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Rutgers Restructuring: Behind Closed Doors

Two independent visions for Rutgers-Rowan -- both developed in secret -- are sure to keep the conflict and controversy going.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) are working to introduce legislation next week that would retain Rutgers-Camden within Rutgers University, while establishing a joint governing board to share funds and fiduciary responsibilities between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University.

The bill will be the culmination of a series of closed-door meetings between Sweeney, South Jersey political power broker George Norcross, representatives from Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, and others who met to work out a compromise between the status quo and a full merger of the two South Jersey schools – an idea that was initiated by a Christie-appointed task force in January.

The bill will surely meet with fierce opposition from Rutgers’ faculty, who’ve come out against this type of plan in the past, and the boards of Trustees and Governors, who are expected to release their own joint vision for restructuring the state’s higher education system next week. According to sources with inside knowledge, the executive boards of both organizations met last Thursday to devise a set of so-called principles, for possible reorganization of New Jersey’s colleges, universities, and medical schools.

Although the executive boards are keeping the contents secret for now, sources suspect trustees won’t allow an outside entity like the proposed governing board to make major decisions about Rutgers assets.

“There is no way the Board of Trustees is going to let anybody have control over any component of Rutgers,” insisted one Rutgers source.

“There is a sizable majority of Board of Trustees members who will not go along with a compromise that cedes financial control over Rutgers-Camden or Newark,” agreed another source.

Sources predict the Board of Trustees will be ready to challenge the bill in court if it passes. Earlier this month, the board released a manifesto asserting that Rutgers-Camden must remain fully within Rutgers’ domain and that only the two Rutgers governing boards have legal jurisdiction to approve the relinquishment of any of its campuses.

The Board of Governors has remained silent throughout the state-wide melee, so until now, trustees have been resigned to merely guessing their opinion. One long-standing trustee queried several governors at Rutgers’ recent graduation ceremonies and found that just three of the eleven members would admit to sharing his concerns over relinquishing control over Rutgers-Camden’s finances. So he’s relieved that governors and trustees have been able to come together in agreement.

This trustee told NJ Spotlight, “There has been some thought in the press that the [Board of Trustees] was leaning one way and the [Board of Governors] was leaning another and that it would be quite a mess if the boards split. The key thing from Thursday’s meeting was that . . . the trustees may have been surprised to find out the [governors weren't] feeling what they feared.” Another source familiar with the Board of Trustee discussions says the joint resolution will lay out specific and practical reasons why they so vehemently oppose losing Rutgers-Camden or sharing it with Rowan.

These reasons include the potential need to refinance the bonds for all Rutgers campuses, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the unlikelihood that Rowan could become an accredited research university within the next few decades.

Sources do, however, believe that the controversy may cause the boards to consider other means to give more economic and decision-making parity to Rutgers’ two branch campuses, including bringing back the chancellor position in New Brunswick. As it stands now, Camden and Newark campuses have chancellors who report to the executive vice president, who’s also New Brunswick’s chancellor.

“Whoever is in that position has a conflict of interest,” said one source. “He’s obviously going to favor New Brunswick. Why not have all of them report to the president?”

Meantime, members of both boards are anxiously waiting to see when Sweeney and Vitale will introduce their legislation. If the bill is introduced before their resolution is announced, they fear their position could get overshadowed in the debate. Trustees were scheduled to discuss the restructuring in a closed session today but postponed the meeting to include the Board of Governors, whose chair, Dr. Ralph Izzo, is reportedly out of the country this week.

The long-time trustee said, “I’m guessing it would get a lot of press and it would begin to form opinions in people’s minds without the advantage of the opinions of the people who govern Rutgers University.”

As to the timing, Vitale said he hopes to have a draft written by the end of this week and will introduce it next week “if all the planets align.”

Vitale said a similar bill will likely be introduced in the Assembly after the Senate version. Senators are currently working with the Assembly speaker, the mayor of Newark and the Essex County delegation to hammer out details regarding the fate of Newark’s University Hospital. Newark residents and Essex County legislators feared it could be stripped from University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) during the restructuring but at a public hearing called by Rep. Ron Rice (D-Newark) in Newark Tuesday, interim UMDNJ president Denise Rodgers told the audience that the Christie administration had assured her University Hospital will remain part of UMDNJ even if a private company takes over its management.

The Board of Trustees does not oppose the task force’s recommendation to reabsorb Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and School of Public Health into Rutgers, as proposed, but it feels conversations about the medical schools should not be part of the discussion about Rutgers-Camden. Vitale says his bill addresses all facets of the restructuring.

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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