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Merger of NJ Universities Moves Closer, Despite Lack of Any Details

New Jersey legislators are going to be asked to approve a restructuring of higher education in the state without knowing how much it is going to cost, even though one college president said to do it right will take a “very significant investment.”

Still, the plan to split up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and move parts of it to other higher ed institutions is moving forward. Rutgers is said to now be in discussions with Rowan and officials from Gov. Chris Christie’s office over its most controversial aspect -- the proposed merger of Rutgers’ Camden campus into Rowan -- in a way that opponents find acceptable.

“The Barer Commission [that advised the merger] made some important recommendations concerning higher education in South Jersey,” said Richard McCormick, the outgoing president of Rutgers University, using the most supportive language he has to date regarding that portion of the plan that has been bitterly opposed by those connected with the Camden campus.

“Legislators have reached out to me, asking how we can best fulfill the goals of the Barer Commission and Gov. Christie without sacrificing that [Rutgers] name. I am currently optimistic that we will find ways of doing that.”

Rutgers’ leaders held their first meeting with those from Rowan and Christie’s office recently to hammer out the details, McCormick said.

Ali Houshmand, Rowan’s interim president, said the goal is to have “Rutgers-Camden remain as independent as possible and remain an urban campus.”

Still, Democrats on the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee used the terms “insulting,” “frustrating” and “beyond understanding” to describe the statement by Rochelle Hendricks, the state’s secretary of higher education, that a cost estimate likely won’t be available before the July 1 deadline imposed by Christie to enact the plan.

A somewhat similar proposal a decade ago had an estimated price tag of $1.3 billion.

“Quite frankly, it is insulting to this committee,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the committee chair. “We are sitting here as the budget committee, a co-equal branch of government, and two months before a self-imposed deadline no one can give us a dollar amount.”

In addition to having Rowan absorb Rutgers-Camden, the plan -- unveiled less than three months ago by the University of Medicine and Dentistry Advisory Committee -- would give Rutgers the three Central Jersey units of UMDNJ and rename the remaining schools the New Jersey Health Sciences University.

Hendricks said the plan “seeks to propel the entire system to greatness” by creating three “regional centers of excellence to dramatically improve both medical and higher education in the state.”

The plan may not cost more money, she said. “Too often we get fixed on the cost of something without understanding this is the direction we want to go.”

But Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said that’s unrealistic.

“When I go out to look for a house, I’m not going to find a house and then decide later how I’m going to afford it,” she said. “It’s an unacceptable way of looking at things.”

Houshmand reiterated statements he made last month that the university could carry out its parts of the plan if it just received all the money Rutgers-Camden takes in, though does not necessarily get to keep, or with just another $10 million.

But some of the other state college presidents who spoke at the hearing were skeptical.

Montclair State College President Susan Cole asserted that regardless of whether the merger is a good idea, it is going to need a lot of money if Rowan is going to become even just a good, doctoral-granting university.

“Reorganization isn’t going to solve the problem without investment, very significant investment,” she said. “You don’t create a research university … without hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in capital facilities consistently year after year over a time, without putting into those facilities scientists, graduate students.

“It’s far from simple. It requires consistent, regular and planful investment,” Cole said.

Ramapo College President Peter Mercer said the current situation, where those involved do not agree on the merger but Christie has vowed it will occur, is not the best way to improve higher education.

“That seems to me to be somewhat out of whack,” he said. “As I see it, where there are several parties, complex issues, many interested stakes -- some of them competing -- indeterminate financial parameters and a situation of high pressure it’s unlikely to lead to prudent planning and accurate forecasting.”

McCormick reiterated that Rutgers has so far estimated between $40 million and $50 million for one-time transition costs. Bond counsels are also looking at the refinancing and reapportioning of $660 million in UMDNJ bonds and $950 million in Rutgers bonds. “It’s immensely complicated but well worth doing,” he said.

But when Sarlo asked if New Jersey has the ability to fund a larger network of research universities, McCormick said, “New Jersey has not yet shown an ability to do that.”

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said she is worried about the debt and what will happen to Newark’s University Hospital when it is placed under private operation.

Hendricks said a private partner to run the hospital has not yet been found and conceded that the process for choosing an operator is likely to take three months, which would stretch past the July 1 deadline.

McCormick said that date is more of a deadline to have a plan in place, not to complete all aspects of the merger.

While some North Jersey Democrats are advocating a bond issue for capital improvements in the schools, the state and county college presidents all complained about the state’s lack of a funding commitment for higher education.

“What New Jersey has shown is that it has had very little inclination” to support higher education, Cole said, adding, “Montclair State, for example, is already somewhat bigger than the proposed merged institution would be in Camden and there has been no inclination in decades to provide any funding to Montclair State.”

Cole urged the state look at all the higher education institutions and then determine “planful, strategic corner to corner investments across the state.”

McCormick said the colleges have determined they need $6 billion to pay for all their capital education needs.

Hendricks said Christie is considering all possibilities for funding capital construction, including the $2 billion bond issue proposed recently by Sarlo and Bergen County’s two other Democratic Senators.

Christie likened these three to “pigs at the trough” for suggesting they would not support his higher education restructuring without the bond issue.

After nearly four hours of testimony, Sarlo said the proposal has merits but many questions remain.

“It’s time to stop talking and time to put a real dollar commitment on paper,” he said. “I am completely frustrated and I haven’t learned anything today.”

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

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