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Who Decided to Give Away Rutgers-Camden?

Colleen O'Dea | March 2, 2012

The advisory committee that made the recommendation isn't legally required to keep records, so the decision remains a mystery.

Those looking for insights into how the committee that recommended Gov. Chris Christie give Rutgers University's Camden campus to Rowan University made its decisions are out of luck.

Apparently, the only written records of the UMDNJ Advisory Committee are its preliminary and final reports. And 21 of the final report's 57 pages are the preliminary report, with six of those pages repeated twice.

The only data in the report is contained in four pages of appendices, and they only present enrollments, faculty and staff sizes at the affected schools and employee and patient statistics for University Hospital in Newark.

In responding to a public records request filed by NJ Spotlight with the governor's office for the last six months of meeting minutes of the advisory committee, which was created by an executive order last April, Assistant Counsel Amy Cattafi wrote that her office "has not identified any records responsive to your request." A call to request clarification went unreturned.

Sol J. Barer, who chaired the advisory committee, said prior to last Thursday's Rutgers Board of Trustees meeting that the committee did not keep any minutes.

John Paff, a well-known open-government activist, said that "purely advisory bodies are not subject" to the state's Open Public Meetings Act, which requires that most governmental meetings be conducted in public and that bodies keep records of their actions and discussions.

"I am shocked to learn that there would be no transparency" regarding the advisory committee's process, said Andrew Shankman, an associate professor of history at Rutgers-Camden. "The Barer committee report is at best a completely slipshod document without any evidence to support its recommendations."

"This is a thesis-driven argument: He decided on a thesis and then went ahead with it without proof," Shankman continued. "That's something scholars do not do."

Rutgers' staff, students, and even some trustees have been asking to see any background information used by the committee in making its recommendations, which also include giving Rutgers the three Central Jersey units of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. In particular, they have been seeking the costs of the proposal.

In response to one trustee's request for "written summary documents," Barer, who is also a Rutgers trustee, said no such documents existed but that the committee had interviewed students and faculty.

Adam Scales, a professor and co-founder of the Center for Risk and Responsibility at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, said at the trustees' meeting that Barer may have interviewed law school deans from other schools but he did not meet with the dean of the Camden law school.

"No one is sorrier than I that he [Barer] is not here to listen to the law school's perspective," said Scales, who spoke during the public portion of the meeting, for which Barer was not present.

"This merger plan, and the way it is being shoved down the people's throats, represents an egregious failure of our democratic processes," said Allan Stein, a Camden law professor and president of the Campaign to Save Rutgers Camden. "The Camden piece of the [committee] report was developed without any consideration of cost, consequence, or feasibility. Any corporate executive making such a momentous decision with as little study would be laughed out of the boardroom."

The Campaign to Save Rutgers Camden is an effort by alumni, faculty, students, staff and friends to raise money via its website, to fight the merger on a number of fronts. All unspent money will be donated to Rutgers-Camden units.

"Litigation is certainly one of the things that we might spend funds on," Stein said. "However, our immediate focus will be on grass-roots public advocacy, including print and Internet advertising."

This is only one prong of a large-scale battle against the merger. Although Christie only endorsed all of the committee's recommendations in late January, opposition to the Rutgers-Rowan portion of the plan has grown quickly, including several websites and Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and nearly 11,000 signatures on an Internet petition. A Rutgers Eagleton poll last month found only 22 percent of New Jerseyans support the merger.

Those efforts may be having an effect.

Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) wrote in an opinion piece in Tuesday's Courier-Post newspaper in which he supports "creating a partnership that allows both Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University to thrive." He further called it "vital that the Rutgers brand stay in Camden."

Donald Norcross is the brother of George Norcross, chairman of Cooper Health System, who is believed to be one of the driving forces behind the merger proposal. Norcross is the South Jersey Democratic power broker and frequent Christie ally who was instrumental in getting the fledgling medical school for Rowan. Cooper Medical School at Rowan is slated to open its doors in the fall with its first class.

The UMDNJ Advisory Committee said it proposed combining Rutgers-Camden, which as part of the state university has Association of American Universities status, with Rowan to create a major research university for South Jersey.

Opponents argue that the two schools are very different types of institutions. A merger would eliminate the opportunity of residents of South Jersey to attend Rutgers locally. It would leave the state university without a presence in the southern half of the state. And it would leave South Jersey residents with a choice of only two public colleges to attend.

While some at Rutgers-Camden find the op-ed piece by Donald Norcross encouraging, others are more cautious about his call for Rutgers and Rowan to enter "a joint governance structure that truly respects and preserves both distinct communities."

Shankman said he would not support a system in which the two schools "share a governing board, an arrangement that would sever Rutgers-Camden from the rest of the Rutgers system."

Rutgers has proposed a greater and more formal collaboration with Rowan, similar to the collaborative model that the UMDNJ Advisory Committee recommended for Rutgers-Newark, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the five Newark UMDNJ units that would comprise a new New Jersey Health Sciences University.

Sources said that if the restructuring is to occur in time for the next school year, a proposal would have to be made by March 15. Rutgers-Camden faculty and students are planning to rally in Trenton that day, during spring break, to convince legislators to keep Camden as part of Rutgers.

There is still no word from Christie's office when the governor might issue a restructuring proposal. When he does, the legislature will have 60 days to reject it or it will be considered approved. But Rutgers officials say that any changes would still have to be endorsed by both the boards of governors and trustees of the university. And that approval is by no means certain.

While some of the trustees had questions about the financial implications of absorbing Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick and the School of Public Health and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, both in Piscataway, they are generally in favor of that part of the plan.

In terms of giving away the Camden campus, however, the opposite is true. Rutgers President Richard McCormick told Camden students last Friday that during a closed session following their meeting, the trustees indicated they were "overwhelmingly" opposed.

What action the two boards will take if they have to choose all or nothing -- get the UMDNJ units only if they give away the Camden campus -- is uncertain. But at least one trustee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they may not have to make that choice. Even if presented with it, the boards could vote to separate the two proposals and adopt one while rejecting the other.

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

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