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Rutgers-Rowan Merger Moves Forward

Advisory committee chair says proposal will help state qualify for more research grants.

Is the president of Rutgers University willing to cede his school's Camden campus to Rowan University?

The most accurate answer may be: It depends.

"Given a choice . . . I seriously doubt the board of trustees or the board of governors would want to give up Rutgers-Camden," president Richard McCormick told a Senate hearing yesterday on the proposed restructuring of the state's medical schools.

Yet McCormick also hinted that Rutgers might still give its approval to the merger if it meant the state university would take control over three central Jersey arms of the University of Medicine and Dentistry, whose restructuring is the focus of the plan.

That might have been the most marked ambiguity, but it was not the only one. McCormick and the cohort of students, teachers, and staff that were there to protest the merger were largely the only ones in opposition to major parts of the proposal.

Like students and staff, McCormick said he was "surprised and disappointed" that the UMDNJ Advisory Committee two weeks ago recommended Rowan absorb Rutgers-Camden to create a larger public research university in South Jersey. He said enrollment at the Camden campus has increased and that Rutgers has added programs and invested hundreds of millions of dollars there, including a new law school. The university would not easily abandon all that.

He added that Rutgers has been a fixture in Camden for more than 60 years and remained a part of the troubled city as businesses fled.

"The goals of the Barer committee for South Jersey are laudable," McCormick continued. "I believe they can be achieved by other means."

He advocated for formal collaboration by the schools, including sharing physical space and allowing students at each school to take classes at both.

About 60 students, alumni and staff traveled from Rutgers University's Camden campus to protest inside and outside the hearing. Several said they were pleased by McCormick's defense of Rutgers-Camden.

"Rutgers has invested a lot of money in Camden over the last few years and it has many programs that are unique. He [McCormick] made it pretty clear that Rutgers is not going to just give that up," said Anandini Dar of New Delhi, India, who is a doctoral student in the childhood studies program.

Nevertheless, McCormick repeated that no one knows what will be proposed ultimately and whether it will be by governor's executive order or through legislation. Depending on the final structure of the plan, McCormick said he would recommend the Rutgers boards vote for "what would be in the very best interests of the entire university."

That could mean agreeing to give up Rutgers-Camden if all the restructuring recommendations are presented as one plan, rather than separate pieces. It is Rutgers' position that its boards would have to approve any changes in the university.

McCormick made clear his support for the other part of the restructuring that would affect the university because of its benefits.

According to the recommendation by the UMDNJ Advisory Committee, released two weeks ago, Rutgers would gain Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick and the School of Public Health and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, both in Piscataway. That would be part of a larger restructuring of the troubled state medical university.

Gov. Chris Christie, who as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey investigated waste and fraud at UMDNJ, said he supports the plan.

"The benefits accruing to the university and the state would be significant and substantial," McCormick said of the proposal to give Rutgers those three units.

Testimony at yesterday's hearing was confined to the advisory committee chair, Sol J. Barer, and the leaders of the institutions involved.

Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) and chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said that body would hold two public hearings, one at UMDNJ in Newark and one at Rutgers-Camden. Because Barer's schedule gave him only an hour before the committee, he is likely to be called back to answer additional questions, said other senators. Cunningham said there is no timeline for approving any changes.

Commenting on the plan itself, Barer said the proposal would create three "very strong" universities with medical schools and that will help New Jersey get more research dollars, open up more clinical trials to the state's residents, and improve medical care

The five senators on the committee seemed generally supportive of the plan, although Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) had two concerns. He said he fears the restructuring of UMDNJ's five Newark schools and University Hospital will "create just another urban safety net hospital." He also asked whether allowing Rutgers to keep its Camden law school would be "a deal breaker."

Rowan's interim president Ali Houshmand said it would not. But John Sheridan, president of Cooper University Hospital, argued for transferring the law school to Rowan, as well as the main college and business schools, saying it would make Rowan one of only 70 universities in the nation to have both a medical school, the Cooper Medical School that is due to open in September, and a law school.

Trying to assuage some concerns, Houshmand and Sheridan said that current students and those in the process of enrolling most likely would be able to graduate with a degree from Rutgers.

But that's not enough, nor is that what their protesting is about, said several students. The university has done much for the city and needs to continue to be a part of its future, they said.

"It's much more than that," said Dar. "I don't think a diploma or a degree granted by an institution that does not exist anymore holds much value . . . Rutgers has a much bigger name. No one in India has ever heard of Rowan. I wouldn't have moved here to go to that school.

"We are not just fighting for ourselves," she continued. "We are fighting for something larger … to maintain the quality of our research, our connections with the city of Camden."

"This is not just an argument about us now, but for 20 years down the line," agreed Matthew Prickett, another childhood studies doctoral student. "We are united in our passion to maintain Rutgers' name and its prestige, international recognition."

One group of Rutgers supporters, most wearing the red of the Scarlet Knights, took up about half the seats in the hearing room, while a second contingent, many holding signs reading Save R Camden and Keep Rutgers in South Jersey, chanted, "R U united" outside the room. A group of them brought 1,000 letters seeking to keep Rutgers-Camden to Christie's office.

Barer gave some additional reasons for merging Rutgers into Rowan, rather than vice versa, to create one large public research university in South Jersey. He said Rowan is the larger school and Rutgers-Camden is "still a satellite" campus of the state university. The latter statement drew the ire of Rutgers' supporters.

"I think the benefit far outweighs any short-term dismay or discomfort," Houshmand said, adding he believes it will boost the economy and help retain more South Jersey college students in state.

But John Kendall, a Rutgers-Camden theater arts alumnus, said combining the schools would, instead of keeping more students in state, drive them away because they would have fewer college choices in South Jersey than they do today.

"Losing this public ivy from South Jersey will reduce opportunities for future students," said Kendall, who shouted, "Save Rutgers Camden" several times at the beginning and end of the hearing. "Having one and only one major university will hurt future students because they won't have any choice if they wish to stay in their home area."

Like others, Kendall called the proposal a "bombshell" that was completely unexpected and had not been discussed at any public hearings in South Jersey.

"It slaps the democratic process in the face," said Kendall, who is also president of the Camden County School Boards Association. "If they had solicited comments, perhaps the resulting report would have been different."

Barer said the time is right for implementing all the recommended changes because all three schools affected -- UMDNJ, Rutgers and Rowan -- are in the process of looking for new presidents.

The committee's 57-page report lacked any specifics about the possible costs of the restructuring, because it was not part of its charge, Barer said in response to questioning from senators. The only cost put forward at the hearing was McCormick's estimate that the one-time cost for Rutgers to absorb the three UMDNJ affiliates would total $40 million.

"We did conclude there are certainly no insurmountable obstacles to enacting these recommendations," said Barer. "This governor has the intestinal fortitude to get this done."

Still, Rutgers supporters' lobbying efforts have not gone unnoticed: Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean) and a member of the committee, said he "took a significant number of phone calls" from those who back Rutgers-Camden.

On the other hand, the proposed restructuring of UMDNJ largely has the support of its interim president, Dr. Denise Rodgers. The committee recommended reconstituting the university as New Jersey Health Sciences University, with its Newark-based medical, dental, nursing, health-related professions and graduate biomedical sciences schools. University Hospital would remain state-owned but be privately run and would still serve as the medical school's teaching facility. UMDNJ's University Behavioral Health Care, Public Health Research Institute, and School of Osteopathic Medicine would also be part of NJHSU but with much greater autonomy.

"If it is done properly, there is a way we could have an alignment with a not-for-profit system that could be beneficial," Rodgers said. "The devil is in the details."

Colleen O'Dea is an editor-at-large for NJ Spotlight

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