UMDNJ Restructuring Plan Finds No Friends in Newark

Colleen O'Dea | March 7, 2012 | Education
Mayor Booker, others, also voice concerns about the future of Newark's University Hospital

Newark Mayor Cory Booker was unsparing in his criticism yesterday of the plan to restructure the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Addressing a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate higher education committees, Booker said, “It’s almost astonishing to me. There is no bold vision for this institution.”

As the first speaker in the four-hour meeting, Booker — who was joined by other officials, staff, students, and residents — also raised concerns about the future of the city’s University Hospital (now part of UMDNJ).

Holding signs reading, “Keep UMDNJ Strong” and “Hands Off University Hospital,” the crowd filled the multipurpose room of the New Jersey Dental School on the UMDNJ campus that hosted the hearing.

Many cheered those who questioned the rationale behind the plan and stated it would hurt the university. They also jeered at statements that the restructuring could be completed by July 1 and that many staff support it.

People applauded throughout Booker’s lengthy testimony, as he criticized many aspects of the plan. Overall, he said the restructuring proposal sought to create comprehensive research universities affiliated with medical schools in central and South Jersey, while relegating Newark’s medical schools to “second class” status.

“I’m very happy with the Southern tier and Central university proposals; it seems to be at least a vision of creating strong centers of competition,” Booker said.

But he added, “Our hospital and university are being put at a severe competitive disadvantage. This is highly problematic.”

The UMDNJ Advisory Committee report issued less than two months ago recommended reconstituting six medical schools within UMDNJ as the New Jersey Health Sciences University based in Newark but with campuses in Piscataway and Stratford.

The three central Jersey units of the UMDNJ — Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey — would go to Rutgers University. Finally, the proposal would give Rutgers’ Camden campus to Rowan University, which has a fledgling medical school set to open in the fall.

Booker said that the Newark-based NJHSU would be forced to compete with both Rutgers and Rowan for faculty, staff, students and research dollars but without the same kinds of strong comprehensive university structures that the other two schools would have.

Like several other speakers, Booker said the process seems to be steamrolling ahead without any answers to many crucial questions, including how much the restructuring would cost and who would be overseeing University Hospital.

“I do think we’re still rolling down the highway at 100 miles an hour,” said Booker. “A lot of people are left with serious concerns … So much work is left to be done.”

Denise V. Rodgers, acting UMDNJ president, said that she has heard from discussions with Gov. Chris Christie’s office that the restructuring, including the transfer of 3,000 UMDNJ employees in central Jersey to Rutgers’ payroll, is to take effect July 1. She admitted it will be difficult to accomplish that quickly.

“I’m not saying I think we can get all that done by then,” Rodgers said. “There continues to be the desire by the governor’s office to meet this deadline.”

Several in the audience shouted, “No, no!” when Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) asked if the restructuring could be done by July 1.

Richard Edwards, interim executive vice president for academic affairs at Rutgers, said a more reasonable timeframe would complete the transfer of the units within 18 or 24 months.

Some of those at the hearing yelled, “Nothing!” when Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen) said she has received only negative emails and asked if there were anything positive for UMDNJ in the proposal.

Alluding to allegations of fraud and waste at UMDNJ, which Christie investigated as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Rodgers said she regrets some of the things that occurred at the school in the past and would “in a perfect world” prefer to see the school remain in its current configuration. Resigned to a restructuring, she said it’s important to “end this uncertainty, which has been enormously detrimental to the university.”

Rodgers said officials are most interested in ensuring that UMDNJ is “not damaged in any way.” The university will need at least $25 million a year over the next five years to ensure its continued health, she added.

John Bogden, a 38-year UMDNJ professor and president of its Newark campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, warned that the restructuring could impact the school’s accreditation by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which is set to evaluate the university again next March.

Several speakers and legislators bemoaned the continued lack of any details regarding the financial impacts of the plan. No one has put forth any overall cost estimates, nor has there been a proposal for how to restructure or apportion UMDNJ’s existing debt, which a university spokesman said totals $662 million.

While Rodgers confirmed publicly for the first time that discussions have taken place with Barnabas Health to take over operations of University Hospital, no decisions have been made on exactly who and how a private entity would operate North Jersey’s only Level 1 Trauma Center.

But Rodgers seemed to know more about the plan than even lawmakers: Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Sandra Bolden Cunningham, D-Hudson, had to ask Rodgers how the restructuring plan would ultimately be presented. Rodgers said Christie is supposed to issue an executive order embodying the changes.

Several UMDNJ deans testified, but when pressed by legislators, none was willing to publicly oppose the restructuring. However, two Newark residents did speak against the plan.

“Newark has been an afterthought in this entire process,” said George Hampton, former UMDNJ vice president for urban and community development, who likened the plan to a “hostile corporate takeover.” He said the restructuring would give the “revenue-generating parts” of the university to Rutgers and that would hurt the school because it is already inadequately funded.

Luis Correia, who lives in the Ironbound, spoke passionately in defense of the hospital that treated both him and his mother, as well as thousands of illegal immigrants who often can’t afford to pay.

“You are talking about money. I am talking about lives,” said Correia, who urged delaying any action for at least a year to better study the plan.

Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Salem) pointed out that the legislature will only have 60 days to approve or reject a restructuring once Christie proposes it.

While most of the focus was on Newark, one professor from Rutgers-Camden spoke against the Rutgers-Rowan merger proposal.

“Why would the taxpayers support a measure that would substantially weaken the flagship university, Rutgers?” said Janet Golden, a history professor, who termed the proposal an “amputation” and said the campus’ students, faculty, staff and alumni are united in their opposition to that portion of the plan. “Why would the residents of South Jersey wanted fewer educational choices?”

Acknowledging the controversy surrounding that part of the restructuring, Wagner noted that she has received numerous emails from those affiliated with Rutgers-Camden, all in opposition.

“I hope we have the opportunity to help those people and the students,” she said. “What is democracy all about but the people having a voice?”

The joint higher education committees are planning another hearing in Camden, but no date for that has been set. There is also still no word when Christie might release an executive order authorizing the restructuring.