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Chancellor is an advocate for Rutgers and Camden

Rutgers-Camden chancellor Phoebe A. Haddon strides through the Fine Arts Building in search of someone with access to the Digital Studies Center.

Phoebe Haddon is chancellor at Rutgers-Camden.
Phoebe Haddon is chancellor at Rutgers-Camden.Read more

Rutgers-Camden chancellor Phoebe A. Haddon strides through the Fine Arts Building in search of someone with access to the Digital Studies Center.

As she whisks me along on a brisk but chatty campus tour - walking or talking, Haddon doesn't wander off-message - every employee we encounter is gracious and helpful to the new chancellor.

Even if, Haddon says with a wry smile, "they don't know who she is sometimes."

That was not the case with her predecessor, Wendell Pritchett, who became a local hero in 2012 for fending off Trenton's effort to have Rutgers-Camden absorbed by Rowan University.

Many South Jerseyans, and particularly Rutgers-Camden alumni, were outraged by what they rightly saw as a naked political power grab cooked up by Gov. Christie and his then-allies among South Jersey Democrats.

So deep did passion for Rutgers-Camden run that Pritchett was cheered like a rock star when he proclaimed his opposition to "the takeover of my campus, of our campus."

Dust from that battle still was settling when Haddon, a respected constitutional scholar and a former dean of the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, became Rutgers-Camden chancellor on July 1, 2014.

As her second year as the chief executive officer gets underway, the personable (and very focused) chancellor is emerging as an energetic advocate for her institution.

"Most of what people know about Camden isn't positive," says the Washington native, who grew up in 1950s and '60s Passaic, N.J. She went on to earn law degrees from Yale and Duquesne, and was a longtime member of Temple's law school faculty before her stint in Maryland.

"When I first was coming here, some friends of mine said, 'Oh, you're going to Camden,'" Haddon recalls. "I would say to them, 'I spent 28 years in North Philly at Temple and then five years in Baltimore. What are you trying to tell me?' "

She's found the city a welcoming place. "The community has been very supportive," she says, adding that she views Camden as a partner, not a recipient of charity.

"You don't come in with a kind of noblesse-oblige approach," Haddon adds. "Our partners have something to offer. By working with them collaboratively, we can develop a better community."

A Philadelphia resident who also has a home on Long Beach Island, Haddon - a married mother of three - oversees a campus with 6,500 undergraduate and graduate students, 1,100 employees, and a $173 million annual budget.

The completion of the university's new strategic plan shortly after her arrival was "a really good process for me," says Haddon.

The plan's "collective vision" of an institution small enough to offer a "customized" learning community jibes, she continues, with her views of what a liberal arts education ought to provide.

She notes that Rutgers-Camden also is a "strong research institution" as well as an engine of vitality in a downtown that, until recent years, was pretty much given up for dead.

And the university's presence is growing beyond Cooper Street; a $64 million Nursing and Science Building, on a long-vacant corner of Fifth and Federal Streets, is under construction.

That project is independent of the Rutgers-Rowan partnership for health science education and research, which the Legislature created in place of the ill-conceived merger.

Choosing her words carefully, Haddon describes the partnership - still viewed with suspicion by some on her campus - as, among other things, a mechanism for developing and funding new programs.

"This isn't a newfound notion," she says, noting that Rutgers-Camden has evolved and expanded since its inception.

"We have a 10-year plan for growth," she adds. "Rutgers has a very powerful brand, and [until the merger controversy] some folks hadn't understood that to be the case. But this campus has been transformative in the lives of many people."

Here's hoping the transformations will continue under Haddon's leadership.