Robert Barchi

A year into serving as provost, the man in charge of
setting Penn’s academic policy says he’s having fun.

Photoby Candace diCarlo

Robert Barchi, M.D., Ph.D., hadn’t expected to hit the ground running when he became provost of the University one year ago this month.

But that’s what happened when the issue of alcohol abuse on campus was thrust into his lap in the wake of the death of a Penn alumnus at a fraternity party.

The way he approached the issue — assembling a team of knowledgable people from across campus and working collegially to craft a workable policy — set the tone for his provostship. That collegial approach also helps him deal with other sensitive issues affecting the University, such as its relationship with the Health System and its review of experiments using human volunteers, and it gives the former chair of the departments of neurology and neuroscience the broad view he needs to guide the University academically.

Q.I believe that you’re the first provost in recent memory to come from within Penn’s ranks, and your background in one of our professional schools also distinguishes you from your recent predecessors. Has this worked to your advantage?

A. First, it depends on how long your institutional memory is. When I came here, the provosts I started out with were very much provosts from within the University; for example, Elliot Stellar, who was from the Medical School as well.

My initial concern when I was approached about the job was that at this particular time, someone from the Medical School might not be the best person to be the provost. I was convinced otherwise by the president. I think now that the experience and knowledge base of that very, very large piece of our academic enterprise has probably been a real asset rather than a liability.

But it does mean that I need to have around me people who are tremendously talented and experienced in humanities, social sciences and similar areas that are not necessarily part of my own portfolio. And in that regard, a big advance for me was bringing Peter Conn on board as my deputy provost. Peter has a lifetime of experience at Penn in the humanities and undergraduate education. Between the two of us, we have over 50 years of teaching and administrative experience here at Penn.

But we [also] already have here in the Provost’s Office a number of other associate and vice provosts who have individual expertise. And it’s the group’s team experience that makes it work, whether it’s Ralph Amado in the physical sciences or Barbara Lowery in nursing or Jim O’Donnell in the humanities and classics. When we sit around the table as a group and discuss an issue, we can draw on just about every constituency and academic discipline in the University.

Q.After one year on the job, what’s your assessment of the state of the University?

A. My perception as provost is as it was as a faculty member, that Penn is really hot right now. The undergraduate elements of the institution are incredibly popular, the quality of the educational product is very high, the environment is perceived as being very dynamic and very exciting.

Q. Any particular factors you would say contributed to this?

A. I think that what Dr. Rodin has done since she came in as president has made an enormous difference, reorienting the University towards the community and breaking down the walls between Penn and West Philadelphia and Philadelphia in general. John Fry has also done a great deal to help that along in terms of revitalizing the interfaces between the University and its neighborhood.

Q. Has anything happened during the past year that you didn’t expect?

A. [laughs] Well, I certainly didn’t expect to face the issue of alcohol abuse that I faced in the first couple of months on the job, at least not at the level of intensity that we had to deal with. So that was an unexpected part of the early orientation. But I must say it was also a very positive experience in terms of working with the student body, to come together and accomplish a goal that we all knew needed to be done — establishing very quickly the lines of communication that had to be built up. And it was an opportunity for me to learn a lot about the real movers of an institution like this, and to work with those people to get the job done.

I’ve been really gratified by the level of response from the undergraduates and graduate students, their willingness to come in and talk and to really deal with hard questions in a very open and forward-looking and altruistic way. In order to be effective in this job, I need that kind of interaction with the faculty and the staff as well as with the students, and out of that unfortunate event we were able to forge some of those bridges more quickly than we otherwise would have.

Q. Do you think these contacts you made with student leaders will prove useful in mapping out future academic initiatives?

A. To me, this is not just something that will “prove useful.” To me, it is absolutely essential for any kind of forward movement in an academic organization like Penn. Sure, making changes in curriculum is ultimately the responsibility of the faculty and the school. But some of the best ideas I’ve heard come from the students, and to me, there is nothing more important to successfully changing academic directions than having a fully involved and fully engaged student body and faculty.

Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the institution academically in the next three to five years?

A. Without a doubt, the biggest challenge we have as an academic institution is fiscal. We’re in times when the financing of higher education is changing, when the costs of making the kinds of programmatic initiatives to move forward that we would like to see are escalating dramatically. And the challenge to the University of Pennsylvania will be to find the resources to continue to be on the cutting edge.

Q. What’s been the most challenging part of the job?

A. The most challenging part has been the task of restructuring the Office of the Provost to carry out its job in the appropriate framework within the University. That means rebuilding some of the links that may not have been as strong as they should have been with each of the constituencies — the faculty, the staff, the students. Reorganizing the office itself so that it could more efficiently deliver the services that it needs to and really getting engaged again in the strategic planning business of academics. That has been a challenge, I think, that everyone here has really made a commitment to. We’re not done, but we’re getting there.

Q. What’s been the most satisfying part of the job so far?

A. That’s easier. This job for me has been just a tremendous amount of fun. It’s been a pleasure to move into this office and deal with some of the issues we have discussed largely because of the opportunity these issues provide to interact with all the faculty and all the students at the University — the opportunity to get to know better what’s going on in the other 11 schools, to get to know the programs, the faculty and the students. This has been tremendously exciting and energizing. And in particular, working with the graduate and undergraduate students has been a real pleasure.

Originally published on February 17, 2000