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Rowan ‘Secret’ Report Predicted Opposition to Merger

A Rowan University-commissioned report on how to win approval for the merger of Rowan and Rutgers-Camden is being pointed to as proof that the plan is a backroom deal by critics of the merger, who called the report a blueprint for propaganda. The report was dated the day after Gov. Chris Christie announced the plan but was commissioned months earlier.

“This secret report shows that the fix was in long before the merger was even presented to the public,” said U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who has openly questioned the motives of Christie and South Jersey Democrats regarding the plan. “It's sad that a $30,000 report was commissioned by proponents of the merger to advise them on how to avoid the facts and mislead the public."

The report, “Establishing the New Rowan University,” predicts the strong opposition and likely legal challenge from Rutgers-Camden to the proposal it be absorbed by Rowan.

But it optimistically discusses the designation of the “New Rowan University” as a public research university anyway and lays out a communications strategy “To educate the greater southern New Jersey community about the benefits of a Rowan/Rutgers-Camden reorganization and gain acceptance and support of key opinion leaders, who are critical to the overall success of the effort.”

Rowan and Cooper University Hospital, the medical partner of the Cooper Medical School opening at Rowan in August, commissioned the report in the late fall of 2011 to study the proposed merger, analyze it and “propose a course of action,” said Joe Cardona, Rowan’s associate vice president for University Relations. It was done by The Learning Alliance, a University of Pennsylvania-based group providing educational research and leadership support services to college presidents. Cooper and Rowan split the $30,000 cost evenly.

“The 15-page report was helpful and it validated much of what Rowan’s internal working group was thinking at the time,” Cardona said.

Among the report’s recommendations that Rowan has already proposed are a larger board of trustees and a process for integrating the curriculums of the two colleges. Rowan proposes putting a unified curriculum in place after six years as a combined university.

Critics of the merger were quick to point out that the report was commissioned months before the University of Medicine and Dentistry Advisory Committee issued its report on Jan. 25. The Learning Alliance report, dated the following day, appeared to have had advanced access to the advisory report. Indeed it notes that the section of the document dealing with Rutgers-Rowan is “relatively short and without substantial detail.”

“The Secret Report spells out a propaganda campaign that has been followed to the letter by the pro-takeover forces,” said Andrew Shankman, a Rutgers-Camden history professor. “The campaign depended on providing no specifics, costs, or details to have to explain or defend.”

Lautenberg, who has come under fire for asking the federal secretary of education to review the proposed restructuring, said The Learning Alliance’s report is proof that the merger of Rowan and Rutgers was a backroom deal among politicians with little regard for its educational ramifications.

“The people of South Jersey don't want propaganda and marketing,” Lautenberg said. “They want substantive answers to their questions about the merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.”

He was referring to one section of the report that provided advice on the selling of the proposal, stating, “Considerable attention will need to be paid to developing cogent arguments, identifying additional civic and economic leaders prepared to champion the New Rowan University” and a senior spokesman should be empowered to respond to criticisms.

“The questions that I have formally raised to Governor Christie and Senator Sweeney still stand,” Lautenberg said, referring to a letter he sent to the state Senate president last week with a dozen questions on the merger. “In light of this report, the need to answer our questions is even more urgent.”

The report also points for the first time to some potential stumbling blocks in the plan.

While officials at Rowan University have stated confidently there will be no problem with the accreditation of a merged Rowan-Rutgers, the report does not back that up.

It notes that the Middle States Association of Colleges and Universities “is not likely to act” on requests for accrediting a merged Rowan-Rutgers while “significant legal proceedings” are pending. It also warns that the accreditation of the Camden law school is “a special case that should not be addressed until the integration of that unit has been fully accepted by Rutgers University as well as the faculty governing and bargaining units of the School.”

“I was also struck by their recognition that law school accreditation was a potential obstacle, and they had no view of how to address it,” said Allan Stein, a law professor and president of the Campaign to Save Rutgers Camden. The group’s website, www.saverutgerscamden.org, obtained and posted a copy of The Learning Alliance report.

The report assumes both the state of New Jersey and Rutgers University will “take the legal steps necessary to change the designation of Rowan University and transfer the assets of Rutgers-Camden to the New Rowan University.” While Christie has vowed the reorganization will happen, Rutgers asserts its boards of governors and trustees will have to agree to give up the Camden campus and whether the trustees, at least, would do so is questionable.

But if a legal challenge delays the takeover of Rutgers-Camden, the report asserts that Rowan can become a research university and once that happens, most Rutgers-Camden faculty will want to become part of Rowan. “All that is required to start the process is the designation of Rowan as a public research university, the necessary reclassification of staff, and a substantial augment in the funds available to the New Rowan University to build the infrastructure a successful major research university will require,” the report states, though it does not define how much a “substantial augment” would be.

The Learning Alliance report also discusses the need to develop a budget for transition costs, including legal counsel, administrative technology systems, library integration and human resources issues. And it notes there will be budgetary questions involving the “possible adjustment of teaching loads and sabbatical policies” at Rowan. None of these costs were included in the roadmap plan Rowan released two weeks ago.

And while Rowan’s supporters say the university is in good financial shape, the report said it has a “relatively highly leveraged status as a result of borrowing for construction of the new Medical School facilities.”

Ironically, while one reason given for the merger of Rowan and Rutgers is the contention that Rutgers-New Brunswick does not give its Camden campus enough financial support, The Learning Alliance recommends a similar apportioning of funds among Rowan’s Gloucester, Camden and medical school campuses.

“While the temptation will be to accord each of the units all of its own revenue, our experience with decentralized budgeting at the University of Pennsylvania indicates that it is of paramount importance to reserve sufficient discretionary operating funds for allocation by the central administration,” the report states.

The report calls for the creation of a new Research Investment Fund to provide “substantial” grants to Rowan faculty, with priority given to projects by faculty from two or more of the university’s previously separate units. It is unclear how that would be funded. The report also seeks the creation by the state of a “quasi-independent research foundation” with the authority and funding to create a “network of research institutes capable of recruiting outstanding faculty and garnering substantial external research funds.”

Supporters of the merger have said it would enable Rowan to get more research grants and Rowan’s own roadmap anticipates doubling research grants to $50 million by 2020.

Rowan can proceed without Rutgers-Camden initially, provided the state provides the needed – though still unquantified -- start-up funds and there is agreement to create a Rowan research foundation and faculty research fund.

“The report should put to rest Governor’s Christie’s promise that merger would be ‘revenue neutral,’” Stein said. “Even the advocates of merger recognize that it is going to cost a great deal of money to implement. Our political leaders ought to be asking what they are getting for that enormous expenditure.”

The Learning Alliance report discussed some other potential wrinkles in the plan, including:

Rowan University employees would no longer have civil service protection, although current workers might be able to keep their status until they leave.

Most Rutgers-Camden faculty teach two courses per semester with time to conduct research, while Rowan faculty teach three unless they request and receive time off. Rowan faculty will likely seek similar, lighter teaching loads to those at Rutgers.

Faculty at Rowan have concerns about governance and “feel their interests were simply ignored as the Board moved to begin a Presidential transition. Those concerns will need to be addressed to preclude the faculty’s discontent producing a series of delays in the enacting of the organizational and curricular changes the New Rowan University will require.”

Despite the recommendations of the report, though, the process has gotten off track from its goal.

“It is important, however, that those protests do not set the tone for what ought to be an optimistic discussion,” The Learning Alliance states. “The goal is to have the maximum number of key people talking about the advantages the New Rowan will bring to South Jersey and not why South Jersey deserves more attention and investment.”

But the need for more higher education funding for South Jersey is exactly what powerful South Jersey backers of the plan, including Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and George Norcross, who chairs the Cooper Hospital board, have been saying recently.

And a Rutgers-Eagleton poll found more opposition to the merger in South Jersey than in the rest of the state: 57 percent of people statewide are against Rowan taking over Rutgers-Camden, but opposition rises to 71 percent when considering the opinion of those in the six southernmost counties.

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