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Rutgers-Camden, Rowan University, Closer to a Compromise

Autonomy and collaboration hallmarks of proposed relationship between two South Jersey schools.

Legislators and university officials are getting nearer to a deal giving Rutgers-Camden more autonomy from its New Brunswick campus and bringing it closer to -- but not making it a part of -- Rowan University.

Sources with knowledge of the discussions said they are working to strike a compromise between the fully merged Rowan-Rutgers Camden recommended by a commission last January and supported by Gov. Chris Christie and the current structure of two separate schools, one of which is governed from afar. What’s envisioned is a system fairly unusual in higher education.

“Higher education is highly complicated, and it is not surprising at all that these discussions reflect that reality,” said Wendell Pritchett, the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, in a statement. “The framework, as discussed in meetings in which I participated, would give Rutgers–Camden administrative and budgetary autonomy, as well as its own governing board, while maintaining our critically important academic connections to Rutgers University.”

He said the school would continue to be Rutgers in every way: students would earn a Rutgers degree and faculty would be tenured by Rutgers.

“Rutgers–Camden would remain Rutgers–Camden, in terms of our name and all that we value about the campus,” continued Pritchett.

It would also create “a deep and meaningful partnership with Rowan University that ... would, among other things, promote the growth of research in the health sciences and the expansion of medical education in southern New Jersey,” Pritchett said. “It also would allow Rutgers–Camden and Rowan to collaborate in new ways to strengthen our host city in Camden.”

Still, no final decisions have been reached. Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he expects to introduce legislation June 1 that embodies a higher education restructuring but that the bill is still being worked on. Others involved in the process said that any autonomy given Rutgers-Camden would likely extend to Rutgers-Newark, as well.

After dropping out of the headlines for a couple of weeks, speculation about the merger grew again following an article in Monday’s Star-Ledger that stated Rowan and Rutgers Camden would be merged and under control of a joint governing body, though somehow maintain the Rutgers name.

Pritchett’s statement contradicted that notion, as did statements by others with knowledge of the discussions. And that is an idea that Rutgers-Camden faculty continue to rebuff.

“We reject any proposal for a joint board with final decision-making authority over Rutgers-Camden or its finances,” The Committee to Save Rutgers-Camden said in a statement.

At the same time, the faculty group noted it supports entering into a “meaningful partnership” with Rowan and its fledgling Cooper Medical School, and that such a partnership “can only exist between independent universities, with distinct governing structures.” The group said it would support “a joint board overseeing projects undertaken by the two independent universities.”

It’s unclear where Christie stands on the latest talks. In his most recent statements on the issue, which were last month, he said the merger was going to happen.

Sen. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) insinuated himself into the issue months ago and issued a statement yesterday indicating his continued opposition to a merger.

“The Rutgers Board of Trustees and the leadership of Rutgers-Camden have made clear that there will not be a merged Rutgers-Rowan University in Camden," he said. “The people of South Jersey want Rutgers-Camden and Rowan to remain separate institutions. When mutually beneficial, these two excellent universities could -- and should -- collaborate on research and academic projects.”

Several polls have shown overwhelming opposition to a merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan. Earlier this month, Rutgers’ trustees voted by a wide margin to release a statement indicating their opposition to ceding the Camden campus to Rowan. The controversial plan was suggested by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey Advisory Commission created by Christie. Its report was released in late January and Christie said he wanted all the recommendations implemented by July 1.

Central to that report is the restructuring of UMDNJ, making it smaller by moving its central Jersey schools to Rutgers' New Brunswick campus. Surprisingly, the same report recommended giving the Rutgers-Camden campus to Rowan to create a major research university in South Jersey.

Rowan supports the plan, but students, faculty and alumni of Rutgers-Camden fought back against the proposal and faculty have threatened to sue if their school is forced to merge with Rowan.

There is still no price tag for that restructuring. The state’s higher education secretary told legislative budget committees last month that a group of experts is studying the costs and would have estimates sometime before lawmakers would have to vote on a plan. A commission proposed a similar restructuring a decade ago, and at the time estimated its cost at $1.3 billion.

But supporters of the plan, including the powerful George Norcross, say higher education in South Jersey needs to get more financial support. Norcross has complained repeatedly that Rutgers-Camden sends too much money to New Brunswick and that the university has neglected its South Jersey campus. He also has argued for improved higher education in South Jersey to keep more students in state.

“There’s a strong will to see in our neck of the woods and in Newark a full-fledged research university put in place,” Norcross told NJ Spotlight last month. “It’s undeniable that that needs to happen in a meaningful way.”

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