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Day One and Counting for Restructured Rutgers and Rowan Universities

More than a year of intensive work -- on everything from payroll and physician protocols to branded clothing -- readies both schools for historic transition.

After more than a year spent scrambling to facilitate what Rutgers President Robert Barchi calls the most expansive university merger in American history, the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Restructuring Act goes into effect today.

The act dismantles the scandal-ridden University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and shifts six of its schools to Rutgers and two to Rowan University in Glassboro, while forging Newark’s University Hospital into an independent entity with teaching ties to Rutgers.

The Board of Governors of Rutgers University grows to 15 members -- with eight appointed by the governor. And the school's Newark and Camden campuses gain slightly more independence from New Brunswick, thanks to new campus-specific chancellors, oversight bodies and $48.9 million in direct state funding. In Camden, a new Board of Directors will appoint some members to an as-yet-unconstituted joint board between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan that will launch a collaborative College of Health Sciences.

Rutgers will mark the transition with an appearance by Gov. Chris Christie and a 9 a.m. ringing of the Old Queens Bell in New Brunswick, followed by a noon ceremony at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway and another at 3:30 p.m. at the Delta Dental Educational Conference Center in Newark. Rowan is celebrating with a 10 a.m. ceremony to unveil the Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM).

Last week, as the final touches were being put on the integration process, it was announced that former UMDNJ president Denise Rodgers will take a position as Vice Chancellor for Interprofessional Programs at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. Meanwhile, in Trenton, legislation that threatened to derail the restructuring by dissolving Rutgers’ 247-year-old Board of Trustees did not receive a vote before legislators recessed. A special session may be scheduled as early as July 8. An alternative Assembly bill to empanel a committee to study Rutgers’ governance structure also did not receive a vote or a Senate sponsor.

Making the Merger Happen at Rutgers

By all accounts, all schools are ready for the changeover. According to Chris Molloy, interim provost for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, 350 Rutgers and UMDNJ officials have spent 100,000 man-hours in hourly, daily, and weekly meetings. They’ve worked in 12 integration teams focused on areas like human relations, finance, research, and clinical practices, And they've have had to consider items as detailed as naming and signage for buildings, stationery letterhead, tax ID numbers, and branded clothing, along with the bigger-ticket transitional requirements such as streamlining physician protocols across facilities.

Rutgers will maintain both of UMDNJ’s medical schools (Robert Wood Johnson Medical School [RWJ] and New Jersey Medical School [NJMS]) and build upon each school’s strengths. For instance, RWJ has a strong cancer expertise, so administrators will continue to devote resources to grow position in research and treatment. NJMS excels in neuroscience and will benefit from resources to further distinguish it in that area. For the time being, the UMDNJ legacy nursing school will remain separate from Rutgers’ nursing school but will eventually combine.

All unionized employees must retain their employment for at least one year, and many of UMDNJ’s support staff are moving to University Hospital, which now requires its own professionals to do the jobs that had been managed by the university.

“I expect there to be very minimal loss to jobs,” said Molloy during an extensive phone interview last week. “At UMDNJ the majority of revenue comes from healthcare service, with tuition being a very small piece. So we have to retain employees who have expertise in their fields.”

Rutgers officials say they’re committed to finding ways to hold tuition steady despite paying an estimated $75 million in one-time costs to merge a $1 billion health sciences university into a $2 billion state research university. With no reimbursements agreed to yet by Trenton, the costs are being borne by the university, with some offsets from grants awarded by foundations like Robert Wood Johnson. Separately, Rutgers has been selling bonds to defease UMDNJ’s considerable debt.

South Jersey

In South Jersey, Rowan is also funding all of its own $12 million in transition costs to integrate UMDNJ’s legacy SOM and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS), both located in Stratford, Camden County. The university has promised not to raise tuition for 2013/2014 and expects to receive operating funds from the state at amounts comparable to what UMDNJ collected from the General Assembly.

The university has received all of its needed accreditations to operate those schools without any interruption or threat to students’ medical degrees or licenses. And with its new designation as a state research university, Rowan can establish doctoral programs (it’s already set up three and has one more in the pipeline).

With these graduate programs in place, Rowan can begin to attract more distinguished faculty that administrators anticipate will bring in more grant money, endowments, and enrollment that will lead to an eventual national research classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. With that, Rowan can attract even more federal grants and top faculty.

A Smooth Move

By all accounts, merging the schools has been a smooth process despite having to combine 140 different computer systems managing databases like patient and student records and employee payroll. That’s in addition to dissolving old contracts and signing new ones, developing a shared culture, and setting up new relationships between students at SOM/GSBS, Rowan, and Rowan’s own medical school, housed at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

To complicate matters, some of the buildings on the Stratford campus house branch locations of other legacy UMDNJ schools now owned by Rutgers. Rowan and Rutgers officials are in holding discussions on the best ways to maintain critical existing joint degrees and programs.

“When you’re training health professionals for the future, an important part of their training becomes intraprofessional disciplines,” said SOM Dean Dr. Thomas Cavalieri, who says this training is becoming an ever-growing trend in medical education.

“Our relationship with other schools is very important so we will have to continue to work together in some way,” he said.

And with Rowan taking over ownership of the property, Rowan and Rutgers are also negotiating terms under which Rutgers will lease classroom and lab space from Rowan. Because some of those schools have already outgrown their space, Cavalieri believes they’ll eventually expand to Glassboro or Camden.

According to Rowan President Dr. Ali Houshmand, “Each entity, no matter how big or small, has its own uniqueness to be respected,” he said. “We’ve all seen examples of failed marriages. Remember Chrysler and Mercedes? Mercedes thought it could come and impose German culture on us and it didn’t work.”

Back in New Brunswick, Molloy says the legislation to disband the Board of Trustees and the recent scandal that resulted in the firing and resignation of several senior athletic department officials, have just been mere distractions from “the big story.”

The fact that UMDNJ -- a damaged brand -- is going away and with Rutgers becoming a healthcare-delivery and academic powerhouse, that’s being lost by what I consider to be minor distractions. This is a huge thing. It’s like New Jersey’s equivalent to getting a school like what University of Michigan is to Michigan or Penn State is to Pennsylvania,” Molloy said.

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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