a new chancellor in time for the 2014-15 academic year," according to Barchi's e-mail.
Pritchett said he timed his departure to come after he led the campus through struggles that included not only the proposed Rowan merger but funding battles within the university system and in Trenton.
"We can have a considered transition. We can talk about what they're looking for in the next person . . . and then there will be time to actually recruit that person," Pritchett said.
Many in the Rutgers-Camden community describe the campus as embattled: often overlooked, always underfunded, and never given the respect it's due.
"I think it's quite understandable that the last two years may be viewed as dog years; in regular human years, there's a lot that went on in the last 18 months," said Rayman Solomon, the dean of the law school. "And it's a little like successful tag-team wrestling - you've got to know when it's time to bring the other guy into the ring and take a rest. And I think Wendell's saying it's time for somebody else to do that for a while."
Pritchett, the university's first black chancellor, assumed the role in July 2009, hired by then-university president Richard L. McCormick from among three finalists. The university has a chancellor in each of its regional campuses, in Camden, New Brunswick, and Newark, along with a fourth covering the new Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences division.
The chancellors hold direct responsibility for their campus' daily operations, reporting to Barchi.
That role was thrust into the spotlight last year, when state lawmakers proposed merging Rutgers-Camden with Rowan under Gov. Christie's wide-ranging reorganization plans for the state's colleges and universities.
Rutgers-Camden students, alumni, and faculty fought the move, and "Keep Rutgers in South Jersey" signs sprouted throughout the region. The university's board of trustees opposed the move, threatening legal action to block it.
Pritchett emerged as an advocate for strengthening the autonomy of Rutgers-Camden, raising his profile in the community as the face of the campus.
The proposed merger was dropped in the face of fierce opposition. The final plan includes their working together on a joint college of health sciences in Camden.
"Both in public meetings and in behind-the-scenes negotiations, Wendell successfully advocated against proposals for ending or in any way compromising Rutgers-Camden's essential place within Rutgers University," Barchi said in his e-mail. "His leadership was critical to ensuring that Rutgers will continue to have a statewide presence."
But the job - at times a mix of advocate, politician, and diplomat - is exhausting.
"Remember, he played a very pivotal role on advocating on behalf of the role of Camden," said State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), whose district includes Camden City. "That's not an easy position for somebody under that leadership to do. He showed perpetual fortitude in making sure that fight was not only fought, but . . . won."
That fight contributed to his decision to step down as chancellor, at least to some degree, Pritchett said.
"But every chancellor has some challenges. I mean, we could have had a different set of challenges. So the way I describe it is that everything that I've done has played a role in the decision to step down," Pritchett said.
He added that he had met some of the ambitious campus expansion goals he set early on: the opening of a 12-story dorm, creation of the Rutgers School of Nursing-Camden, and growth in student enrollment from 5,999 in fall 2009 to about 6,800 this semester.
"As I look back on the 41/2 years, I think we've done what we said we wanted to do, so that's another part of the reason to step down," Pritchett said.
"You should move on when you're doing well. You don't want to wait until you've screwed up something; you want to avoid the screw-ups."
Pritchett, a scholar of urban history, opened an Office of Civic Engagement and Center for Urban Research as part of his plans to strengthen ties between the campus and the city.
He cochaired the transition team for Dana L. Redd, the mayor of Camden, after her election.
Norcross said he has worked closely with Pritchett, whom he views as an advocate for civic engagement in the city.
"Years ago, Rutgers had a reputation, good or bad, that it was more of an isolated institution," Norcross said.
That began to change under Pritchett's predecessors, Norcross said, but Pritchett accelerated the process and "has very much been part of the fabric of the city of Camden, working hand in glove, so to speak, with the different initiatives that the city was working on."
Pritchett said his focus on Rutgers in this last administrative year will likely mean sacrificing some time spent on other organizations and activities.
He will spend his sabbatical year focusing on academic research, he said, and then teaching full-time when he returns.
But pressed for specifics and for long-term plans, Pritchett demurred.
"I've given up on long-term planning. I mean, if you had told me 10 years ago that this is where I'd be now, I would have laughed. So I've just given up on long-term planning. But you know, that's my plan for now."
Wendell E. Pritchett
Title: Chancellor of Rutgers-Camden
Residence: University City
Family: Married to Anne Kringel, senior lecturer and legal writing director at Penn Law School. The couple have two children.
Education: B.A., Brown University; J.D., Yale University; Ph.D. (history), University of Pennsylvania
Previous employment: Law professor at Penn from 2001 to 2009, and associate dean of the law school between 2006 and 2008. Taught history for five years at Baruch College of the City University of New York. Served as deputy chief of staff and director of policy for Mayor Nutter in 2008.
Other positions: Member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and the board of trustees of Cooper University Hospital, among others. Chaired the Urban Policy Task Force in 2007 for then-Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Toughest hurdle as chancellor: "The biggest obstacle is always - and I guess always will be - money. You can do more with more money. It sounds stupid and simple, but it's just true."
Advice for successor: "It's not about you, it's about us. And be able to multi-task and understand that there are lots of different things that you have to be focused on."
Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @elaijuh.