Union Representing NJ’s Public Colleges Endorses No-Merger Recommendation

Tara Nurin | May 22, 2012 | Education
Rutgers-Camden belongs to Rutgers University, statewide coalition of labor unions asserts

A union representing faculty, adjunct faculty, librarians, and professional staff at New Jersey’s public colleges, including Rowan University, has endorsed a set of recommendations that oppose Rowan’s proposed merger with Rutgers-Camden. The Council of New Jersey State Colleges (CNJSC), the negotiating agent for Rowan’s American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2373, voted to approve a proposal written by a state-wide coalition of labor unions that asserts, “Rutgers-Camden must remain a part of Rutgers University” — despite a pledge of neutrality by Rowan’s administration and the local itself.

The coalition, formed last year in response to Gov. Chris Christie’s appointment of a task force to study the reorganization of higher education, includes 12 unions that represent all 30,000 public employees at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), Rutgers, and Rowan. A subcommittee within the coalition spent one month writing what it calls its “framework” for restructuring and did not seek approval from the unions’ general membership.

“Some people in our union are worried about it, some people are excited,” Karen Siefring, president of AFT Local 2373, said of the proposed merger. “There was a lot of rancor from some opponents at Rutgers and we didn’t want to engage ourselves in that level of conversation.”

Siefring said she and the approximately five Rowan union colleagues who helped write the framework wanted to ensure Rowan employees would continue to be treated equitably, regardless of the outcome. She said no one on the local’s executive board complained about the opposition to the merger or its outline for a future Rutgers-Camden.

“We’re still trying to remain neutral. What Rutgers does internally is Rutgers’ business. But when it comes to people’s contractual rights we need to take a stand,” she said.

The framework, which says almost nothing about Rowan itself, seeks to establish a direct appropriation from Trenton to Rutgers-Camden and suggests the creation of a Rutgers-Camden Governing Council (RCGC) that would include members of the Rutgers boards of Trustees and Governors, as well as gubernatorial appointees and others elected by the campus’ faculty, students, and staff.

According to this vision, a good deal of the oversight of Rutgers-Camden would remain in New Brunswick, but the RCGC would select its own chancellor, administer most of its academic and support programs, control its appropriations from the state, and handle many of its fiduciary relationships. The framework, like many competing proposals put forth by stakeholder organizations, supports greater cooperation with outside educational and medical institutions.

“The community campaign in support of Rutgers-Camden has never been just about a name,” said Adrienne Eaton, President of the Rutgers faculty union — the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-AFT) — in a statement. “We welcome discussions about an arrangement that would provide resources necessary to further research throughout southern New Jersey, and enhance the region’s economic viability, but Rutgers-Camden must remain a part of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.”

Mike Sepanic, Associate Chancellor for External Relations for Rutgers-Camden, responded to the union recommendations by saying, “Rutgers–Camden remains committed to developing new opportunities for deep and meaningful partnerships that advance research and learning in southern New Jersey. We appreciate the ongoing engagement of the AFT and all of our stakeholders in this important public conversation.”

According to Nat Bender, Communications Director for AFT NJ, the coalition wrote the framework because, as he said, “In terms of the merger as a takeover of one entity taking over another, we had grave concerns about how it would be executed. We as unions are stakeholders and we have voices that ought to be heard.”

The coalition seeks greater transparency in the restructuring and calls for a legislative airing of financial components. Though no official dollar figure has been calculated, recent cost estimates by observers range between $250 million and $350 million, which includes debt refinancing for Rutgers and UMDNJ, as well as the price of changing ownership. Published articles claim the governor’s office has already incurred more than $566,000 in fees paid to consultants hired to figure out the official cost. Reports say consultant fees could reach $1 million — a tab that Gov. Christie has passed on to the schools under review.

The coalition is also calling for no layoffs, staffing standards to remain in place, and no changes to negotiated contracts or union structures.

Kathleen Hernandez, executive vice president of the Communications Workers of America, Local 1031, said in a statement, “From the department secretaries to professors and doctors, maintaining academic and medical personnel is important for the students, patients, and citizens who depend on our services.”

The coalition also seeks input on changes to UMDNJ. In a lengthy section, the framework asks decision-makers to ensure that all services of UMDNJ continue to be adequately funded, with legislative approval required to enter the institution and its constituent University Hospital into any public or private mergers or reorganizations. According to the guidelines, the state should make a long-term financial commitment to University Hospital, which must remain a public primary teaching hospital and to its community health clinics, which must remain funded at current or higher levels. The document also calls for a nine-person oversight board for University Hospital that would have decision-making and enforcement authority.

Likewise, the unions would like the state to commit to putting the New Jersey Health Science University (NJHSU) “on equal footing with the other universities and institutions that are part of the omnibus higher education re-organization,” as stated in the framework. Provided these guidelines are met, the coalition does not oppose the merger of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, School of Public Health, and Cancer Institute of New Jersey with Rutgers.

Editor’s note: This article was extensively edited after it was originally published.