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Rowan Replay: Criticism Continues at Second Hearing on Rutgers Restructuring

Opponent and advocates want more details filled in on sketchy merger plan.

Credit: Samantha Besso/Rutgers' photo student
Ali Houshmand, acting president, Rowan University

With far more questions than answers, the legislature's higher education committees brought Gov. Chris Christie's dramatic but sketchy higher education plans to one of its chief beneficiaries, Rowan University in Glassboro.

But once Rowan administrators made their best pitch to take over Rutgers-Camden, hours of subsequent witnesses at the hearing in Rowan's student center pounced on flaws in the proposal. Some, such as union representatives, politely pointed out the lack of basic information needed to make a decision, such as the costs to taxpayers and students.

Others were more vehement, especially Rutgers-Camden students and alumni.

"Rutgers is greater than Rowan," said Dr. Freddie Elmore of Browns Mills before paraphrasing Patrick Henry, "Give Rutgers liberty and give death to this proposal."

Proponents echoed the argument of state Sen. President Stephen Sweeney, who suggested the move would create more educational opportunities in South Jersey and bring more jobs to the region.

Both are needed, said Ali Houshmand, Rowan's acting president. He cited an education gap in the state, saying more than 37 percent of adults in North Jersey have baccalaureate degrees compared to just over 24 percent in South Jersey.

If Rowan takes over Rutgers-Camden, "the merged institution will be one of less than 70 in the nation with both a law school and a medical school," Houshmand said. This "national distinction" would be possible because of "strategic planning and investment," he said.

Rowan already is expanding into Camden, through its partnership with the Cooper Health System. Authorized by former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009, Cooper Medical School of Rowan is scheduled to admit its first class this fall.

Credit: Samantha Besso/Rutgers' photo student
Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett

That relationship may be the key to the reorganization plan. Cooper's chairman is George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic powerbroker whose influence likely would rise if Rutgers is pushed back to the north while Rowan rises in the south.

At a meeting where most witnesses bemoaned a lack of information, Cooper President John Sheridan disclosed that Rowan has done its own "extensive" internal report on the takeover, although without input from Rutgers-Camden. He defended the lack of formal discussions so far, saying that is the result of "a lack of willingness on Rutgers' part to engage at this point without knowing what is going to happen."

But the testimony quickly shifted direction as a parade of students, alumni, faculty, and staff warned of dire consequences from what Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett called "this forced, inorganic merger."

Predictions ranged from declining enrollment, faculty flight and the inability of law school graduates to take the bar exam to a shrunken library, the disappearance of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and the loss of a $50,000 donation to support a literary magazine.

Professor Dan Cook, who left the University of Illinois to create the nation's first doctoral program in childhood studies at Rutgers-Camden, said that if he had seen "a similar start-up at Rowan University, I would not have given it a second thought."

"I came because it was Rutgers," agreed art history professor Martin Rosenberg. "I hardly know Rowan University."

Rutgers-Camden provides "a very strong identity" and a "world-renowned Rutgers education," said graduate Nicole Lister, who now attends the law school. She considered Temple and Drexel, but stayed in New Jersey because of the value of the Rutgers experience, she said.

"There are great and tremendous, earth-shattering implications" to the proposed changes, such as the need for the law school to obtain recertification, which could take five years, Lister said.

Rather than creating jobs and more places for students, eliminating Rutgers-Camden would reduce both, said Lara Saguisag, an adjunct faculty member there and at Rowan. While she praised the quality of both schools, she said the combination would also mean merged programs and few choices.

The drumbeat of negative testimony grew so pronounced that Eric Milou, president of Rowan's faculty senate, complained that the comments were "derogatory, even demeaning."

But Milou was careful to note that Rowan faculty and staff were not consulted about the takeover and are not pushing it.

"If it comes, we want to be ready," he said.

Rutgers student Liz Warren apologized to Rowan members of the crowd, which began at about 350 people but steadily dwindled. While Rowan administrators clearly welcome the change, Warren said students should focus on the lack of information about its financial impacts.

"The Governor is refusing to raise taxes, so who do you thing is going to pay for this?" she asked, predicting Rowan tuition would need to rise by $5,000 to $8,000 to absorb Rutgers-Camden.

Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Cumberland), chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said the "insightful" public comments show "we must continue to do our due diligence" on the proposal.

Other legislators were more pointed, with Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) saying it is hard to consider "a plan that unfortunately we have not yet seen ourselves."

"I'm just wondering where the money is going to come from," said Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Passaic).

But Assemblyman Christopher Brown (R-Burlington) was sympathetic toward the proposal, asking Houshmand whether absorbing Rutgers-Camden would be "critical to the future of higher education" in the state. Questioning witness Timothy Farrow, treasurer of the Rutgers alumni association, Brown got him to acknowledge that Rutgers-Camden tuition has "at least doubled" since he graduated in the 1990s.

That's a problem the universities and policymakers must confront, Brown said, because without controlling costs, state support will continue to decline as a percentage of their operating budgets, pricing education beyond the reach of more people.

Farrow readily agreed, but suggested the end of Rutgers-Camden might increase costs. He also offered a firm counter to suggestions by legislators that Christie could simply issue an executive order mandating the changes.

An appellate court ruling this month, barring the governor from eliminating the state Council on Affordable Housing, applies directly to the state's higher education system. "The language is right in the statute," he said.

Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) said legislators are still puzzled about the legal situation, as well as any supporting documentation for the changeover.

The proposal grew out of a series of administrative and political scandals at some components of the University of Medicine and Dentistry. Christie appointed a five-member advisory committee, which recommended that Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey be merged into Rutgers.

But those unsurprising ideas came linked to the second, unexpected piece, detaching Rutgers' Camden campus and moving it under the aegis of Glassboro-based Rowan University.

Until now, the main thing those two institutions have had in common are links to wealthy philanthropists who yearned to be remembered.

Pritchett and others at Rutgers are seeking a third way, greater collaboration among the two universities and other institutions. Ideas floated include a Rutgers-Cooper-Rowan center for urban health law and policy and an integrative biology and genomic medicine, as well as a global literatures and language program linking Rowan, Rutgers and Richard Stockton College in Pomona.

As with his successful push to roll back pension and benefits for police and teachers, the disposition of forces offers Christie a delicious opportunity to set Democrats battling each other and elements of their own base. Most South Jersey Democrats dutifully fell in behind Sweeney (D-Gloucester) on the pension rollback, as Christie maneuvered them into disavowing collective bargaining.

What they got in return for that support was unclear, but the benefits would be more tangible for South Jersey Democrats if they were able to establish a southern state university in conjunction with Cooper Health Systems. So they have reason to challenge their party's conventional reasoning that a prestigious statewide university is good for New Jersey and its top students.

Already, proponents of a Rowan takeover in Camden are arguing that it could stem the outflow of New Jersey students to colleges in other states -- although that trend might also depend on costs, facilities and the perceived value of degrees.

One balloon floated in support of the change quickly popped. Sweeney's notion that Rowan has the number three chemical engineering program in the country is true as far as it goes. But it goes only as far as a U.S. News and World Report list that ranked only the four schools that offer a B.A. as their highest degree in the field. The other way to state this is that Rowan tied for last.

With at least some of the Democratic leadership on board with the academic restructuring, though, the Governor has held off on attempting to implement the plan himself. In that scenario, the Legislature would have 60 days to reject the package or it would take effect automatically. But given the questions surrounding the plan -- including such basics as the cost and how it would be funded -- it is unclear what the result of a quick vote would be.

Moreover, most Rutgers officials insist that any changes must be endorsed by the university's boards of governors and trustees. They appear to favor absorbing the medical school, school of public health, and cancer institute. But like the public, they are awaiting details on the finances of those deals.

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.

But Rutgers President Richard McCormick told Camden students earlier this month that during a closed session discussion, the trustees "overwhelmingly" opposed surrendering the Camden campus.

Even at Rutgers, though, there is some obvious support for the reorganization. Trustee Sol Barer chaired Christie's advisory committee, which looked beyond addressing the immediate problems at the UMDNJ to a broader assessment of the state's post-secondary public education system. Discussing the proposals at a trustees' meeting last month, Barer rejected the idea of Rutgers' as the apex of that system.

"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."

Writing in a blog for nj.com, Albert Gamper Jr., a Rutgers trustee and former chair of the board of governors, enthusiastically endorsed the idea of combining with the medical facilities. That would boost Rutgers' research and development spending from 56th to 32nd, putting it "in the company of universities such as Harvard and Purdue," he wrote.

Gamper was only slightly less enthusiastic about creating a "new South Jersey research university." This could compete with those in neighboring states "and provide South Jersey with even stronger educational opportunities for students as well as economic investment that will benefit the region," he wrote.

But he cautioned that sufficient state investment would be critical to making either initiative succeed. He asked if the governor and legislature are willing to commit state resources and float a bond issue to support the changeover.

So far, the response has been resounding: crickets.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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