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Bill for Merger of NJ Universities Introduced in Senate

Tara Nurin | June 5, 2012

Proposal calls for joint governing board for Rutgers-Camden, Rowan; dismantling of UMDNJ

Far-reaching legislation was introduced into the New Jersey Senate yesterday to restructure the state’s higher education system, and critics are angry that the bill, framed by sponsors as a compromise, does not take into account most of the concerns that have formed the basis of a six-month controversy among the state’s politicians, educators, unions, students and residents.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and senators Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Donald Norcross (D-Camden), seeks to establish Rutgers-Camden as an independent institution tied to Rowan University by a joint governing board that would oversee the sharing of finances and academic programs between the two South Jersey schools.

In the northern part of the state, University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ (UMDNJ) would be dismantled, with its component parts becoming subsumed by Rutgers, with the exception of Newark’s University Hospital, which would become an independent teaching hospital funded directly by state appropriation. A dedicated new Board of Governors that would be granted the authority to propose its own annual budget, academic programs, degree requirements, capital projects and candidates for tenure would manage Rutgers-Newark.

Andrew Shankman, of the Committee to Save Rutgers-Camden, called the bill “the rankest form of cronyism.”

“We reject out of hand the idea that this is called a compromise in which they’ve listened to anything other than their own desires,” he said. “It is a takeover of our Rutgers campus.”

Under the plan, Rutgers-Camden would retain its name but further connections to Rutgers, which would continue to provide central services and library resources, would be on a contractual basis. Campus operations would be funded directly by state appropriation, and a new seven-member Board of Trustees -- four of whom would be gubernatorial appointees from South Jersey -- would manage these funds. The school’s administration would oversee the allocation of tuition funds, though the newly created Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Governing Board would share resources for housing, student affairs and security, as well as capital investment, bonding authority, operation, and governance in health science facilities such as Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.

The joint governing board would consist of two trustees each from Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, plus three members appointed by the governor with approval from the Senate. This board would be charged with approving decisions made by both boards of trustees, developing curricula, programs and dual degrees, and jointly appointing faculty to both universities.

“The reason for the joint board is so that George Norcross can take funds that were paid to one campus and shift them to his med school or to Rowan,” accused Shankman, referring to the Cooper University Hospital’s Chairman of the Board who advocated for Christie’s original plan for a full merger between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan. “That’s been their intention all along.”

Norcross did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Vitale, however, defended the legislation that was drafted as the result of secret meetings between Norcross, Sweeney, representatives from Christie’s administration, and others. “Any change that is this dramatic will always create controversy,” he said. “But this has been in discussion for years and if not for this legislation we would continue to talk about it. It deserves serious consideration and approval.”

Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett, who has publicly opposed the idea of a merger, said in a statement, “I am deeply gratified that Senate President Sweeney recognizes the importance of Rutgers–Camden and wants to see us continue to flourish … I look forward to working with legislative leaders to refine this proposal to insure the integrity of Rutgers-Camden and to advance our higher education agenda in South Jersey."

The bill has the support of South Jersey’s political delegation but will likely meet with opposition from elected Essex County officials, who’re forcefully advocating for the preservation of UMDNJ and higher funding levels and debt relief for University Hospital. Under the bill, Rutgers would not assume University Hospital’s debt and the hospital would likely be managed by a private entity while being funded by the state. This directly contradicts an assurance interim UMDNJ president Denise Rodgers said was given to her by the governor’s office that University Hospital would carry on under the banner of UMDNJ.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic), a strong supporter of University Hospital, declined to address that purported inconsistency in a statement that read, in part, “While I have yet to read the bill that has been filed in the Senate, I continue to be engaged in ongoing discussions with all stakeholders on higher education reorganization.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who’s also been vocal in her support of University Hospital, also sounded a conciliatory tone in a statement released today: “The plan we have seen put forward by the Senate Democrats is drastically different from that proposed by the governor earlier this year. That is because the bill sponsors took the time to hear everyone’s concerns and showed a willingness to compromise. Hopefully the governor will do the same.”

The governor’s spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement, “Governor Christie applauds Senate President Sweeney’s leadership to move the university reorganization forward for the benefit of all of New Jersey. This is a critical and positive step, and the governor looks forward to working together to achieve this reorganization by June 30.”

But Rutgers president Richard McCormick released a statement of his own that reiterates the Rutgers’ Board of Trustees position that only they and the Board of Governors are imbued with the legal authority to make such broad changes to the university.

“Although some elements of the legislation were unexpected and will demand particular study, overall the bill appears to advance the goals of enhancing medical education across the state,” he wrote. “Ultimately, the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees will have to carefully review the bill and render a decision.”

The bill comes out in advance of a joint meeting between the boards of trustees and governors scheduled for Wednesday during which it’s expected they will formalize a set of principles drafted 10 days ago to outline their position on restructuring, including their opposition to the severance of Rutgers-Camden from Rutgers.

Sources familiar with these principles expressed concern last week that Sweeney and his allies would introduce their legislation before trustees and governors had a chance to announce their proposed resolution. When asked yesterday about the timing, Vitale said, “It was necessary to do this … in advance of their meeting so they can benefit from the full understanding of what we’re proposing so they can respond to it and begin to work with us. In some ways, we share a lot of the same positions.”

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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