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Rowan/Rutgers-Camden Board Addresses Procedural Issues at First Meeting

Rowan University
Rowan Hall, Rowan University.

As the past two years have amply demonstrated, nothing is simple when it comes to the new Rowan University-Rutgers-Camden limited partnership. This may be at least doubly true when it comes to the various boards that can issue mandates or make contributions to the restructured institutions of higher education.

Of most significance, at least for now, is the long-anticipated joint board of governors established to oversee collaborative health-sciences projects between Rowan University and Rutgers University – Camden (RUC). This joint entity has held its first -- mostly procedural -- meeting. Now, its members are turning to the main task at hand: transforming Camden and its environs into an educational and medical juggernaut.

Also at the table are the Rutgers board of directors, which consists of four gubernatorial appointees (two of whom have yet to be named) and five appointed by the university’s two overarching governing boards. One of these, the board of trustees, is charged with limited oversight of university properties. The other is the more powerful board of governors, whose members are appointed by the governor of New Jersey or brought up from the ranks of trustees.

Compromise Decision

The Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden board of governors is the result of a compromise law signed in 2012 that preserved the Camden campus as part of Rutgers but established formal ties between it and Rowan, located 20 miles away in Glassboro.

Those who defended RUC against efforts to wholly subsume it into Rowan are pleased that at least one member of the joint board is a staunch Rutgers advocate. Still, they wonder if the board and its chairman wield too much power to make unilateral decisions for the constituent schools and the city.

Using $2.5 million allocated annually by each university, the board is charged with founding a College of Health Sciences that will not award its own degrees but will serve as an umbrella for degree-granting programs at each school. It will also house projects that draw faculty, students and professionals from both universities, as well as Camden’s Cooper University Health Care system.

According to a Rowan spokesperson, board members will likely turn their initial attention to Rowan graduate programs in the allied health fields. They are also expected to get involved in population and public health studies, as well as projects that emerge from RUC’s Center for Computational and Integrative Biology and its planned nursing school.

It's not hard to understand why members of the joint board may be uneasy about the amount of power the board has, as well as the authority ceded to it chair.

At the first board meeting last week, the governors passed a resolution that gives newly elected chair Jack Collins -- a former Republican assembly speaker from Salem County -- the authority to green-light projects and spending without approval. This decision comes on the heels of a law Gov. Chris Christie quietly signed in January that grants Rowan the power of eminent domain, an ability Rutgers does not have.

Eminent Domain

A few weeks ago, Rowan’s board of trustees authorized additional funding to seize a home behind the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, located in downtown Camden, to build parking lots and a delivery area. Rowan Director of Communications Joe Cardona says owners of the remaining 21 lots sold voluntarily and that the university didn’t have to prove blight.

“As a public entity you have to show that there’s a use that’s of a greater good,” he said. “We need the property as part of the medical school. That whole area is expanding.” The aggressive move, combined with the joint board’s concentration of power and its chairman’s authority are part of what makes some onlookers nervous. Collins, a former Rowan professor and an alumnus of both Rowan and RUC, was appointed to the board by Christie. Also named to the board was Cooper chief of staff Louis Bezich, who was elected vice president. Bezich works for Cooper chairman George Norcross, a Democratic powerbroker and Christie ally who is believed to have initially urged the governor to recommend the full Rowan-RUC merger.

Norcross holds tremendous influence over Democratic politics in South Jersey, as well as daily dealings in Camden. He helped orchestrate the creation of the Cooper/Rowan med school after he unsuccessfully courted Rutgers.

In addition to Collins and Bezich, the board comprises five more members, four of whom could be viewed as potentially sympathetic to Norcross: Christie appointee Michellene Davis; Rowan designees Chad Bruner and Fred Graziano; Camden Mayor and Norcross teammate Dana Redd; and Robert Mortensen, a Rutgers trustee who fought for RUC when others sought its abolition.

Mortensen is the only member of the joint board of governors without public ties to Norcross or Rowan, and it is he who questioned Collins at the meeting about the resolution to give him unchecked power over financial and project decisions. Although Collins assured board members that he intends to ask them to review all major decisions about hiring, leasing, and purchasing, the resolution and the appointments does raise the question: can Norcross or Christie or both use the board to do their bidding? Rutgers Governing Boards – More Labyrinthine Than Ever But if pro-Rutgers advocates have anything to fear from the makeup and broad authority of the joint board of governors, they should be reassured by the composition of the new Rutgers-Camden board of directors, which was created by the same law that established the joint board to maintain independent oversight of the Camden campus. With most of its members appointed by the university’s two main governing boards – the board of trustees and the board of governors -- the Camden board is comprised primarily of members who defended the campus against the outside forces who sought to separate it from Rutgers.

“The five Rutgers appointees to our Rutgers-Camden Board of Directors were staunch supporters of this Campus in 2012 when Gov. Christie . . . threatened to sever it from the rest of Rutgers University,” emailed Andrew Shankman, who co-founded the ad-hoc Save Rutgers-Camden group when the campus was in peril.

Presiding over the Rutgers-Camden board of Ddirectors is Gerald Harvey, a Camden advocate who also chairs the Board of Governors until his term expires on June 31, 2014. In June 2012, Harvey, an Ocean County resident who grew up in Moorestown and Cherry Hill, led the governors in to join with the board of trustees to oppose the proposed RUC separation from Rutgers and subsequent merger with Rowan. That resolution marked a turning point in negotiations with lawmakers because it was the first time the board of governors had taken a position and worked with the more vocal trustees to present a unified front in vowing to take legal action to defend the Camden campus.

Testifying before the Assembly Higher Education Committee that same week, Harvey asserted, “We are firm in our resolve that our principles will be adhered to.”

Speaking to reporters after the inaugural directors’ meeting earlier this year, Harvey said, “I (have been) regarded as a stealth Camden person. I was married in Moorestown; my father’s buried in Moorestown. People who know me know how much I care about Camden’s success.”

Other members appointed by the board of governors are trustee governor and recent trustee chair Dudley Rivers, who co-chaired a task force to negotiate with lawmakers and representatives from the governor’s office pushing for the merger. Also named to the board was Anthony DePetris, an RUC alumnus who once chaired the board of trustees and now serves as governor. Rounding out Rutgers appointees to the Camden board of directors are alumni Mortensen and George Rears, who both served on the board of trustees while merger deliberations were taking place.

Two spaces on the board of directors remain unfilled. Although Christie appointed, and the Senate approved, two Democrats -- Mayor Redd and former Camden Assemblywoman Nilsa-Cruz Perez -- his office did not respond to an email asking when he anticipated naming his final two picks.

Cruz-Perez, like Redd, is regarded as a staunch Norcross loyalist -- a fact that concerns RUC defenders. In 2012, Redd signed a public declaration issued by Norcross ally Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) that excoriated then-U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) for asking the secretary of education to review the merger plans. Norcross himself issued a similar criticism that same day.

After February’s meeting, Redd, who received her undergraduate degree from RUC, said, “It’s an honor to serve this board as a lifelong resident of Camden and a graduate of Rutgers-Camden.” But Shankman remains skeptical. He emailed, “Obviously, unlike our Rutgers-appointed board members, the publicly appointed members will need to earn the trust (of RUC supporters) and prove to us through their actions that they have taken the needs of Rutgers-Camden to heart."

In February, the directors unanimously and without any debate elected Redd and Mortensen to serve on the joint Rowan-Rutgers board of governors, alongside the Rowan and Christie appointees -- Bruner, who’s Gloucester County administrator; Davis, Barnabas Health executive vice president for corporate affairs; and Graziano, TD Bank Group executive.

George Norcross declined to comment for this story.

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