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Unhappy Rutgers Trustees Face A 'Devil's Bargain'

Colleen O'Dea | February 24, 2012

If Rutgers is to annex three central Jersey medical units, then the board must approve the merger between its Camden campus and Rowan University.

Several members of the Rutgers board of trustees at special meeting Thursday night.

The board of trustees of Rutgers University last night held a special meeting to consider a host of options for reorganizing the school, including taking over three units from the University of Dentistry and Medicine and ceding the Camden campus to Rowan University.

It turns out there was only one all-or-nothing offer on the table. If Rutgers wants to annex the medical units it must surrender Camden.

A "devil's bargain" is how Ira Roseman, a psychology professor, characterized the suggestion that the trustees will be forced to vote on both accepting the medical schools while giving away the Camden campus. He called it "the product of a political deal, hastily crafted by a small committee with known ties to political figures."

Roseman urged the trustees not to agree to the bargain, but to separate the Rutgers-Rowan merger from the annexation and reject the Rowan portion.

Many board members did little to hide their displeasure, peppering the chair of the committee that made the recommendation with pointed questions. All indicated at least skepticism about the plan, with several applauding some 20 people who spoke against the merger. Several trustees wore Save R Camden buttons and one said outright that she opposes the proposal.

Still, it's unclear how they will vote on a plan when it is finally presented to them.

There is still no timeframe for any action, said Rutgers' President Richard McCormick. He expects the recommendation to come from Gov. Chris Christie, rather than from the legislature. Christie has stated his support for all pieces of the reorganization but has not indicated when or how he plans to act.

The only action the trustees took last night was to approve the same resolution that the board of governors did last week, stating the intention that all students currently enrolled at Rutgers-Camden and those in the process of matriculating would receive a degree from Rutgers regardless of whether the merger goes through. The resolution takes no official position on the reorganization.

McCormick reiterated the university's support of that part of the recommendation that would bring into the state university the 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, first subject to investigations over waste and fraud by then-U.S. Attorney Christie.

"All of America's greatest research institutions have academic medical centers, and acquiring one at Rutgers would move our university into the ranks of the world's most prestigious institutions," McCormick said.

While he had previously stated he was surprised by the recommendation to move Rutgers-Camden into Rowan, McCormick said he and other officials did meet with the advisory committee, as well as members of Christie's office, and "argued against severing Rutgers-Camden and Rutgers-Newark from the rest of the university." The committee agreed in the case of Newark, but not regarding Camden.

Sol Barer, who both chaired the UMDNJ Advisory Committee and is a Rutgers trustee, continued to say the committee believes all of its recommendations should be implemented together and that the package is best both for Rutgers and for the state as a whole.

"This will provide the structure that will serve the people of this state best," he said. "This is an extraordinary opportunity for the southern part of the state to build a great university with all the faculty and administrators of both schools."

One trustee stated it took Rutgers until 1989 to achieve membership in the prestigious American Association of Universities, which has only 61 members, and so it would likely take a long time for Rowan to become a significant research university -- one of the stated goals of the reorganization plan.

"Many of the benefits that are going to arise from this are going to take a good deal of time to happen," Barer said.

"Did you guys consider that it would be more cost effective to just make Rutgers-Camden bigger?" asked trustee Jeanne Fox, who noted a recent Rutgers Eagleton poll found three quarters of New Jerseyans oppose giving Rutgers-Camden to Rowan. "It would take less time, cost less money and make South Jersey happy. Clearly, it's what the people want. At New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, all the academics are against us throwing Rutgers-Camden away."

Supporters, who half-filled the multipurpose room in the student center in New Brunswick, vigorously applauded Fox and softly booed Barer's response.

"It's very difficult for a major university to nourish three branches, especially in a state like New Jersey," he said. "That's why we need a new university in the South."

Fox countered that the plan would require New Jersey to "nourish two major research universities" and that would mean Rutgers would have to compete with Rowan for state aid.

Carol Herring, president of the Rutgers University Foundation, said that in the month since the proposal was announced, fundraising efforts at Camden have been affected, with a loss of about $80,000 in gifts to the campus. Still, the $3 million raised directly by Camden is a small part of the total $137 million brought in university-wide. And UMDNJ, meanwhile, has been raising about $20 million a year, as well as $3 million raised for the Cancer Institute that would become part of Rutgers under the plan.

"We think that's minimal compared to what we can raise with the addition of the medical school," she said. "We are very eager to take that on."

Fox said she has heard from many people, including graduates of the Camden law school, that they won't be donating to Rutgers if the Camden campus is moved to Rowan.

"I tell them to just wait because it's not going to happen, but I may not be telling the truth," she said.

Several of the faculty, alumni and students who spoke said they believe the proposal to be politically motivated and likened Rutgers' jettisoning of the Camden campus to an amputation, political blackmail and a takeover.

"Stand up and defend your university," professor Roseman said. "You are the trustees of Rutgers university and we place our trust in you to protect it."

John Wall, chairman of philosophy and history at Rutgers Camden, agreed, saying the trustees should judge the plans using "non-political criteria." "No other university in history has given away a campus," Wall said. "Rutgers would no longer be the state university of New Jersey, but only a state university."

Timothy Farrow, treasurer of the Rutgers University Alumni Association, said he was heartened by the questions the trustees posed and said Barer's responses did not provide any information beyond that what was in the "minimalist report" the UMDNJ Advisory Committee issued. He, too, urged the trustees to oppose the Camden-Rowan merger and make that position clear to McCormick, the governor, the legislature and the public.

"This board has not only the ability, but the obligation, to do that," he said.

Farrow also had a message for Christie, who stated last month when he unveiled the committee's report that it would happen: "Governor, with all due respect, you are not in control of this university. This is our university."

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