There's no shortage of goals and pledges in Rutgers University's new five-year strategic plan, from adding new faculty to physically revitalizing its three campuses.
But here's one that strikes a chord with New Jersey business leaders:
"The Rutgers of tomorrow will not be an ivory tower," the plan reads. "Success will demand active outreach to, and cooperation with, the business communities that will employ our students and translate the products of our research into practice."
The vision is just one piece of the 59-page blueprint unveiled last week, seeking to put Rutgers on par with top public institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan.
Doing so will be a challenge when costs are rising and state funding is declining, but one solution is to close the gap with corporate partners in the state, a disconnect long cited by business leaders.
"It's something that I've seen off and on in the university … but not as a consistent piece of the culture," said Alfred Koeppe, chairman of the state Economic Development Authority and a Rutgers-Newark alumnus. "But I think that's a very welcome and strong piece of the business plan."
Rutgers President Robert Barchi said he has heard those calls since taking the reins in 2012, and he has not shied away from the need to improve. He said the university has its fair share of profitable, mutually beneficial interactions with the private sector, such as with RUCDR, a genetics research facility in Piscataway that serves the federal government, the pharmaceutical industry and other clients.
"But they have not been the rule," said Barchi, a clinical neurologist who started in September 2012. "There is much more here that we could be sharing and many more opportunities than we're currently using."
To help clear the path toward stronger ties, the new plan calls for creating a "single, business-friendly portal of entry to Rutgers." Practically speaking, Barchi said that means a dedicated office that serves as "one-stop shopping, where someone in the business community can approach Rutgers with a particular issue, opportunity or question" and be guided to the right place.
The venue will be organized under the university's senior vice president for research and economic development, Christopher Molloy, who managed Rutgers' integration with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and will focus on creating more public-private partnerships, among other duties, Barchi said.
"If we're going to improve our interactions with the business community, we have to make the process an easy one, a painless one for our partners and one that isn't off-putting, but rather welcoming," he said.
Barchi added that "the best universities that are at the top of their game have this kind of office running well," dealing with areas such as contracting, access to faculty and issues of intellectual property.
The strategic plan was approved Feb. 4 by Rutgers' Board of Governors, coming after 18 months of research and sometimes-contentious public input from students and faculty. The document takes stock of the university's strengths and weaknesses, while outlining a plan to raise its profile despite its challenges.
It also follows several milestones for the university of 65,000 students, including last year's historic integration with UMDNJ and its entrance to the Big Ten, which placed it into a major academic consortium involving the conference's member schools.
Both moves stand to raise Rutgers' status as a research institution, and building ties to business during that process "is not only positive for the New Jersey economy but absolutely necessary," said Christopher Paladino, president of the nonprofit New Brunswick Development Corp., or Devco.
Paladino said biotech, life science and technology companies of late are showing more interest in New Brunswick "because they're starting to see the potential for the building of relationships with the scientific components of the university."
Devco has engaged such firms in recent months as it considers a new 1.5 million-square-foot office, retail and housing project at the current site of the city's Ferren parking deck.
He pointed specifically to two prospective tech companies that are drawn to the Rutgers School of Engineering. They have hired Rutgers graduates in the past, Paladino said, and they believe being active on campus through lecturing, internships and other means helps their chances "that they will have the pick of the best students."
Those connections are part of the broader formula that have fostered the research hubs in Cambridge, Mass., and North Carolina's Research Triangle, he said.
"Decision makers in corporate America today are gravitating toward centers of excellence," Paladino said.
Paladino added that companies are more apt to invest in such places because "the smartest kids in the world have gone to school there … and they want to stay there. And these companies need that infusion of 22- to 26-year-olds to compete."
Barchi also said corporate partnerships will be a two-way street for Rutgers. In one sense, that means having the university take a more visible role in New Jersey's business attraction efforts, which hinge largely on having leadership that's willing "to be out there talking to people about this."
"It has to be a comfortable thing for me and my senior managers to walk into a C-suite and have a conversation with the CEO and CFO of a big company because we understand how to run a business and what they're facing," Barchi said. "So we can have a conversation more on a level of equals that is going to engender a relationship."
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