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Rowan's Resistance Helps Spur Changes to Education Restructuring Legislation

University insists on governing board that maintains its autonomy, as well as that of Rutgers-Camden.

Forces are continuing to mass against a legislative plan to create a joint board to govern Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden. Meanwhile, co-sponsors of the Senate bill -- introduced last week to restructure the state's higher education system – are rewriting sections of it in response to pushback from both academic communities.

The latest group to express displeasure is Rowan's Board of Trustees, which passed a resolution yesterday that endorsed the idea of a joint board to oversee new, voluntary collaborations between the two universities while "retaining the autonomy of both institutions and their respective governing boards."

Observers believe the resolution likely mirrors as-yet unreleased updates to the Senate bill. It does echo similar views codified by Rowan's faculty and staff Senate and the union that represents them, as well as Rutgers' boards of trustees and governors and faculty at all three of Rutgers' campuses.

The current draft of the bill, whose changes will, according to co-sponsor Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Gloucester), soon work their way into the identical Assembly version, also calls for Rutgers University to absorb all assets, debts, and employees of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMNDJ), except for Newark's University Hospital (UH) and the School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) in Stratford, Camden County, which would be subsumed into Rowan.

Original drafts of the bill called for SOM to be merged with Rutgers, along with almost all of the rest of UMDNJ. Vitale says the SOM and UH provisions could change dramatically as the bill moves through Trenton, since he and his colleagues are still working to find ways to ensure that UH retains its charitable mission and proper funding and that the SOM arrangement can be "practically applied."

In an open letter sent to the UMNDJ community yesterday, interim President Denise V. Rodgers opposed the separation of SOM from UMDNJ and stressed that if her institution does merge with Rutgers -- a positive scenario in her view that she says would "move Rutgers from approximately 44th place to 21st in the rankings of total research expenditures" -- her students wish their diplomas to retain the UMDNJ name.

Neither Rowan trustees nor Rowan interim President Ali Houshmand, who's expected to be named president this week, publicly addressed the SOM initiative yesterday, though spokesperson Joe Cardona acknowledged that Houshmand agrees with the trustees' recommendations for the structure of the joint Rowan/Rutgers-Camden governing board.

Despite the presumed similarity of the Rowan trustees' proposal to the updated Senate bill, the recent developments strike a blow against South Jersey's Trenton delegation and its political leader George Norcross. The Democratic powerbroker heads the board at Cooper University Hospital, which has just co-founded a medical school with Rowan. Gov. Chris Christie has also been working with Norcross and elected officials to integrate Rutgers-Camden with Rowan. Their initial merger proposals sparked outrage across South Jersey and the Rutgers community when they were released in January, and although Vitale downplays the connection, the rewritten legislation to be debated in a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing on Thursday appears to be a concession to that ever stronger pushback.

"This is not a political victory or defeat," Vitale said. "It was based on important decisions, not on ego, not on politics. It's never been about who we want to make happy for the sake of making them happy."

A source at Rowan who did not wish to be identified said legislators were outraged at media reports yesterday that showed Rowan's administration, faculty, and union representatives lining up in opposition to the original bill's provisions for the joint board. Several sources reported that representatives from the office of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had contacted Rowan administrators and union leaders in dismay with requests to be patient in advance of Thursday's debate on the rewritten bill.

NJ Spotlight has learned that Rowan's Local 2373 of the American Federation of Teachers is circulating a series of graphics to some of its members that depict its opposition to pieces of the legislation -- in both its original and revised forms. Union leaders are encouraging members to attend a closed Rowan University Senate meeting on the issue scheduled for Friday, during which faculty, staff, librarians, and coaches will vote on a statement of opposition to the powers granted to the joint board by the original legislation.

Rowan Senate President Eric Milou said, "We support the [Rowan Board of Trustees'] position but await changes to the legislation that will reflect these stipulations as well as details regarding funding for potential joint ventures such as a College of Health Sciences."

Though there's been no official proposal for a College of Health Sciences as such, stakeholders like Rowan's Board of Trustees do favor increased collaboration between Rowan and Rutgers-Camden, particularly in the area of health sciences.

In a unique attempt to forge a relationship between faculty at the two schools, Milou has invited Dr. Andrew Lees, his counterpart at Rutgers-Camden, to attend Friday's meeting. In return, Lees has invited Milou to a full faculty meeting he's holding at an undetermined time next week.

In response to the Rowan trustees' resolution and changes to the legislation, Norcross emailed, "I'm glad to see they support the plan to improve higher Ed in South Jersey. As is the case with all complex legislation, I'm sure changes that improve the plan will be successful."

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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