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On The Defensive, Rutgers President Robert Barchi Blames Prior Administration in Town Hall Meeting

Town Hall Sparks Student Questions on Massive Athletics Subsidy, UMDNJ Merger, Lack of State Funding, Multicultural Centers
Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In one of his few public appearances this semester, Rutgers President Robert Barchi was defensive in the face of recent criticism for being inaccessible to students and others.

The 20th President of the state university even went so far as to blame administrations before his own, in controversial remarks made before the crowd of 150 in the Student Activities Center on George Street.

"I don't know what happened before I got here," said Barchi, going on to indicate that in his first year in office, the relationship between Rutgers and state officials was "adversarial."

"The first year I went up there [to testify before a legislative committee], I thought I was gonna get lynched," he said before an immediate stunned silence befell the crowd.

One woman in attendance, a Rutgers senior named Lauren Mateo, said she was deeply offended and disheartened by Barchi's comment.

"As a white male, the choice of the word 'lynch' was not only unprofessional and hurtful but truly ahistorical and incompetent in light of this country's current struggle with racial tension, violence and history," Mateo told New Brunswick Today.

The crowd came to engage with the University President at a Thursday night Town Hall held during the meeting of the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA).  He has come under criticism by faculty unions, the Students for Shared Governance coalition, and a campaign called "Where RU Barchi?" for not being accessible.

Barchi acknowledged he has been traveling the country raising funds for the university, and boasted that the school has reached its $1 billion goal.   He added that the New Brunswick campus' Chancellor Richard Edwards was holding monthly hours to meet with students on any issue they want to discuss.

Barchi spent nearly an hour fielding questions from students on a wide array of topics. Questions were limited to thirty seconds, a rule that was strictly enforced.

Rutgers sophomore Alex Uematsu drew attention to the mult-million dollar subsidy of athletics with his question.

“If lack of money is always cited as a reason why you can’t lower tuition or raise professor salaries, please tell me why you were able to find $47 million to put towards sports, while at the same time saying you don’t have enough money to lower tuition.”

Barchi explained that prior to his employment at the University, the decision to move into Division 1 sports was poorly managed. Part of the $47 million dollars reported was to get us out of “bad contracts.”

Barchi stated, “It’s a little bit disingenuous to say that that money was a subsidy, it was a business decision to put us in good stead so that we will not be subsidizing it at all anymore.”

Sivan Rosenthal, an SAS sophomore, said, "I felt like Barchi spoke about the school's infrastructure and budget without addressing the main question posed by many students. Namely, why he does not feel that it is important that he speak with students in person."

Another student, Douglass representative Amy Clark asked Barchi if the mechanisms for shared governance were adequate.

“I think we have a pretty robust shared governance system,” Barchi replied. “It certainly is aggressive, and makes its voice heard.”

“We take what the [university senate] says very seriously,” he said, though many students might disagree.

Barchi told student Hannah Roe, “I believe in shared governance. And we have a shared governance body in the University Senate, which is someplace I do go every time that I can when I’m in town.”

Touching on many issues, Roe was among the sharpest critics of Barchi with her question, which cited “sweeping changes being made to both policy and programs” without students’ consent, the lack of contracts for faculty and staff, and major cuts to library budgets in the midst of multi-million dollar athletic subsidies, and head football coach Kyle Flood’s significant raise.

“Where have you been in the wake of all of this?” she asked.  “How come you are here only once a semester? And if fundraising is a problem, why were fundraisers fired from the university?”

Barchi addressed some but not all of her concerns, stating off by reminding the audience that “not one penny of Kyle Flood’s [pay] increase came from the University.”  Instead, Barchi says it came from private donations specifically for that purpose.

“In terms of the changes in the library, every unit at this university is pulling in their belt, and looking for ways to reduce cost, as is the library,” Barchi continued, elaborating that there are also many new digital resources available, despite the incoming budget cuts.

Barchi took issue with Roe’s statements about the school's merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry, claiming it was “poorly managed.”

“I take very, very strong issue with your statement about the integration,” Barchi remarked. “It is the largest single integration ever attempted in this country.  And as far as I’m concerned, it went off practically without a hitch.”

Barchi mentioned that Rutgers maintained its AA credit rating during the merger, but did not address the hundreds of millions of debt the university incurred.

“You’re always going to Trenton to lobby for more state funding,” began Brenda Diaz, an Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF) student and representative of EOPSA, the student governing body for EOF affairs at Rutgers.

“What are your plans to ensure EOF is getting more funding, and are you open to work with EOPSA?” asked 

“I absolutely am,” Barchi replied. “All of those programs that improve opportunity, and improve access are critical to what we are at Rutgers.”

Barchi then spoke a lot about how effective programs like Rutgers Future Scholars are in benefitting students, but gave no details as to when or how he would secure additional funding or meet with EOPSA.

RUSA Senator Luke Svasti asked Barchi a simple question: “Are you ever going to make the budget public?”

Barchi replied, “The budget is public.”

“In line-by-line form.  Because I can't find it anywhere,” responded Svasti.

Barchi somewhat abated the question and explained that there’s only so much clarity you can give to a budget before it starts to put the university under too much scrutiny.

Justin Schulberg, a RUSA Senator addressed the budget surplus, stating “apparently the University sits on hundreds of millions of dollars of reserves, and I’m just wondering what we can touch in that, how much we have to keep, if you could clarify that.”

“If I had that kind of money, I’d be spending it,” Barchi said. “They are not unrestricted dollars that I have any access to. They are dollars that are broken up into hundreds of accounts.”

The surplus mentioned by Schulberg was uncovered by economist Howard Bunsis who was hired by the Rutgers AAUP-AFT last Spring, and estimated over a hundred millon dollars in unused funds.

Chris Etienne, President of the Rutgers Association of Black Journalists, asked, “Why is it that I see you are underfunding a lot of our multicultural organizations?  And why is the initial plan to combine them all together into one entity where there is no way we can cover everybody’s issue?”

“I certainly have no intention of underfunding the minority programs and multicultural programs,” replied Barchi. “One thing we do feel is that we don’t want those programs to be so segregated that they isolate themselves.” 

Rutgers - New Brunswick Chancellor Richard Edwards then came to the podium and explained that the "plan" to combine all multicultural organizations was actually just "one idea" that he had found to be successful at his previous employer, the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill.

Kaila Boulware, a member of Women Organizing Against Harassment and reporter with New Brunswick Today, explained to the crowd that “last year there was a case where Peter Ludlow was going to be hired here at the university,” after being accused of sexual assault at Northwestern University.

“In May we talked to you and some other officials about the hiring process here at Rutgers and I’m just wondering what is the University going to do in the future to prevent this from happening again?” asked Boulware.

“We were very distressed by that as well when we found out about it… What we’ve done is to review our own hiring policies,” said Barchi. “We’ve added some background checks to the extent that we can… We just have to be incredibly sensitive.”

Cook-Campus representative Kathryn Karmazyn asked Barchi, “Do you think that our government should help subsidize education more than they are currently doing?”

“I absolutely do. If we’re supposed to be here to educate the citizens of this state, and to educate the citizens that can participate in a civil democracy, and also to educate the leaders of tomorrow… then it is a common value,” said Barchi. “It is something of value to the state”

Aven La Rosa, a member of the Douglass Governing Council asked Barchi, “what are your goals for Douglass Residential College moving forward with the strategic plan, and where do you see the college in five years?”

“I look at Douglass Residential College as one of the jewels that we have,” said Barchi. “We’re investing in a new building there that will be a combination of some additional dorm space, and more importantly multi-functional space for the residential college.”

Barchi went on to explain that surveys of the university students show that those from Douglass are most likely to be interested in International affairs and social justice, something he hopes to replicate and spread throughout the University.

Getting to ask the final question, a member of the coalition named Josh Romer asked Barchi, “You said you had time to come to the next RUSA meeting, so I was wondering if you could hold office hours independent from RUSA regularly so everyone’s question can get answered.”

Barchi made no commitments and stuck to his claim of returning to RUSA without addressing the topic of office hours.

Shortly after, the question period ended and Barchi departed, declining to answer a question from another New Brunswick Today reporter.

Editor's Notes: The author of this article is a member of the Students for Shared Governance Coalition.

Ms. Mateo is a staff member at New Brunswick Today, as well as Ms. Boulware.