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Price of Higher Ed Restructuring Still Anybody's Guess

Promise of price tag next month outrages some legislators, even as Christie pushes July 1 deadline for approval.

A group of "national experts" is studying the cost of the controversial plan to restructure higher education and could have an estimated price some time next month, New Jersey's secretary of higher education said on Wednesday.

The plan carves up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and move its central Jersey units to Rutgers' New Brunswick campus. At the same time, it gives Rutgers' Camden campus to Rowan University.

The promise of a price tag next month wasn't good enough for some Democratic members of the Assembly Budget Committee. Several expressed the same outrage their Senate colleagues did two weeks ago upon learning that Gov. Chris Christie continues to seek to have the restructuring approved by July 1 -- before knowing how much it will cost and how to pay for it.

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) said he was "insulted" and found it "troubling" that little more than two months before the self-imposed July 1 deadline "we really don't know any more than what we're reading in the newspaper."

Rochelle Hendricks, the higher education secretary, said for the first time a cost estimate is not available yet because it is under study by "a world-class panel of experts." While she had told the Senate Budget Committee an estimate would not be available until July 1, she told the Assembly members that they will get the pricetag before they will be asked to endorse the plan, possibly as soon as next month.

"I look forward to getting you an analysis sometime in May, but before you have to make a final decision," she said. "It's a critical thing to get done right and get done well."

A group of legislators is working on an alternative plan that seeks to help Rowan grow into a research university while also acknowledging the public outcry against the loss of the identity of Rutgers Camden.

Unlike their Senate counterparts, Assembly Budget Committee members did not get a chance to talk to Rutgers President Richard McCormick or Rowan's Acting President Ali Houshmand about the proposal. Houshmand was not at the meeting. McCormick was present at the beginning but left about an hour into it and did not speak. UMDNJ's Acting President Denise Rodgers did answer a few questions about morale and finances.

"There is a sense that there is going to be a rearrangement of assets and the playing field so to speak will change, but if we are just given our fair share, we're up to the task and bring it on," Rodgers said.

But she added that she remains concerned about the university's debt: "I do not believe . . . that there are satisfactory answers to how the bond debt is going to be dealt with."

Hendricks continued to say that "some aspects" of the plan will not cost more money, but others would have initial costs and still other costs would be continuing. She dodged numerous attempts by several committee members to get her to provide some cost estimate.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), a member of the Rowan board of trustees through last year, noted that a commission a decade ago proposed a similar restructuring and put its cost at $1.3 billion.

"Is that where we should be beginning our thought process?" he asked.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer, (D-Passaic) said the state requires colleges to go through a more rigorous process when they seek to get approval to offer a new degree program than the administration is following in pushing the reorganization.

"One does not reach a conclusion and then seek to justify it, but rather one takes all the facts and all the information and with all that weighs it appropriately and comes to an academic, scientific conclusion based on that information," he said, describing the ideal decision-making process.

"We are seeking experts to provide us with information to justify the conclusion we made before? It seems to me we're working a bit backwards."

Assemblyman Albert Cuthino (D-Essex) agreed, saying there are still aspects of the proposal that he considers "deal-breakers," including those involving the debts of the universities and the assurance that what is left of UMDNJ and University Hospital remain financially viable.

"With all due respect to Dr. Barer . . . I believe his report and his commission did us a disservice," Cuthino said. "I spoke extensively with Gov. Kean about this and they were supposed to do the financial analysis … what should have come out of the Barer report should have been what this body is going to maybe get in the next month, month-and-a-half.

"How do you come up with a conclusion without first looking to see if it is feasible?" Hendricks said was not trying to be "coy" but just could not provide answers yet.

"I can only promise you they [cost estimates] will be forthcoming," Hendricks said. "There will be numbers I think we can all be comfortable with."

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