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Assembly Budget Committee Passes Restructuring Bill

Late-evening unanimous vote comes after a day of writing, revising, and re-revising amendments to the controversial legislation.

Lab-coated students from the School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM).

Controversial legislation to restructure New Jersey’s higher education system passed the state Assembly Budget Committee last night and is expected to pass the full Assembly on Thursday, the last scheduled voting day of the session. The Senate, which postponed its own vote yesterday, is also expected to cast a favorable vote on Thursday.

Despite hearing a succession of vehement testimonials opposing the bill and acknowledging an ongoing lack of solid financial data, members of the Assembly committee passed it unanimously. The committee held off voting until ten in the evening as they waited for amendments to be frantically negotiated, written and rewritten in private meetings among representatives from stakeholder institutions and both chambers throughout the day.

The amendments include provisions to limit the authority of a proposed board of governors for Rutgers University’s Newark campus to an advisory role; maintain the balance of power between political and non-political appointees on the current university-wide Board of Governors; allow a joint board straddling Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University to rule only on future affairs; provide for a two-year hold-harmless clause that inures Rutgers from unforeseen costs incurred by incorporating the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ); and ensure that all services at University Hospital are adequately funded by the state. Some of these amendments have already been added to the Senate bill; the others will likely be added by Thursday.

In testifying in support of the amendments, cosponsor John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) told the committee that the bill is still a work-in-progress that will be further amended to better comply with parameters set by Rutgers’ governing boards, as well as the 1956 act that defines the boards’ responsibilities for stewarding the university. Rutgers has threatened to sue the state if legislators, in conjunction with Gov. Chris Christie, enact a law that violates the 1956 act or doesn’t meet with its stated objectives.

“We’re not nullifying or changing the 1956 act,” assured Wisniewski, in what might be the most concessionary public nod to the boards’ authority from a legislator yet. “I think it’s important to reaffirm that whatever we legislate is subject to a vote of the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors.”

When asked if he knew how much the legislation would cost, Wisniewski admitted he didn’t. He then referenced a fiscal note prepared by the treasury department, which caused committee member Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) to lightly mock the note, teasingly implying that the financial figures included in the report have been roundly dismissed in the state house and discredited by a subsequent memo written by the Office of Legislative Services.

Wisniewski played along with Schaer, then added seriously, “I don’t know that it’s possible to move this legislation and have a number that accurately reflects what this will cost. But that will be part of discussions. We’re spending money no doubt. But doing nothing was not an option.”

The absence of definitive - numbers propelled a coalition of nine assembly members to threaten to block passage of the state budget if Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) didn’t delay a vote on the restructuring bill in order to hold hearings over the summer and fall to more fully vet its costs. The coalition crumbled when Reps. Connie Wagner (D-Paramus) and Tim Eustace (D-Paramus) defected, a change of heart that news reports suggest occurred when Assembly leadership vowed to withhold $10 million for bridge repairs in Bergen County. The pair released a statement explaining, "While we continue to have concerns regarding the speed at which the higher education reorganization is happening, we are ready to offer our support for the Democratic budget proposal."

On Monday, coalition leader former Assembly Speaker Joe Cryan (D-Union) ultimately cast his vote for the winning budget, explaining that his former partners’ support for the budget provided the numbers it needed to pass, making it pointless for him to vote against it. He uses the same rationale for his intention to vote for the higher education legislation on Thursday: as he told NJ Spotlight, there’s not enough dissent to keep it from passing.

The process to advance this legislation has challenged legislators, stakeholders, and journalists to keep pace, as a flurry of negotiations, proposed amendments, and changes has swept around it daily since it was introduced in the Senate at the beginning of the month. While many opponents -- and even some supporters -- have begged legislators to slow down, elected officials have acted to meet a deadline of July 1 demanded by the governor.

Outstanding issues span the state from north to south and encounter resistance from every institution slated to be affected: Rutgers, Rowan, University Hospital, UMDNJ and its School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) have all registered serious concerns about components of the proposal. Although officially, most of these institutions welcome the overall premise of the bill -- to strengthen higher education in New Jersey by merging most of UMDNJ with Rutgers, granting more financial and decision-making parity to Rutgers’ campuses in Newark and Camden, and creating a network of research collaborations between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan -- worries about debt refinancing, accreditation, research funding, student and faculty enrollment and retention, tenure and academic standards, medical service to the community, political influence and cronyism, and self-governance continue to plague the process and infuriate opponents.

Meanwhile, Rutgers-Camden law school is ranked in the top 100 in the nation, though its dean recently reported a more than 50 percent decline in enrollment since last year, a drop he attributes to uncertainty about the school’s future resulting from the legislation in question.

Yesterday’s Assembly budget committee hearing marked the first time legislators have heard publicly from representatives from SOM, which is designated to be subsumed by Rowan if or when the law takes effect on July 1, 2013. After UMDNJ interim president Denise Rodgers testified against the separation of SOM, a group of approximately 25 students dressed in lab coats stood in support of two students who testified strongly against this provision and for the school’s continued relationship with UMDNJ, which they, like all other vocal constituencies, hope will become part of Rutgers.

Speakers warned the committee that, as the president of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) testified before the Senate Higher Education Committee on June 14, a merge with Rowan, which they say lacks adequate infrastructure, federal designation as a research institute, and the robust synergies already established between SOM and other health science programs, could cause SOM to lose its own academic accreditation. This consequence, they warned, could trigger the loss of federal research funding and would prevent students from pursuing their third and fourth years of study and keep them from taking the board exams they must pass in order to earn their medical licenses.

SOM, ranked among the top three osteopathic medical schools in the U.S., receives more National Institutes of Health grants than any other and graduates more students who stay in New Jersey to practice primary care medicine than sister institutions Robert Wood Johnson and New Jersey Medical School. Further, they argued, a move into Rowan could compel professors to flee, including one Dr. Robert Nagele, who’s developing what may be the medical’s community’s most anticipated advance in diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease.

“There’s nothing to gain, no advantage to this,” said past Student Council president Luigi Cendana before the hearing. “It’s almost as if Rowan is a leech. We’d enhance its reputation while they worsened ours.”

SOM’s faculty senate, along with its alumni association and UMDNJ’s Board of Trustees have all released statements that echo students’ arguments. In addition, approximately 1700 people had signed a petition of support for their position.

During the budget committee’s question-and-answer period, member John Burzichelli (D-West Deptford) assured students repeatedly that legislators would not jeopardize the school’s accreditation. “We will not pass any bill that is not absolutely sure that accreditation remains in place. Without this, there is no merger. Everything stops . . .”

Indeed, amendments introduced last night insist that SOM be allowed to maintain ties with at least one other established and relevant facility and instruct Rowan to do whatever is necessary to build facilities and programs that meet with accrediting bodies’ standards.

Later, after the budget committee released the bill, Wisniewski acknowledged that the amendments don’t address what happens if SOM does lose accreditation during the certainly lengthy and expensive period of transition but he did say that overall, “every moment we’re getting closer” to reaching an agreement on amendments that should better satisfy interested parties.

A Rutgers source who did not wish to be identified summed up the open secret that defines how the proceedings have been taking place this week and last: “The real action is going on, in fits and starts, behind the scenes. It's unlikely that anyone expects these are the final amendments.”

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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