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The Clock Is Ticking for Rutgers/Rowan/UMDNJ Merger

Tara Nurin | October 4, 2012

State higher-education officials face daunting task, tough timetable, in enacting sweeping changes.

The grandfather clock outside the office of new Rutgers University President Robert Barchi is ticking loudly, counting down the minutes to July 1, 2013. That's the deadline for reorganizing 16 distinct college campuses, medical schools, and patient-care centers across the state into three research and educational institutions.

It took more than six months of wrangling in Trenton to craft a law – the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Restructuring Act -- that finally satisfied most parties, followed by a summer to recuperate and make amends. It's now time for the state’s higher-education policymakers and their staffs to figure out how to redistribute the wealth of intellectual and physical properties owned and managed by Rutgers, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), Rowan University, and, to a lesser extent, Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

Beyond the sheer enormity of their mission, they face two major obstacles: First, Rutgers’ boards of governors and trustees have yet to approve the law, which the Rutgers Act of 1956 contract stipulates must happen before it can officially move forward. Second, there’s still no cost estimate for the overhaul.

There’s speculation that the trustees and governors will hold a special joint meeting in November to formalize their position and determine whether they’ve adequately discharged their fiduciary duties, though no meeting is scheduled yet.

Fortunately for those awaiting a decision, the boards are expected to approve the law – with some caveats.

“Some people feel there’s a lot of cleanup that has to be done,” said board of trustees President Dudley Rivers. Andy Shankman, who co-founded the Committee to Save Rutgers-Camden , which worked to shape the final legislation, interprets this to mean that trustees and governors support the overall intent and provisions of the law. But they will likely insist on “cosmetic changes” that more clearly detail provisions all parties agreed to during private negotiations that included representatives from both boards.

[The act] is left with ghostly language because there was this rush to change everything at the last minute,” said Shankman, referring to the rash of 11th-hour compromises that took place before the legislation passed. “There’s still a lot of bloat in there.”

In the meantime, a cadre of consultants and attorneys are scrambling to calculate a price tag, while those responsible for implementing the restructuring are ensuring that a foundation will be in place when the governing boards accept the terms.

Barchi: Year One

Barchi is plunging into his first year as Rutgers president by announcing creation of a School of Biomedical and Health Sciences in Newark. It will have its own line item in the state budget.

He also intends to create and fill several top-level positions and promises to draft a plan to “identify a vision and clear priorities for the strategic investment of resources” by the end of this academic year, as he informed faculty and staff in an email last month.

In that email, the Rutgers president also pledged to follow up with a facilities master plan that calls for capital projects to be reviewed by a Capital Council, chaired by Barchi and made up of representatives from the university’s three existing campuses, to ensure fair distribution of resources.

More important for the short term, the president declared he would overhaul the structure of his administration by creating a senior vice president for finance position and conducting a national search to fill it; appointing an executive vice president for academic affairs who will act as chancellor of the New Brunswick campus for the coming year; and launching another national search to find chancellors for both Rutgers’ Newark campus and for Biomedical and Health Sciences.

The person hired for the latter position will oversee the new health sciences school, which is to encompass many of Rutgers’ current health-science programs and the transferring UMDNJ schools (except for the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, which will operate individually within Rutgers).

Each of the four chancellors, including Rutgers-Camden’s Wendell Pritchett, will report directly to the president and supervise a provost assigned to run academic operations. Two provosts will report to the health sciences chancellor -- one will work in New Brunswick and the other in Newark.

Rutgers - UMDNJ Integration

“We have 276 days to ensure that the integration process doesn’t interfere with or compromise our work with the students we teach or the patients we serve,” said Dr. Denise Rodgers, interim president of UMDNJ, in a state-of-the-university speech last week.

That address will likely be her last, since the law calls for breaking up the bulky UMDNJ, whose many components will be absorbed by Rutgers and, in the case of the School of Osteopathic Medicine, by Rowan University.

The interim provost for biomedical and health sciences, Christopher Molloy, is coordinating the massive integration of Rutgers and UMDNJ.

According to the Joint Rutgers-UMDNJ Integration website designed to keep the public apprised of the efforts, Molloy is responsible for “reviewing clinical, research, and academic strengths among the proposed merged units and developing plans to set our expanded university on a path to become a first-class, comprehensive, university-based health science center for New Jersey.”

Malloy’s primary responsibility is to work with Rodgers to conceive an effective approach to dismantling UMNDJ and putting it back together within a Rutgers framework. So far, the two have designated a steering committee and 12 functional teams to architect details of the merger.

The teams, each chaired by representatives from both universities, are charged with “identifying issues, establishing work plans, making crucial decisions, and ensuring that a smooth operational integration is achieved” in the areas of information systems, human resources, communication and government relations, legal affairs, compliance, advancement and development, clinical programs and affiliation agreements, facilities and capital planning, finance and procurement, research, student services, and academic and education needs.

Barchi has said that once the integration is completed, Rutgers’ annual operating budget will grow from $2 billion to $3 billion.

Rutgers-Camden and Rowan

In South Jersey, those orchestrating the partnership between Rutgers-Camden (RUC), Rowan, and the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University -- which proponents say will give the region a world-class biomedical research center -- are proceeding cautiously as they wait for Gov. Chris Christie and governing boards from both universities to appoint members to the joint board of governors, which will oversee new and expanded collaborations between the schools. A new board of trustees is also being formed for RUC.

A spokesperson for Christie said, “We are in the midst of constituting and filling these new boards and we’ll make the slates known as soon as we are able.”

The team is also waiting for results of a November bond referendum that will determine whether the New Jersey's institutions of higher learning will receive $750 million for capital improvements.

If the bond issue is approved by state voters, the South Jersey consortium is slated to receive $80 million to build a home for the Life Science Research Institute, which is what university leaders are currently calling their collaboration.

Though the schools haven’t settled on where they’ll locate the institute, representatives from Rowan, Rutgers, and Cooper have all expressed hope that it will rise in downtown Camden on a site that will more closely connect Rutgers and the medical school, which are now several blocks apart.

While they wait, the South Jersey contingent is tentatively sketching out a vision for what shape their fledgling relationship will take. Faculty and staff from RUC’s science programs have informally met with their counterparts at Rowan over the past several months to get to know one another and discuss their shared goals.

Chancellor Pritchett and Rowan President Ali Houshmand have also met several times, and over the past two years, both have established major science-based schools, departments, degrees and programs created with an eye toward building some sort of coalition.

Rowan’s nascent School of Biomedical Sciences, which operates in conjunction with the colleges of Science & Mathematics and Engineering, will likely funnel talent and ideas toward the joint institute. RUC’s Joe Martin, who heads the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, which draws faculty from across various disciplines, is spearheading the collaborative efforts.

Martin believes the institute, with a budget funded initially through $2.5 million allocations from both Rutgers and Rowan, will be as a pioneer in the translational medicine field -- an approach to medical research and delivery popular with federal grant makers that “translates” results from basic scientific research directly into clinical practice. He anticipates that the institute will be designed to encourage linear sharing of information that begins at RUC and then travels to Rowan, and then to the medical school and hospital in a place that brings researchers, scientists, educators, doctors and students together in one place.

“I see it as going from basic sciences to the more applied engineering than the actual bringing it to the bedside. We think this would make an appealing new institution because of its different levels of abstraction and research,” Martin said.

Though the team has far from finalized its target areas of research, Martin said general areas of discussion have ranged from psychology to physics.

Some specific research areas in which team members have expressed interest: digitally modeling the metabolic process to learn how to manipulate cells to produce biofuels; studying the chronology of biorhythms; exploring the mechanisms that compel organisms to grow and organize themselves; expanding the understanding of pharmacology, and developing new biomaterials for use in medical treatments.

“The question becomes, ‘Is it solely graduate education versus undergraduate?’ Right now the idea is that it’s graduate but you don’t know what’s going to come out,” said Joe Cardona, Rowan’s interim vice president for university relations.

Rowan: The School of Osteopathic Medicine and Research Status

Rowan’s faculty and administrators are waging restructuring battles on more than one front. While they attempt to lay the groundwork for their Camden collaboration, they’re finding themselves able to move more quickly to integrate the School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) in Camden County, which is being spun off from UMDNJ, though Cardona says the procedures to do so are excruciatingly complex.

“The list goes on and on,” he said. “For example, something as simple as transferring student information. Where do you store that? Fortunately both of us use [the same] software but their categories are different than our categories. We’re rewriting [the programs] to make sure nothing is lost, but in the meantime, we still have to run our schools.”

Administrators from Rowan, SOM and UMDNJ met last week in New Brunswick this past Friday to formalize their transition teams and intentions.

Other matters they’ll need to eventually discuss with Rutgers officials include the results of an ongoing UMDNJ evaluation of its assets and obligations; who pays to hire additional support staff to supplement those now operating under UMDNJ’s purview; and what sort of real estate agreement will emerge for UMDNJ/Rutgers satellite programs and properties that share the small Stratford campus with SOM.

Cardona says that at the very least they need to complete two aspects of the transition by next July 1: “At bare minimum what we have to do is get employees paid and make sure student information systems are up running,” he said.

Then, as if integrating SOM and planning for a new collaborative bioengineering institute weren’t enough, Rowan officials also have to worry about shifting the university’s scope to become a designated research institution. Rowan became one of two state research universities when the restructuring legislation was signed.

But obtaining the coveted designation as a research university from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education -- which lawmakers somehow promised during their fight to pass the bill -- will prove infinitely harder and take years or even decades to accomplish. Rowan can achieve this honor only after it increases its academic offerings, bolsters its commitment to research, and gets increased funding from grants and other external sources.

“Somewhere along the path between the $13.7 million Rowan received last fiscal year and the $440 million Rutgers received is where we get to be considered,” said Cardona. “What’s going to kick start this process is the collaboration and our biomedical school.”

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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