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Where Does Sen. Norcross Stand on the Rutgers-Camden Question?

Senator's confusion reflects questions and uncertainties surrounding fate of South Jersey campus.

Credit: Nick Cvetkovic

At a public forum hosted last night at Rutgers-Camden by members of the faculty and administration, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) seemed to contradict himself concerning his stand on the proposed separation from the Rutgers system and subsequent merger with Rowan University.

In his prepared remarks, Norcross argued that "we want Rutgers-Camden to control its own destiny” because he’s tired of legislators shortchanging the university’s southern campus in favor of interests up north.

“They have not invested here,” he told a crowd of approximately 100 Rutgers employees, Camden civic leaders and South Jersey residents gathered in classroom to trade warnings about the dangers of a severed Rutgers. “We have been the stepchild. The money goes up the turnpike and you get a fraction of it back. We can’t let that happen.”

But later in the forum, he answered “yes” when history professor Howard Gillette asked him and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden) if they would pledge to work with those who oppose the restructuring.

But when asked to clarify his stance during the question-and-answer period and again at the conclusion of the meeting, Norcross told attendees and reporters that he favors “a divorce from Rutgers.” And while Norcross is not sure what structure or name an autonomous Rutgers-Camden would take, he would characterize its current relationship with Rowan as in the “dating stage.”

While almost no one at any political forum in South Jersey would disagree that there’s a lack of parity in funding between the north and south, most of the anti-merger crowd did not agree with the methods Norcross is proposing. In fact, Norcross was the only one of more than 15 speakers to take a less-than-militant position against the split-and-merge approach.

And despite the senator's insistence that Rutgers-Camden does most of the giving and precious little of the getting, perhaps the most impassioned voices came from those who’ve benefited personally from Rutgers-Camden’s deep investment in the city that surrounds it.

The story of Bryon Morton is a prime example. Growing up on the streets of North Camden, Morton fully expected to die before he turned 18. But in 1990, a youth mentor introduced him to a faculty member at Rutgers-Camden who, despite Morton’s juvenile criminal record, made him a deal: if Morton could pass the school’s entrance exam, he could enroll as an undergraduate.

Morton informed the crowd that not only did he pass that exam 22 years ago, he’s currently a pursuing a master’s degree from Rutgers while he serves as project coordinator for the Rand Institute and president of the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of North Camden organization.

“Quite literally,” he said, holding his young daughter in his arms, “Rutgers has saved my life.”

Rutgers runs nearly 30 community programs through the Office of Civic Engagement, plus many others sponsored by individual academic programs and student groups. Each year, students and employees contribute more than 230,000 hours of volunteer work to the city through activities like free legal consultations and tax preparation and free education and incentives to small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs.

The consensus among the stakeholders who attended the forum is that the city cannot risk losing such valuable contributions to the whims of the Rowan administration, housed 20 miles away in Glassboro.

“The work of Rutgers-Camden is critical to providing opportunities to our students,” said Vanessa Jones, president of the Parent Council of LEAP Academy University Charter School, which sends students to Rutgers for coursework, often with money from a dedicated $1.3 million endowment fund, and welcomes Rutgers students as tutors and mentors.

“Rutgers is helping to shift from a pattern of failure to one of success in the city of Camden," added Jones. Very seldom do you see a school the size of a major university embrace a community school like LEAP.”

But personal testimonials occupied only a part of the evening. A large part of the discussion revolved around possible alternatives for a variously realigned university that maintains its connection with the Rutgers system.

The majority of speakers favored a compromise with the governor that would be structured as a series of consortiums between Rutgers-Camden, Rowan, Stockton College, and the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, scheduled to admit its first class in downtown Camden this fall. Written materials distributed in advance of the forum called university collaborations “the proven model for 21st century higher education reform.”

Though no official proposal has emerged, members of Rutgers’ faculty and administration have compiled a list of possibilities for major shared research opportunities. Examples include The Rutgers-Cooper-Rowan Center for Urban Health Law and Policy, The Urban Health Interventions Research Center, the Rutgers-Cooper-Rowan Integrative Biology and Genomic Medicine Institute in Camden, and The Rutgers-Rowan-Stockton Program in Global Literatures and Language.

Such consortiums, argue proponents, would establish South Jersey as a leader in educational and medical research while guarding the Rutgers name, reputation, and resources in the southern part of the state.

Repercussions from losing these elements may already be occurring; Rutgers-Camden administrators are raising concerns that students are turning down admission acceptances. According to Rutgers-Camden director of communications Mike Sepanic, “What we’re seeing in year-to-date comparisons across the board is that acceptance of our offers is down modestly, with the law school perhaps taking a bit of a harder hit.”

Consortiums between existing research facilities could also save the state billions of dollars that it would have to spend to build Rowan into a research institution, as Gov. Chris Christie’ wants.

Vibiana Cvetkovic, a reference librarian at the campus Paul Robeson Library, said contrary to what the governor and the media report, it takes many years and many dollars to receive official peer recognition as a credible research facility.

“It’s not something you put in a dish, pour hot water on and watch it grow,” she said.

While Christie preaches the benefits of an even bigger university footprint that’s geared exclusively to South Jersey, his detractors are relieved that he let today go by without issuing an executive order to proceed with his plan. They cautiously surmise this means he won’t make any definitive moves this legislative session, and they plan to garner support from the Senate Higher Education Committee when its members hold hearings on the proposal at Rowan at 11 a.m. on Monday, March 19.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer specializing in Philadelphia-area destination coverage, travel, craft beer and dining trends. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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