As Protesters Rally at Rutgers-Camden, Consortium, Not Merger, Discussed

Mark J. Bonamo | February 16, 2012 | Education, More Issues
Controversial plan to reshape higher education in South Jersey debated at Board of Governors meeting

Meetings of the Rutgers Board of Governors are usually staid affairs. The February 15 convocation was anything but: Hundreds of students and faculty — some bearing signs and banners — were there to protest the proposed merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University.

Inside the Walter K. Gordon Theater at Rutgers-Camden, university President Richard L. McCormick addressed the same issue.

“We argued that severing Rutgers-Camden from the rest of the university was not a good idea,” McCormick said to applause from over 600 members of the school community, referring to meetings with the Barer committee before its overhaul recommendations were released last month.

More specifically, the committee recommended that Rutgers-Camden, including its law and business schools, should be folded into Rowan University, which is centered in Glassboro.

“Our staff and administration have instead advocated for the creation of a consortium that includes all of South Jersey’s institutions of higher learning without sacrificing their independence and identity,” McCormick said. “This would achieve the goals of enhancing and expanding higher education in South Jersey without dismantling Rutgers.”

It is unclear, however, how a consortium would work.

The Rutgers-Rowan merger is uniquely colored by identity politics. The separate identity of Rutgers-Camden as an institution and the regional identity of South Jersey were raised several times at the Board of Governors meeting.

Rutgers-Camden history professor Jacob Soll — who was supposed to be honored at the meeting for being awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” — made no bones about the importance of Rutgers’ separate identity, among other issues.

Soll wasn’t inside waiting to be praised; he was outside protesting with over 300 students against the proposed merger.

“This place works because of the Rutgers name. I got my MacArthur genius grant from here in part because of my access to research capabilities in all parts of Rutgers. It didn’t get that from Rowan.”

“Nobody came here and asked us what we thought. There has been no transparency,” Soll said. “Where is the money going to come from for this? It’s not there.”

Rutgers-Camden also works for Javier Diaz, an undergraduate student and a veteran of the first Gulf War.

“This merger will take away the option of people in South Jersey for attending Rutgers without having to make a drastic move,” Diaz said. “It will force people to attend more local schools that don’t have as good a reputation as Rutgers.”

Detractors of the plan assign blame for the proposed merger to the support of George Norcross, the prominent Democratic party boss of South Jersey, who many political observers claim has formed a tacit alliance with Gov. Chris Christie.

Norcross, a strong supporter of Rowan, worked hard to bring Cooper Medical School under the former’s name, in an effort to create a strong South Jersey university with its own distinct identity.

Norcross defended the proposal in a recent editorial as one that will make Camden a “safe, vibrant” city. The merger, he argued, would bring more people and businesses to Camden through the gradual expansion of the Rutgers-Camden campus.

Christie has decried any inference that Norcross influenced his decision to back the consolidation. But when State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) spoke during the public comments segment of the meeting, he was met by jeers after lauding Christie’s attempts to bring about institutional change.

“It would be horrible to kill an idea when you don’t know what it is,” Sweeney said. “Let’s take a deep breath and get to the details and understand what we’re dealing with. A consortium, a partnership, a merger — let’s work this out.”

Speaking in support of South Jersey, Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) said, “Make no mistake about it — the days of throwing a bone to South Jersey for a couple of resources are over.”

Sen. Norcross, who is George’s brother, also indicated that he would like to keep the Rutgers brand in South Jersey.

“We need these resources here in South Jersey, not just the ones that the Rutgers board want to give to us, but the ones that are owed to South Jersey,” Norcross added.

Public opinion seems to favor the protesting Rutgers-Camden students’ position: a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released yesterday showed that 57 percent of New Jersey voters are against the Rutgers-Rowan merger, with only 22 percent in support of the move. The ultimate decision, however, lies in the hands of the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees.

Rutgers officials have gone on record as saying that any merger with Rowan would require their approval.

After the meeting, McCormick acknowledged that, while there are many unknowns accompanying any potential merger or consortium, there were certain details that needed to be nailed down before any move takes place.

“We need to elaborate on how a combined university would be supported and what resources will be available,” McCormick said. “No one to my knowledge has even begun to estimate the costs of integrating Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.”