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Second Public Hearing on Rutgers-Rowan Merger Set for Today

With details still scant on proposed restructuring, speculation and rhetoric run high.

Hyun Kyu Seo, a junior at Rutgers-Camden and organizer of the online petition drive to save the school.

The combined Senate and Assembly higher education committees are set to hold their second public hearing today on the still vague proposal to restructure three New Jersey universities.

The joint committee chose friendlier territory -- Rowan University, which would take control of the Rutgers-Camden campus under the plan -- for the 11 a.m. hearing, although students and faculty at Rowan are by no means united in support of the merger.

Its North Jersey hearing on March 6 was held at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark and most of the testimony focused on the part of the proposal that would give three UMDNJ units, including Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, to Rutgers-New Brunswick. That hearing drew a standing-room-only crowd of staff and students, as well as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the majority of whom were concerned that the changes would hurt UMDNJ and Newark.

Rutgers' supporters say they can find their way to Glassboro, where the Rowan administration is located, and intend to have a presence at the hearing.

"We have no idea why they chose the site," said Andrew Shankman, a history professor at Rutgers-Camden. "We will be there to explain what's happening . . . It's sometimes hard to talk about a policy when there is no policy."

Faculty and students from Rutgers-Camden left the halls of academia for the halls of the Statehouse last Thursday, seeking to persuade lawmakers directly not give their school away to Rowan.

They met with four senators and nine assembly members to talk about their concerns as to how a merger would affect South Jersey and said all the lawmakers seemed interested in what they had to say.

"Legislators said they overwhelmingly want to be part of the process," Shankman said. "Several of the legislators seem concerned about the lack of specifics in the Barer committee report."

The Barer, or UMDNJ Advisory Committee, released a 57-page report almost two months ago recommending the restructuring of UMDNJ, Rutgers, and Rowan. Gov. Chris Christie's endorsed the recommendations. Yet there are still very few details about costs and other ramifications. These were not included in the committee's report and an actual proposal still has not been unveiled.

Among those lobbying lawmakers was Hyun Kyu Seo, carrying a bound version of the petition he started online to stop the merger. Nearly 12,000 people have signed to date. A design student, Seo said he had an opportunity to transfer to some of the top schools in New York City for this, his junior year, but chose to stay at Rutgers-Camden because of the personalized education and unique opportunities he is getting.

"Mostly it's about the faculty and the quality education I'm getting here," said Seo, who lives in Columbus.

Many believed that if Christie were going to use an executive order to reorganize the schools, he would have had to have done so by last Thursday in order to give the legislature 60 business days to act on it before it would become effective on July 1. Now some speculate an order could come as late as June, while others believe any action will take the form of legislation.

Christie's office has said the governor is continuing to study the best way to effectuate the restructuring. The governor himself restated his support for the plan at a town hall meeting in Roebling that became news when Christie called a law student, former Navy SEAL and one-time Democratic assembly candidate an "idiot" after the man interrupted the governor.

"Here's what's going to happen, Rutgers is going to merge with Rowan," he said in answering William Brown's plea for Christie to reconsider merging Rutgers-Camden into Rowan. "What I'm doing is providing other opportunities for a bigger and better university."

People at Rutgers-Camden don't agree with that and suggest instead a formal collaboration between the schools.

"What we are proposing is a model that has been tested," said Shankman, noting that the University of Maryland's governing board rejected a proposed merger of its Baltimore and College Park campuses three months ago in favor of an alliance. "What they are proposing has never been done."

Opponents argue that the two schools are very different types of institutions -- Rutgers a research university and Rowan a teaching school. A merger would prevent South Jersey residents from attending 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.

Supporters say a larger Rowan University with a medical school and a law school would become a major research university, able to compete for federal grants. It would help South Jersey get a greater share of higher education dollars from the state. And it would keep more students from going out of state to college.

At the moment, there are no facts to back up those arguments.

Rutgers is one of only 61 schools nationwide accredited by the American Association of Universities. Rowan would not gain membership in the AAU simply by annexing Rutgers-Camden, but would have to go through the rigorous process.

The law school at Rutgers-Camden would also likely face reaccreditation on its transfer to Rowan.

Faculty and staff at Rutgers-Camden say they believe their campus does not get all the financial support it should from the university, but there is no guarantee that Rowan would get more aid from the state. There is not even a proposal to suggest that would happen, although in the proposed state budget for the coming year, Rowan is the only one of the state colleges slated to get an increase in state support -- $5 million.

There is also no data to support the argument that a larger Rowan would keep more students in South Jersey than giving students a choice between Rutgers and Rowan.
Of those living in the six southernmost counties, 71 percent oppose merging the schools and only 19 percent support it. Statewide, those numbers are 57 percent against and 22 percent in favor.

The controversy is one reason why Rowan is seeking "an award-winning, client-centered" public relations consultant, with skills that include strategic brand development, crisis management, and the blending of brands as a result of a merger, according to the request for qualifications it put out. Documents were due to Rowan last Friday.

"If the merger does happen, there are going to be a lot of communications issues, both internal and external," said Joe Cardona, associate vice president for public relations at Rowan.

He said funding for the position is a transition cost and would be paid from any additional aid provided by Christie. No additional aid has been promised yet.

Rowan apparently needs help with its message.

Last week, The Record of Hackensack reported that a document Rowan was using to sell the proposal to the public showed that the SAT scores of the Glassboro school's incoming Class of 2010 were 100 points higher than those of Rutgers-Camden when, according to U.S. News & World Report, the scores at Rutgers were 18 points higher. Rowan attributed the difference to a clerical error and Rowan's decision to exclude the scores of disadvantaged students -- who were included in the Rutgers scores. There's also a dispute over the cost of the two schools.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg's office, in an as-yet unanswered letter to Christie, questioned merging the school with the lower costs into one for which students would have to pay more. Caley Gray, a Lautenberg spokesman, said the senator used the U.S. Department of Education's "net cost" in making that statement. For 2009-2010, the department showed that the average net price at Rowan was $14,850, compared with $8,919 for Rutgers-Camden.

Cardona called that data "flawed," saying it includes state, federal, and institutional support to students and that data varies widely for the two schools because they have different student profiles.

"We weren't subsidizing freshmen as much," Cardona said, adding Rowan has added another $2 million to its pot of student aid for the coming year. "Maybe their students were getting more Pell Grants. If you look at the tuition, that cost is pretty comparable."

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

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