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Expected Merger of Rutgers’ Law Schools, History in the Making

Combined school would be greater than sum of parts, administration asserts, could eventually be ranked among top 50.

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If the enthusiasm of Rutgers University’s president, board of trustees, faculty, and students is any indication, Rutgers will soon merge its two law schools into one, while keeping both campuses intact. It will mark the first time in recent history that two accredited law schools broadly housed within one institution will be joined this way.

Separated in 1967, the Newark and Camden schools, which both began as independent institutions in the early 20th century, have operated as distinct colleges ever since. They share part of a name, some funding sources, and the university’s highest level of administrative hierarchy, while maintaining different academic programs, alumni networks, faculty hiring procedures, and admissions and graduation requirements.

But all of that is almost guaranteed to change for incoming students in 2014, who will likely be the first class to submit a joint application; attend some classes by teleconference; collaborate on journals and projects; and perhaps commute 90 miles between campuses.

Students, like any newly hired professors, will apply to and attend a unified institution called “The Rutgers School of Law,” but will retain the right to identify their geographical preference. Deans say they’ll do what they can to honor those preferences. Most in-state students apply to the campus closest to them; disregarding those choices could jeopardize enrollment.

Last January, faculty at both campuses voted unanimously to approve the proposal in advance of the deans presenting it to President Robert Barchi. This week, Barchi told an audience gathered at the Camden campus to hear his ideas for a university-wide strategic plan that he is “very, very supportive” of what he called the “only logical move.”

“To me it makes no sense at all [to maintain individual schools] when you could be building a single interactive entity that’s three times as good as any one of those entities is,” he said.

When briefed about the proposal by Camden law dean Rayman Solomon later that day, “I think it’s the greatest thing,” and, “We’re all on board.”

The merger, perhaps surprisingly, is being driven by reputation rather than cost. Originally set in motion three years ago, it stalled while the university worked out higher-level questions about its governance structure and integration with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Collaboration not Competition

Proponents posit that the merger will keep the schools -- of approximately equal size and rank -- from competing for students and faculty.

Instead, they argue, both schools will be able to attract the best and brightest. Further, a single law school eliminates the confusing designations: “Rutgers School of Law -- Camden” and “Rutgers School of Law -- Newark.”

That nomenclature, insiders complain, makes it possible to consider the well-regarded schools as nothing more than satellite campuses of a central New Brunswick headquarters. And this, they add, grievously hinders national recruitment efforts.

“Many people don’t realize that while New Brunswick is the largest of Rutgers’ three campuses, there’s no law school there. So there’s an immediate misperception that if you teach at Camden or Newark you’re not teaching at the main law school. You’re already working against a reputational headwind,” said Camden Vice Dean John Oberdiek.

According to Oberdiek, he and other plan architects expect that when Rutgers enters the Big Ten conference in the next few years, it will do so with one of the biggest law schools in the United States. They anticipate the combined school will boast one of the nation’s most comprehensive course offerings and potentially have the wherewithal to climb into the elite top 50 – up from its component schools’ current rankings of between 60th and 100th place.

Faculty members like Camden constitutional law professor Allan Stein feel each school already merits a much higher rank, which makes him all the more anxious for Rutgers to realign the faulty perception to more closely reflect reality.

“Both schools have a very strong faculty, and each campus is dramatically undervalued in the market,” he said. “I think both schools suffer from not owning a legal market. They’re the outsider in both New York and Philly.”

By merging the two, supporters hope they’ll more deeply penetrate those markets, widening students’ geographical reach to better access the critical mass of jobs and internships.

Randy Gray, editor-in-chief of the Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal, noted that the campuses each support different academic journals, so the merger will open up writing opportunities to a larger pool of students and thereby strengthen each publication.

Not a Cost-Cutting Move

What the merger won't deliver is savings. Some duplication might be eliminated by combining the two, but Oberdiek says that streamlining will be limited to minor cuts like overlapping library subscriptions. Because most professors have tenure, they can’t be laid off, and any downsizing will happen through attrition.

On the positive side, the plan shouldn’t cost more than $1 million, he says. The biggest expense will come from upgrading classrooms to accommodate the technology that will allow for distance learning and virtual faculty meetings, and Camden’s new law building is already wired for it.

The place to watch for involuntary cuts, says Camden 2011 graduate Rich McKee, is in the more specialized academic offerings. Though he supports the merger overall, the Navy intellectual property attorney worries that relatively obscure programs like admiralty law could fade from one campus or another. Though he appreciates that students might still access that coursework by commuting or using virtual classrooms, he says students at the campus without the course might not be exposed to the program and thus have no way to generate interest. . “You might not have access to face-to-face time with the professor and you wouldn’t have the [related extracurricular] club on campus,” he said.

Conspiracy Theory

But losing a club or two would be nothing compared to what some suggest could be the actual goal of the university: closing and consolidating of one or both of the campuses into a new facility in New Brunswick.

“One thing everyone’s thinking is, ‘What does this say about having a law school in New Brunswick?’” said Drexel University law professor and legal education blogger Daniel Filler. “That might be biggest elephant in the room.”

Filler says a New Brunswick law school could benefit the university by consolidating intellectual power and facilitating the creation of joint degrees on campus.

But such a move could injure morale and local pride by abandoning the impoverished Camden and Newark communities and the extensive network of pro-bono legal clinics and volunteer work contributed by students. It would also force professors, who predominantly live near their campuses, to commute or relocate to Central Jersey.

Camden dean Solomon insists the administration has no designs on establishing a New Brunswick school. Speaking to trustees, he said, “We are not leaving either campus. We are not cutting back on either of our commitments.”

He did note that law administrators might choose to establish an undergraduate legal studies program in New Brunswick but insisted that the chief opportunity for interdisciplinary studies would come from existing programs at the north and south campuses, such as the strong school of social work in Camden.

But Filler also notes that with or without a New Brunswick facility, consolidation brings more power to the central administration. Though the exact hierarchical structure hasn’t yet been determined, he says a centrally based provost or dean would make it easier to have the law schools “on message. It’ll be easier to use law school to further broaden the agenda of Rutgers University.”

That could pose problems for an independently minded faculty if it doesn't share those institutional priorities. That may be the case, for instance, if the administration asks professors to split their schedules to teach classes in New Brunswick.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden 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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