The University will gain a new provost next month: Dr. Robert Barchi, Gr’72, M’73, the David Mahoney Professor of Neurological Sciences who has served as chair of the Departments of Neuroscience and Neurology at Penn’s School of Medicine. The 52-year-old scientist, a member of the faculty since 1974, will step into his new role on February 1, succeeding Dr. Stanley Chodorow, who resigned at the end of 1997 to seek a university presidency. Dr. Michael Wachter, who had served as interim provost since Chodorow’s departure, has returned full-time to his previous posts as the William B. Johnson Professor of Law and Economics and director of the Institute for Law and Economics.
a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences,
where he has served as section chair for neuroscience, was hailed by Dr.
Judith Rodin, CW’66, president of the University, as an “extraordinary
scientist and scholar who has become one of Penn’s true luminaries in
his quarter- century” at the University.
“He is a deeply respected faculty leader who has been at the forefront of the design and implementation of important multi-disciplinary advances in teaching and research,” Rodin added. “I am truly delighted that someone who has so distinguished himself as an internationally-renowned scholar is eager to take on the challenge of Penn’s academic leadership.” Rodin praised the search committee of faculty and students for having “considered so carefully the extraordinary academic leadership we have here at Penn in its international search to find just the right person to be the University’s new provost.” (She was also effusive in her praise of Wachter, saying that she had “known no provost here or anywhere who has had a better grasp of the complex realities of academic planning and budgeting.”)
For his part, Barchi said the provost’s job wasn’t something that he had been “actively looking for,” but added: “I’ve been around the University for a very long time and I feel very deeply committed to the University and its academic mission and its academic goals. What I see here is a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity for me to help move this institution forward and interact with faculty and students who are among the best in the world.”
Barchi, who received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University in 1968 before earning both his Ph.D. in biochemistry and his medical degree from Penn, wouldn’t yet zero in on his objectives for the job, noting: “I’m just starting to do my rounds of talking to everybody, and I don’t want to come out with a list of specific goals until I’ve had a chance to validate them with the leadership of all the schools in the University, and with the faculty and students. I think the job of provost is to be the leader of the academic community. That means consultation. That means representation. That means bringing programs up as well as pushing them down. I think it would be taking the wrong step to say, ‘These are my goals,’ when what these really are are the faculty goals, the president’s goals, the students’ goals — an interpretation of where this institution wants to go.”
That said, Barchi added, “I [want to] keep this as one of the premier academic institutions in the world as we move into the 21st century. There are a lot of pressures on academic institutions, financial and time-wise, that are changing the ways we teach and learn. We have to [lead] in making those changes … I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of work with students and faculty to find out where we need to go, how to create innovative programs to get there, and how to take advantage of the incredible resources we have at Penn.”
Barchi also hopes to work on improving the linkage of programs and people across the University. “I think we have an incredible amount of resources and talent,” he said. “We just need to make sure that they’re arrayed in a way that’s accessible to students and each other.”
Barchi said he hopes to model himself after predecessors such as Dr. Jonathan Rhoads, GrM’40, Hon’60, and the late Dr. Eliot Stellar, who “were outstanding academic leaders and, incidentally, went back to the faculty. One of the things that concerns students is, ‘Are you going to be looking for a [university] presidency?’ That’s not why I’m interested in doing this job. That’s not even on my radar screen.”
Barchi is the author of some 150 publications, and his research has focused on the voltage-dependent sodium channels that generate action potentials in nerve and muscle cells and, most recently, has explored the relationship between molecular structure and function in the skeletal-muscle sodium channel. While noting last month that he planned to step down as chair of the neurology and neuroscience departments, Barchi will keep serving as the Mahoney professor. He will also continue to see some patients, though he made it clear that he intends to focus his attention on the job of provost.
A Daily Pennsylvanian editorial commenting on the provost’s selection said, “Barchi seems open to many views and ideas, as well as being eager to develop a consultation and decision-making process that incorporates students and faculty to a greater extent. His stated goal of bridging gaps — between schools, disciplines, and education levels — is a big part of what the University needs.” The DP called on Barchi to continue strengthening the School of Arts and Sciences, and to revamp the University’s tenure process as well as its general course-requirement system.