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Rutgers Trustees Refuse to Surrender Camden Campus

Tara Nurin | May 4, 2012

Despite resounding 'No,' board leaves door open to further discussions, alternative options.

Battle lines were drawn Thursday, when the Rutgers board overwhelmingly voted to oppose severing Rutgers-Camden from the rest of the university. At the same time, it affirmed that it was committed to Rutgers-Camden and its students. The proposed transfer of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and other units of UMDNJ to Rutgers University should be considered on its own merits, according to the strongly worded resolution that was approved by the trustees 32-4.

Nevertheless, the resolution appears to position the Rutgers board to negotiate with Gov. Chris Christie, who wants the reorganization to occur by July 1, since the board said it was open to alternative proposals -- as long as Rutgers-Camden remains part of Rutgers University.

Representatives of Rutgers and Rowan University met recently in the governor's office to discuss options. Sources privy to the discussion say the talks have stalled.

In what appears to be a direct rebuke to Christie’s promise to unilaterally impose the merger by executive order, the trustees included direct references to The Rutgers Law of 1956, which requires any proposed amendment or substantial alteration to Rutgers properties, funds, and trusts be approved by both the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors. Trustees also reaffirmed the law’s provision that charges them with conducting due diligence before voting on fiduciary matters, regardless of externally imposed deadlines.

In other words, the trustees are going on record as saying they will not to rush to accept the merger by Christie’s deadline of July 1, and they expect not to approve his restructuring at all.

Noting that the recommendation to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan represents the “the largest single initiative affecting Rutgers in several decades,” and reinforcing the university’s mission to provide services to residents in all parts of the state, the trustees asserted that in order to ensure that Rutgers’ “governance autonomy and mission are maintained, the Board of Trustees must carefully assess the positive and negative impacts that each component of the Proposal may have upon the University and all of its campuses.”

At the same time, trustees wrote that they wish to consider the Rutgers-Camden proposal on its own merits instead of together with the recommendations of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey advisory committee that proposed both the merger and the integration of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School into Rutgers.

Trustee Jeanne Fox told NJ Spotlight, “I think the trustees did their job and I’m proud of them for doing this. It was a positive option.”

Gov. Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but when asked about the resolution before its passage yesterday, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), speaking in opposition to the merger outside the Rutgers-Camden student center, said, "I’ll wait to see what they recommend; I don’t want from this pulpit to tell them what ought to be other than it’s our insistence that Rutgers stay right here.”

Lautenberg was in Camden to hold a press conference about the merger and college affordability. His vocal opposition to the merger has drawn the ire of Christie, who called him a “partisan hack” for asking that Education Secretary Arne Duncan to investigate whether the governor and South Jersey Democratic political patron George Norcross were colluding for gain for Cooper Hospital. Norcross is the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Cooper University Hospital; Rowan is opening its new medical school this fall under an affiliation agreement with Cooper. He’s also credited with helping Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who’s rumored to be considering a primary challenge against Lautenberg, oust Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) from his role as Senate president.

Though Lautenberg declined to criticize Sweeney or Norcross directly yesterday, he did refer to them obliquely when he said, “No matter how much shouting the governor and his cohorts [do] ... to bury the name and the proud history that Rutgers created here, [they] won‘t be able to drown out the voices of the Rutgers- Camden community.”

Lautenberg also chose to sidestep an opportunity yesterday to strike back against Norcross, Sweeney, and 23 other elected South Jersey officials who wrote him a highly critical open letter in late March that political observers say indicates the five-term senator may not have the support to survive a challenge from Sweeney in 2013.

When asked about the letter and its implications for a political coup, Lautenberg smiled and responded, “I got a less than friendly letter saying that I didn’t know what I was talking about when I said Rutgers should stay in Camden ... There was all kinds of insinuation. And it was among the letters that I will leave to posterity. I just can’t treasure it enough.”

Yesterday was the first time Lautenberg has spoken publicly in South Jersey about the merger.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer specializing in Philadelphia-area destination coverage, travel, craft beer and dining trends. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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