Brian Ballentine is contemplating how to clarify the strategic vision for a university that is uniquely complex
As the new senior vice president for strategy at Rutgers University, Brian Ballentine has a lot to think about.
On weekends Ballentine takes to the trails at the Rutgers ecological preserve for a long meditative run, stopping to tap out notes on his iPhone to capture any ideas that come to mind. Though he is careful not to identify himself as a runner (“I’m not enough of a runner to be called a ‘runner’ by real runners,” he insisted), Ballentine uses his time on the trail as an extension of his office, where he contemplates ways to move Rutgers toward its goals.
“On a run, it’s a type of meditation. You’re doing work, but it’s a different way of thinking about work,” said Ballentine, who served as the chief of staff to former president Robert Barchi before being selected for his new role by president Jonathan Holloway.
"It’s a good way of processing and thinking deeply that I don’t find myself able to do during the weekdays at my desk,” he said. “The best runs are when you have a problem to think about. The times you can go the farthest are when you’re turning something over in your mind.”
These days, Ballentine is contemplating how to clarify the strategic vision for a university that is uniquely complex. His job is to figure out ways to simplify an institution founded before the Revolutionary War that has evolved organically over generations and was transformed within the last decade with the addition of an academic medical division.
He boils his job down to certain questions: What are our biggest risks? What are our areas of opportunity? What are the entrenched challenges of the university? The need for someone to take the lead as the driving force to find the answers, he said, drove the creation of the Office of University Strategy that he oversees.
“We are a 254-year-old institution, but when you think about our structure, we are very young,” he said, pointing to the university’s integration less than 10 years ago with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey under the Barchi administration. The result was a $4.6 billion organization with 100,000 students, staff and faculty spread all over New Jersey.
“Let’s simplify our story,” he said. “In some cases that means developing a stronger sense of acting as a single institution. But at the very least it means being intentional about our decisions and being easy to understand, rather than just doing it because it’s the way we’ve always done it.’’
Ballentine’s office is billed as a four-year pilot project, a model he described as strategic in and of itself. “The last thing the university needs is an office that has outlived its function,” he said, adding that a four-year term creates a sense of urgency and places a mandate on creating value and utility, which will be important for measuring the success of his office in the future.
Ballentine is working within the context of the vision Holloway has laid out, which includes fostering a beloved community, raising the university’s academic profile, and bringing strategic clarity to Rutgers.
“Any work we do is going to be in the context of those three overarching goals,” Ballentine said. “Part of the workflow now is thinking about a level down from that vision. What are the major priorities? What’s on the critical path to realizing that vision? And then facilitating the right conversations to plan forward.”
For year one, Ballentine has three main goals: to identify the core initiatives his office will focus on, to engage faculty and staff and students in conversations about how the university sees itself and to assemble a small team to start doing the work of facilitating strategic projects.
“Part of my job is to help describe the strategy for Rutgers. We have brilliant, creative minds across our community. We have the right ideas and the right community. My mandate is to help elevate the ideas that unite us, to organize us around solutions, and help us point in the same direction,” Ballentine said.
AmeriCorps Experience Changed Brian Ballentine
Working closely with Holloway, he said, has reinforced the notion that the journey is as important as the destination.
“We need to have a process that reflects the values and community we want,” he said. “To be successful at Rutgers, we have to recognize that we are an enormous institution and that there are good ideas happening all over the university. We have to figure out how to elevate and broadcast those voices.
“Ultimately this is about activating and unlocking what’s already great about Rutgers,” he said.
Ballentine’s job is the perfect fit for someone whose professional journey has been about embracing change along the way.
While in graduate school, working toward a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Brown University, the New Hampshire native decided that a career path as a tenure-track academic was not for him.
“I was never going to love it as purely as some of my colleagues,” he said. “I realized I was more interested in the challenges that universities were facing than writing a dissertation on Shakespeare. I wanted to work with people. I wanted to be part of a team.”
After successfully defending his dissertation, he joined AmeriCorps and spent a year in Providence, R.I., working for a nonprofit providing professional development and IT training to youth just out of high school.
“It was going through that experience where I realized that education was where I wanted to be,” he said. “If there was one thing that I could do and feel like I was making a difference, it would be thinking creatively about the way higher education can look and work for everyone.”
He spent a few years in the financial services industry as a consultant before landing at Rutgers after he moved to the area so his wife, Debra Scoggins Ballentine, could take a job on the faculty in the Department of Religion at the School of Arts and Sciences. Prior to working for the office of the president, he was the executive director of the Aresty Center for Undergraduate Research.
Ballentine draws on his sprawling professional experience, including his previous role in the university’s administration, as he thinks about the challenges facing Rutgers and the opportunities that lie ahead.
It is a lofty task, and Ballentine is excited for what’s to come. But with great responsibility also comes a great desire to just exist peacefully with nothing to do. At home, Ballentine’s life is a fascinating juxtaposition against his work as a strategic thinker and leader.
Whether it’s watching basketball or reading what he describes as “difficult fiction,” what he loves is finding a rare moment to just be in his own element. He describes his perfect weekend as one with no plans.
“If I can spend a Saturday waking up, going for a run, reading, walking the dog, hanging out with my family … that is all I want. That doesn't even rise to the level of plans,” he said. “If it includes breakfast, all the better.”