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The athletic legacy of Rutgers President Dr. Robert Barchi

While his time at RU led to many great accomplishments overall, his impact off the field led to several high profile setbacks.

Rutgers Introduces Greg Schiano Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

June 30th marks the close of an era at Rutgers University, as President Dr. Robert Barchi officially retires after 8 years on the banks. While Barchi accomplished many great things during his lengthy career in higher education, he leaves a mixed legacy at Rutgers.

To be fair, being the President at Rutgers is probably one of the hardest jobs at any University around the globe. Barchi shined in ways that have set up the institution dear to our hearts very well in multiple areas in the years to come. Of course, from an athletics perspective, it’s fair for Rutgers fans to cheer his departure.

His overall legacy will age well after successfully overseeing one of the largest higher-education mergers in American history. The partnership with RWJBarnabas Health and significant improvements to the University’s infrastructure are also great achievements. His nickname “Bob the Builder” is deserved. The student body and fundraising have reached the highest levels in school history. Barchi’s background as a medical doctor and scientist, along with his many years in higher-education, gave Rutgers the seasoned leader it needed to elevate its status as a research institution and steer it towards the future in a positive way.

Of course, all of the reasons that made him successful in those areas were also reasons for his failures as President as well.

Barchi’s lack of experience and understanding of Division I athletics and the importance that it has for the school and its alumni led to major mistakes in his tenure. He seemed uninterested and at times annoyed by having to spend any meaningful time on athletics. It led to many issues, some that made Rutgers a national laughingstock and undermined the many great academic achievements he achieved.

The mishandling of the Mike Rice scandal and subsequent firing of athletic director Tim Pernetti caused collateral damage for the department as a whole for years to come. The hiring of Julie Hermann instead of Sean Frazier was an unmitigated disaster. The lack of readiness and understanding of the challenges that Rutgers faced entering the Big Ten was inexcusable.

Barchi’s challenge to build cohesion between academics and athletics was certainly not an easy task, as friction existed long before his arrival. However, that relationship worsened under his watch and the inability to curb the faculty from consistently taking public shots at the athletic department over the years has been embarrassing.

It’s fair for frustrations to boil over from the academic side due to the athletic department long having one of the largest subsidies among power five institutions. While I’m sure efforts were made to educate and bridge the gap between both sides by Barchi, the current status is tenuous at best.

One failure that sticks out for me was the short lived tenure of former Rutgers chancellor Debasish “Deba” Dutta, who lasted just one year on the job. Friction and differences in vision between Dutta and Barchi were reported as a major reason for his departure. His previous experience at Big Ten institutions like Michigan, Illinois and Purdue made him an encouraging hire that could help Rutgers as a whole embrace the multiple benefits of being a member of the conference. He was considered a major supporter of the Rutgers athletic department and its importance within the culture of the school. His abrupt exit was seen as a loss for the athletic department.

The exact reasons for his departure aren’t clear, but it was disappointing that Barchi couldn’t make such a inspiring hire ultimately work at Rutgers. It also didn’t help with his relationship with the faculty union, who threaten to strike recently.

To be fair, current Chancellor Christopher Molloy seems to have made a solid transition into the role and was a good replacement choice by Barchi.

At the end of the day, President Barchi elevated Rutgers as a whole to new heights. The work from a research perspective that Rutgers has done within the Big Ten and beyond has been transformative. From an athletics perspective though, he won’t be remembered fondly by all. However, he does deserve credit for the latter part of his tenure that included the hiring of Pat Hobbs of athletic director, which has led to many positive changes in recent years. The athletic department is better positioned for future success than perhaps ever before and it would be unfair to not acknowledge this has happened under Barchi’s watch. He also seemed to better embrace the importance of athletics in his later years on the job, even if it wasn’t as great as many hoped.

With the arrival of Jonathan Holloway, who replaces Barchi, there is real hope that athletics will have much more support moving forward. The former linebacker who has substantial higher education experience at Stanford and Northwestern seems on paper to be a great choice to foster a more balanced and unified vision for Rutgers. His job won’t be easy, especially as the university faces a multi-million dollar deficit in part due to the many complications it now faces with COVID-19.

How Barchi is ultimately remembered will likely depend on who is surveyed, but it’s fair to say he had an uneven tenure that had several significant highs, while also suffering several painful lows. Such is life and Barchi’s tenure was no different, but he did leave Rutgers in a better place. From an athletics perspective, it’s time to embrace a new era with Jonathan Holloway providing hope for better days ahead.