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RU's Barchi is making the grade New president's brains, biz savvy impress local leaders

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Since taking the helm of Rutgers in September, Dr. Robert Barchi has deftly handled several high-profile developments, his proponents say. – AARON HOUSTON
Since taking the helm of Rutgers in September, Dr. Robert Barchi has deftly handled several high-profile developments, his proponents say. – AARON HOUSTON

There have been plenty of exciting developments at Rutgers University during the past few months, including the recent appointment of its new president, who was largely unknown when he walked into a room of 35 CEOs in November.

But by the time he walked out of the Hyatt Regency, in Jersey City, that night, Dr. Robert Barchi had won over the executives, most of whom were either alumni or had a direct relationship with the school.

Greg Brown, CEO of Motorola Solutions and chair of the presidential search committee for his alma mater, attended the event, and said the man he helped recruit for the job commanded respect with his ability to quickly grasp concepts and relate to both individuals and industries.

"Many of them remarked afterwards that they haven't seen a Rutgers president like that before in decades," Brown said. "He made an outstanding impression with all of the executives that evening."

New Brunswick Development Corp. President Christopher J. Paladino, a Rutgers alumnus who attended the Jersey City event, had a similar impression after listening to Barchi's 10-minute talk.

"I've never felt more pride and more optimism for my university and my state than I did in that gathering," Paladino said. Barchi, he added, will "attract back individuals and alumni who have maybe not had a personal relationship with the university for a while."

How well Barchi is able to forge those connections — particularly among executives with Rutgers degrees — is critical to his presidency. The clinical neurologist who took the helm of Rutgers in September said he knows how critical the issue is.

"The average New Jerseyan I talk to remembers a Rutgers from 30 years ago, rather than the Rutgers we have today," he said. "Sometimes I feel we have a better name recognition for the product, for what we do, in California than we do in New Jersey."

That's changing somewhat already, given the high-profile developments that have reshaped the campus in the last few months. Its boards approved a merger agreement that will bring a medical school and other assets to Rutgers, it led the charge to pass a $750 million higher education bond referendum, and it most recently announced a lucrative move to the Big Ten conference.

In Barchi, university stakeholders say they've got their man to see those developments through.

"Dr. Barchi has really the right combination of vision and practicality to really make this a successful transition," said Robert E. Campbell, former vice chair of Johnson & Johnson and a member of both the Kean and Baer higher education commissions that recommended realignments like the one Rutgers approved in November.

Campbell said one of the priorities for both commissions he served on was to better integrate Rutgers into the business community — a task he feels Barchi is specifically suited for.

"It almost felt like we were getting a combination president and CEO in one person," Brown said. These "complex and emerging issues are very complementary to what Bob does well. Bob leads, he's decisive, he sets priorities and he holds people accountable."

Paladino said, while reviewing early planning stages of a College Avenue development project, Barchi grabbed a pencil and tracing paper and started drawing.

"He asked the important questions that you're not used to hearing from a university president," Paladino said. "People can relate to his level of energy and that unique visionary, hands-on leader that is unique in academia."

A key tool to drum up alumni interest will be the gridiron, and athletic director Tim Pernetti said he's impressed by Barchi's quick grasp of what Rutgers is and what the Rutgers brand means, especially as conference realignment talks got under way early in Barchi's tenure.

"He's an incredibly quick study," Pernetti said. "We were able to spend a lot of time together to talk about our university — not just the athletic department, but our university — and know what Bob's vision is as president and what we aspire to be. And that really helped us, as a team, to frame up the opportunity that we had to join the Big Ten."

Barchi said having Rutgers' name side-by-side with other Big Ten schools has value "over and above anything that it does for our athletic programs."

"What I'm talking about is not marketing athletics, I'm talking about getting people to focus on Rutgers as an outstanding, research-intensive university that we are," he said.

Paladino said Barchi's skill in engaging Rutgers alumni, who tend to stay in the area and have strong ties to science and research-based industries, will help turn the school's research-intensive focus into business for the state.

"He certainly understands what opportunities exist at the intersection of public and private science, and I can see alumni truly being attracted to (an) opportunity that many haven't seen," Paladino said.

Barchi said he wants Rutgers to act more like a large private institution than a traditional state university, supplementing its "endowment" from the state with philanthropy, technology transfer and public-private partnerships. That's critical as state funding continues to decline.

"The trends that you see towards public-private partnerships and technology transfer aren't new. They're things that private universities have been doing for years and years that are becoming more the norm in the big publics, especially the (Association of American Universities schools) that are in exactly the same place we are," Barchi said.

E-mail to: melindac@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mcaliendo33

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