A Public University, Cannibalized Before Our Eyes

April 22, 2012

"This makes no sense!" has been a familiar refrain on the campus of Rutgers University at Camden since late January, when New Jersey's governor, Chris Christie, dropped the "M-bomb" on students, staff, and faculty.

"M" stands for "merger": Christie has endorsed a plan to sever the Camden campus from Rutgers and merge it with Rowan University, about 20 miles away­. The reason given for what basically looks like a takeover of the Rutgers campus by Rowan is to create an "elite" research university in underserved South Jersey.

The suggestion was laid out in a report by an advisory committee set up by Christie to examine the details of another merger, among several medical institutions in North Jersey. In the 50-plus-page report, a whopping three pages were devoted to the Rutgers-Rowan issue, with no meaningful input from Rutgers-Camden. Significantly, the South Jersey part of the report offered no cost analysis, no timeline, no impact assessment. The committee offered nothing but rhetoric about how some future superuniversity magically would arise as a beacon of hope and prosperity at some point in somebody's lifetime.

The report was egregious in another key omission: that Rutgers-Camden already functions as a research university in South Jersey, a point not addressed or considered in the slightest. The campus, on an unparalleled growth trajectory, recently opened three doctoral programs, attracting national and international scholars and students. The campus boasts internationally known faculty, sponsors major conferences and projects, and counts among its faculty one of the world's leading opera singers and a Mac­Arthur Fellowship recipient. It is home to nationally ranked business and law schools and to many faculty with degrees from Ivy League institutions and from major state and private universities.

"This makes no sense!" As primarily a teaching institution, Rowan has different standards for promotion and tenure and a higher teaching load than Rutgers-Camden, with little support or incentive for research. In the new arrangement, Rutgers-Camden would lose all affiliation with Rutgers University—and lose the name and accompanying resources and reputation. What we have here is an attempt by the state to dismantle part of an elite higher-education institution and enfold it into a lesser-known, lesser-resourced institution so that they compete for the same shrinking pool of dollars.

Combining these two institutions promises disaster, disarray, and dissonance. Many faculty members and students came to Rutgers-Camden in large part because it is Rutgers—backed by the Rutgers name and resources. How will denying access to a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities to the 1.5 million residents of South Jersey benefit anyone? How will the new Rowan replace those faculty who will take their credentials and leave? How will the new Rowan support a library—necessary for a research juggernaut—comparable to Rutgers's while already being outspent by a factor of five, and more, on a yearly basis?

"This makes no sense!" you might say. Right. None of this makes sense—that is, to anyone who approaches the issue presuming that concerns about education are driving this effort. They are not—at least not the idea of education as a long-term process and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge inside and outside the classroom by faculty and students.

Rather, it all makes sense when one realizes that there is nothing more to this situation than a cadre of state-level politicians who view Rutgers-Camden as fungible, divisible currency that can be converted into political capital and doled out to those who play along. The final endorsed report explicitly linked the Rutgers-Rowan issue with the merger of those medical institutions, one of which has long been coveted by Rutgers University. By linking the two, the governor is demanding an all-or-nothing deal: Rutgers can't have its medical school if it fights to keep the Camden campus.

Education, to the powerful minority that supports the merger, is nothing more than tuition and assets. What some have referred to as "seats" on several occasions, my colleagues and I prefer to call students and teachers.

To be sure, New Jersey has its particularities and peculiarities, making it appear to be a sad, but ultimately, isolated case. Unprecedented actions, however, often enough turn out to be the forerunners of a new order as they evince possibilities previously unconsidered. The Rutgers-Rowan fiasco might very well portend a new kind of educational dissembling beyond the kind of "privatization" of public institutions with which most of us are familiar.

In the Garden State, the effort is not so much about the transfer of public goods to commercial interests. Rather, the game being played in the swamps of Jersey centers on the confiscation of public goods and assets by public officials for the private benefit of a few­—a most insidious public-private partnership.

We live in a time when neoliberal views of purely market-based decisions about what's left of the public sphere serve to provide cover for old-school patronage politics. Power is shifting to individual states, emboldening local elected and nonelected players alike to mess with things they would not have touched a few years back.

With tax revenues low and with decreasing support from the federal government, local politicians are being starved of the lifeblood of their profession—influence derived from the ability to direct resources. Where to turn? In our case, a successful, growing, and conveniently local campus.

At Rutgers-Camden, a meaningful resistance has arisen, with letters and blogging, social media and rallies, petitions and testimony—all in an effort to be seen and treated as something other than a mere commodity. It has been a steep, swift learning curve for many, with difficult, yet necessary, lessons learned.

The takeaway: Be not complacent. Don't presume that "public," as in public university, means protection by the democratic process. Realize that the value you build can be value for others. See your institution the way resource-starved politicians and their business buddies most assuredly do—like a hunk of unprotected meat that belongs to anyone who can take it.

Daniel T. Cook is an associate professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University at Camden.