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Christie Calls for Restructuring of Research Universities

Governor plans to create N.J. Health Sciences University in Newark, merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University.

Sol J. Barer, chairman of the UMDNJ Advisory Committee

Governor Christie yesterday outlined a sweeping overhaul of higher education that would create a New Jersey Health Sciences University in Newark to replace UMDNJ, place Newark’s University Hospital under nonprofit management, and fold Rutgers-Camden and its law school into Rowan University to give South Jersey its own research university.

Combined with the shift of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the School of Public Health from UMDNJ to Rutgers University in New Brunswick last fall, Christie’s plan represents the most important restructuring of New Jersey’s higher education system since the creation of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 1970.

“This makes Rowan better, this makes Rutgers better and the new New Jersey Health Sciences University in Newark better and more manageable,” Christie declared yesterday in accepting the long-awaited final report of the UMDNJ Advisory Committee he had charged to come up with a plan to restructure medical education in New Jersey.

Christie said the restructuring is necessary not only to improve New Jersey’s research universities and medical education, but also to make the state’s economy and job market stronger by building partnerships with the state’s pharmaceutical and biomedical industries.

Reorganizing what remains of UMNDJ into a new New Jersey Health Sciences University will “will allow the institution to fully turn the page on the past missteps and lawbreaking at UMDNJ that has cost not only the institution but the state in terms of our reputation,” said Christie. He noted that his investigations as U.S. Attorney showed UMDNJ to be “a corrupt and ineffective absolute pit of political patronage” that needed a new beginning.

“We’re recommending a public-private partnership that will allow for the long-term sustainability of University Hospital,” Christie said of the Newark hospital which treats the largest number of indigent cases in the state. “The state will remain the owner of University Hospital and ensure its continued operation, but what the commission has recommended is to bring in a private sector partner to manage this institution more effectively and efficiently.” Sources said St. Barnabas Medical Center would be the most likely candidate.

“Finally, a broader, expanded research university in southern New Jersey comprised of Rowan University and Rutgers University in Camden under the banner of Rowan University and encompassing the newly created Cooper Medical School of Rowan University” would be a strong addition to New Jersey’s university system, Christie said.

The Republican governor pledged to consult Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) to develop consensus on the best way to implement the higher education changes. “Let there be no mistake, this is going to happen,” Christie vowed. “It’s going to happen because it’s right for New Jersey.”

It’s also going to happen because it’s right in the eyes of Christie’s most important on-again, off-again Democratic allies. Sweeney and his political mentor, George Norcross, have long advocated the creation of a strong research university in South Jersey, and this plan merges Rutgers-Camden and its law school into Rowan University, which already has a new Cooper Medical School under construction thanks to the leadership and fundraising skills of Norcross as Cooper Medical Center’s board chairman.

Meanwhile, the creation of a Newark-based New Jersey Health Sciences University out of UMDNJ went a long way toward assuaging Essex County Democrats, as Oliver, who is closely allied with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, made clear in her initial reaction to the overhaul. “As a start, I’m pleased to see that our demands on maintaining a strong hospital, healthcare and university presence in Newark were taken into consideration,” she said.

State Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, announced that she would hold public hearings on all aspects of the plan. “It is imperative that we approach these changes with caution so that we do not sacrifice either the quality of healthcare for the patients of University Hospital or the educational experiences for the healthcare and medical students of Newark,” she said.

The report of the UMDNJ Advisory Committee chaired by former Celgene chairman and CEO Sol J. Barer builds upon the recommendations of a 2002 commission chaired by former Merck CEO Roy Vagelos that recommended the merger of Rutgers, UMDNJ and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and of the 2010 New Jersey Higher Education Task Force chaired by former Governor Tom Kean.

Both the Vagelos and Kean commissions contended that New Jersey’s annual low ranking in federal funding for university-based health and science grants was partly a structural problem: Only New Jersey and Oregon separated their medical schools from their state universities, which makes research coordination and grant supervision unnecessarily cumbersome. New Jersey ranked 23rd and Oregon 25th in federal health and science grants list, even though New Jersey is home to strong pharmaceutical and biomedical industries, and both are affluent states with highly educated workforces.

Shifting Robert Wood Johnson Medical School from UMDNJ to Rutgers strengthened Rutgers by creating “a seamless process from research to patients, from bench to bedside,” Barer explained at Christie’s Statehouse press conference. “This is the way medical research is going on now. It’s understanding the fundamentals, the molecular processes that lead to diseases and coming up with solutions to those diseases that can then be used in the treatment of patients," coordinated within a single research university/medical education/hospital treatment system."

“That is the partnership that industry wants,” he said. “New Jersey has for many years been the home to the pharmaceutical industry – the 'medicine chest of the world' – and we have an amazing infrastructure for pharmaceutical and for biomedical research that is equaled by no other state, and that is going to be enhanced substantially by this reorganization.”

Whether the reorganization itself will succeed in drawing more federal and private sector research dollars without an additional infusion of state funding into these research institutions remains to be seen. In the last decade, New Jersey’s share of the national pharmaceutical industry has dropped from 20 percent to 13 percent, with most of loss due to companies moving to California and Massachusetts, two states whose research universities rank among the strongest in the nation.

Christie, who promised to make increased funding for higher education a priority both during his 2009 campaign for governor and again last year, seemed to recognize the depth of the challenge facing New Jersey’s higher education system: “Governor Kean said this in his report about Rutgers, ‘Rutgers is good but not great.’ We cannot compete economically in this state with good but not great educational institutions at any level, and we need to make the steps happen,” Christie said.

Jean Pierce, a public policy staffer who has been analyzing the UMDNJ restructuring for the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union, noted that “as always, the devil’s in the details,” and one of the most important details will concern the adequacy of funding.

Christie said that the reorganization represents a shift of operating units, and that he expects Rutgers, Rowan and the new New Jersey Health Sciences University to cover any reorganization costs within their existing budgets. As such, the Christie reorganization is a far cry from the recommendations of the Vagelos Commission, whose 2002 proposals carried a $1.3 billion pricetag, although much of that money was earmarked for new facilities and expansion, Pierce noted.

Christie also said the report did not anticipate any layoffs or staff cuts, although he added that it would be up to the management of the institutions to determine proper staffing levels.

Pierce noted that “there are a lot of unanswered questions. What does private management of University Hospital mean? Will service levels remain the same? What about staffing? We’re always concerned about the numbers of nurses at the bedside. And if universities have to absorb the costs of the reorganization, will that translate into tuition increases.”

By yesterday afternoon, the Health Professionals & Allied Employees had joined in a coalition with the Committee of Interns and Residents, the Urban League of Essex County, New Jersey Citizen Action and the People’s Organization for Progress to press for a reorganization that would give equal weight to the needs of patients and healthcare providers, protect the healthcare needs of the communities that currently depend on UMNDJ’s healthcare system, and protect workers rights. The groups also said they would push for improvements in the quality of patient care, and for increased private and public investments in research, recruitment and job creation.

In Newark, the New Jersey Health Sciences University will include the New Jersey Medical School, New Jersey Dental School, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the School of Nursing and the School of Health Related Professions, as well as three other schools that will be given considerable autonomy in their management – University Behavioral Health Care, the Public Health Research Institute, and the School of Osteopathic Medicine.

The inclusion in New Jersey Health Sciences University of the School of Osteopathic Medicine, which is based in Stratford not far from Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, was a surprise, but the UMNDJ Advisory Committee Report made a strong policy argument for its inclusion in the Newark medical education sphere.

In South Jersey, the most controversial issue may very well involve Rutgers-Camden, whose transfer to Rowan would presumably require the approval of the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees.

Rutgers President Richard McCormick, who welcomed Rutgers’ acquisition of UMDNJ’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Cancer Institute of New Jersey and School of Public Health, was less pleased with yesterday’s news that Rutgers-Camden was targeted for absorption by Rowan.

Rutgers-Camden, McCormick wrote in an email to the full Rutgers community, is “an immensely valuable part of a statewide public research university where faculty consistently advance Rutgers’ research mission, connect the university throughout southern New Jersey, and extend our global reputation as a center for innovation and scholarship. Rutgers serves as a vital magnet for the City of Camden and allows southern New Jersey families to obtain Rutgers degrees without relocating or disrupting their lives and careers.”

He noted that Rutgers has invested more than $100 million in new academic and student facilities over the past five years, and that a Rutgers presence in South Jersey is “part of our pledge to serve the entire state and is intrinsic to our role as The State University of New Jersey.”

The absorption of Rutgers-Camden, with its 6,000-plus students, into Rowan, with more than 11,000 students, was not so much a matter of numbers as of name. Sources said that the family of Henry Rowan, who donated $100 million to expand his alma mater, Glassboro State College, into Rowan University, balked at the idea of the Rutgers name displacing Rowan.

Furthermore, Norcross, as head of Cooper University Medical Center, had been heavily involved in the creation of the new Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, and both he and Sweeney have talked about the importance of a South Jersey university that would not be a stepchild to the much larger Rutgers University in New Brunswick, as the Camden campus was sometimes perceived to be.

Christie agreed yesterday, asserting that “South Jersey needs a strong institution to be able to service the needs of the people in South Jersey. By combining the assets of Rutgers and Rowan into Rowan University, which had significant private sector support, we can create a much more powerful university than leaving them separate.”

A question about Norcross’ role in the decision-making on Rowan and Rutgers-Camden produced a classic Christie riff at yesterday’s press conference.

“Look behind the curtains,” Christie said, pointing behind himself. “He ain’t back there, okay. Mr. Norcross is a significant player in public life in South Jersey and across this state. Did I speak to him about it? I did not. Did he influence the process? I have no idea. The fact that he is chairman of Cooper Medical, I’m sure he met with the commission. Frankly I don’t care, you guys are much more obsessed with George Norcross than I am. The fact is if George wanted to have input, George had his ways to get input. That’s fine, but in the end, this is a report I accept, and as governor, I get to make these decisions, not Mr. Norcross, and if you speak to Mr. Norcross, I’m sure there’s no confusion in his mind as to who the governor is and who gets to make these decisions.”

Mark J. Magyar is an editor-at-large for New Jersey Spotlight.

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