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Rowan Reveals Takeover Plan for Rutgers-Camden

Plan wins neither hearts nor minds of Rutgers faculty, administration, top officials.

Ali Houshmand, acting president, Rowan University

Rowan University on Thursday unveiled a plan to implement its proposed takeover of Rutgers-Camden, including the maintenance of existing course offerings at both schools for at least six years and an increase in programs designed to boost enrollment.

The 17-page report provided the first details about how the Glassboro-based school would absorb the university located in the heart of one of the nation's most depressed cities, but it still did not fully address the costs of the proposal. It did nothing to change the minds of Rutgers' faculty or Chancellor Wendell Pritchett.

"We are opposed to being taken over by Rowan," said Pritchett, adding he had no comment about a report seeking to carry out such a takeover. "We've been developing our own ideas about collaborating. A lot of what we're focused on is what we bring to the community, why Rutgers-Camden should continue to exist."

Ali Houshmand, Rowan's interim president, said a merger under Rowan's leadership is the best way to improve educational opportunities for South Jersey students

"We will be able to create the kind of degrees neither of us can alone," he said. "These opportunities are monumental."

Rowan produced the report for a meeting last Friday with aides to Gov. Chris Christie, who reaffirmed earlier this week, "We're gonna make this transformation happen." It had no input from Rutgers because officials from the two schools had had little or no communication on the matter since a report proposing the merger was released on January 25.

They "whos," "whys," and "hows" of the silent treatment remain something of a he-said she-said argument. Rutgers faculty have contended that Rowan imposed a "gag order" on its staff, but Rowan said it was Rutgers-Camden who asked that Rowan refrain from discussing the merger.

It was the first time Houshmand said Rutgers should not have been surprised about the proposal because it was included in the Governor's Task Force on Higher Education's report issued in January 2011 and because, according to Houshmand, Pritchett was privy to discussions about the issue during the summer and early fall.

"During the summer time, we were at the table with Rutgers-Camden," Houshmand said. "It was late summer when Wendell Pritchett said, 'This is not what I want to do,' and left the discussions."

Pritchett said he had "many conversations" about higher education in South Jersey over the past three years but never had ongoing talks about merging with Rowan, and he would not have the power to authorize such an arrangement.

Officials at both schools confirm that they are talking again. Houshmand said he met with Pritchett last Wednesday. Rutgers faculty said they were planning to reach out to their counterparts at Rowan, though about ways they can collaborate, not about merging their curriculums.

Still, there do not appear to be many areas of agreement, at least among top officials at the schools.

For instance, Rowan released a chart showing that Rutgers-Camden takes in $106 million in tuition and state aid, but it only gets to keep $55 million, while Rutgers' central administration and New Brunswick campus keep the other $51 million.

Greg Trevor, Rutgers' senior director of media relations, said he had "no idea where Rowan got its numbers," but they do not tell the real story.

"It is important to recognize the fallacy of claims that money from Rutgers-Camden gets sent up the Turnpike and is never seen again," Trevor said. "This is a colorful image, but the fact is that Camden does not subsidize the other Rutgers campuses."

After figuring in charges for the central processing of payroll, admissions, technical and other services, Trevor said that the "total commitment of resources to Rutgers-Camden actually exceeds the total value of the revenues generated by the Camden campus by more than $10 million per year."

Joe Cardona, Rowan's associate vice president for university relations, said in response, "We stand by our claim."

Using the figure Rutgers disputes, Houshmand said the $51 million would go a long way toward supporting the operations of the larger Rowan. The university would also, he said, receive designation from the state as a research university, which should entitle it to even more aid per pupil than it gets now. Both of those would bring more higher education dollars into South Jersey.

It's clear that money is part of what is driving the merger.

Houshmand said the funds received in tuition and aid for Camden should "be invested in the city of Camden." Pritchett agreed that more money should be allocated for higher education in South Jersey and said Rutgers University should increase the amount it gives to its Camden campus.

The Rowan report states the new university should be able to double the amount of research grants currently received by the two colleges and Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, which recently entered into a partnership with Rowan, to $50 million by 2020. At the same time, the report projects increasing enrollment to 20,000 undergraduates and 5,000 at the graduate level.

Rowan officials began preparing for a merger last October, a month after the UMDNJ Advisory Committee released interim recommendations that called for restructuring the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, including giving three of its Central Jersey units to Rutgers-New Brunswick.

The Rowan-Rutgers merger proposal was not one of those interim recommendations and was not made public until two months ago.

Houshmand and the report outlined several steps needed to implement the merger:

  • Rowan's board of trustees should be expanded from 15 to 25 to provide representation for Camden. The governor appoints all the trustees except for one student member.

  • The new Rowan-Camden would remain virtually unchanged in its course offerings and faculty teaching loads for six years, when a single curriculum would take effect.

  • Rowan would add degree programs, particularly in the areas of health and pharmacy studies.

  • The transition period would take a minimum of 14 months to work out the transfer of student and staff records and other matters.

  • Rowan would need a still-unspecified, one-time payment for transition expenses.

  • All endowments and grant funding for Rutgers-Camden would remain there, under the control of Rowan.

While vigorously supporting the idea, Houshmand said he is willing to discuss other options to come up with the "best solution." However, echoing a statement last month by Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) he said an alternative solution could only work if Rutgers-Camden were to sever its ties with Rutgers-New Brunswick.

"How do you do that and keep the Rutgers name?" he asked.

"There are lots of ways universities can organize themselves to cooperate," countered Pritchett. "We do not need to be separated from Rutgers."

Pritchett said he fears the loss of Rutgers-Camden would hurt the city because, given the choice between attending Rowan in Glassboro or Camden, more students would choose the more suburban campus.

It said it is critical to get consensus in order for the plan to work, said Houshmand.

"You cannot force any issue on the faculty of an educational institution," he said. "These are thoughtful, intelligent, smart people. I have no intention of forcing anything down people's throats."

It seems impossible to imagine Rutgers faculty members would support any plan that did not keep the Camden school as part of the state university.

"This is a failure of imagination," said John Oberdiek, a Rutgers-Camden Law School professor, about the Rowan report. "There are a lot of different ways we could have a partnership … In a merger, we lose access to Rutgers' resources. There are ways to advance [Houshmand's] goals that could enhance Rowan better than this merger would."

"It takes years to cultivate a research culture before a new university is able to bring in the tens of millions of dollars in research grants that this new institution will need to remain viable," wrote Sungsoo Kim, a Rutgers-Camden accounting professor in a paper in which he estimated a merged Rowan-Rutgers would need an additional $400 million -$450 million a year to operate as a nationally renowned, midsized research university.

History professor Lorrin Thomas said a consortium model for the schools would be better because it would help Rowan, not harm Rutgers-Camden, and provide more opportunities for students.

"It would give students not just a choice of which school to attend, but they could take courses at both places," she said.

"They would get all the benefits they would see from a merger, but it would be far less expensive and it would be consensual," Oberdiek agreed.

Rowan also released a statement answering nine criticisms made at a joint Senate and Assembly Higher Education Committee hearing at Rowan on Monday. Houshmand said he found it "hurtful" that Rutgers' supporters hurled "mud" and "insults" at Rowan during the hearing and in press reports.

But he took a couple of jabs at Rutgers himself. He said that while Rutgers got about $434 million in total research dollars last year, Rutgers-Camden accounted for only $7.6 million. That's 1.75 percent of the research dollars for a school that makes up 14 percent of the total size of Rutgers.

"Are you telling me that's the same level of productivity?" Houshmand asked. "I don't want to put them down, but let's call a spade a spade."

Oberdiek said the research money seems an appropriate breakdown, given Rutgers-Camden does not have many graduate programs compared to Rutgers-New Brunswick and those that it does have -- including the law school -- do not tend to draw research grants.

Rowan's report assumes the merger will be advanced through an executive order. But whether that will happen has become less clear in recent weeks.

Some say an appellate decision that overturned Christie's elimination of the Council on Affordable Housing through a reorganization order indicates that the governor does not have the power to order the merger. More recently, speculation is that the change would be written into legislation that would have to be passed and signed by Christie.

Rutgers officials are adamant in saying that regardless of the way a proposal is advanced, it would have to be approved by the university's boards of governors and trustees.

Christie said he can't imagine that, faced with an all-or-nothing proposal, Rutgers would give up the chance to get Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey in exchange for giving Rowan its Camden campus.

Last month, the Rutgers Board of Trustees indicated it did not support axing Camden.

Regardless of what the board chooses to do, Pritchett said Rutgers-Camden faculty and unions are ready to take legal action to prevent being wrested away from the state university.

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