Proposed Realigning of New Jersey Campuses Spurs Protests and Charges of Cronyism

February 02, 2012

New Jersey is joining the list of states considering merging and consolidating public universities—with a distinctly Garden State twist.

An advisory committee, formed originally to consider what to do with the troubled University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, has recommended shifting control of several campuses around the state.

The panel's final report, which Gov. Christopher J. Christie endorsed last month, includes a recommendation to give control of Rutgers University's Camden campus, including its law and business schools, to Rowan University, a midsize public regional institution located nearly 20 miles away in Glassboro.

Controversy erupted almost immediately over the recommendations, with charges that the Republican governor is trying to reward a powerful political ally at the expense of the state's top-tier public research university.

The panel explained its recommendation as a way to enhance higher-education offerings in southern New Jersey and spur economic development. But students, faculty, and administrators at the Camden branch of Rutgers are all protesting a merger with Rowan, arguing that the move would diminish the reputation of the Rutgers campus solely to improve the future prospects of Rowan's medical school, set to open later this year.

And even some legislators are criticizing the recommendations as short-sighted. Lawmakers have already scheduled hearings on the matter.

"I don't think the task force did a half-ass job," said the State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, who opposes many of the proposed changes. "They did three-quarters-ass job."

Merger Mania

New Jersey's proposal comes as budget woes in many states have pushed academic leaders and lawmakers to consider cost-cutting measures that have been taboo in the past, including consolidating college administrations. Such moves are under way in Georgia and New York, for example.

The primary motivation to reorganize higher education in New Jersey, however, is not to cut costs but to provide better oversight of the state's scandal-plagued University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, whose main campus is in Newark. In fact, it was the current governor who, as a federal prosecutor, oversaw a lengthy investigation into Medicaid fraud at that institution, known as UMDNJ.

The panel behind the restructuring recommendations, appointed by Governor Christie in April 2011, was even called the UMDNJ Advisory Committee and was to focus largely on how graduate medical education was delivered in the state.

The panel's final report does largely focus on medical education, recommending, for instance, parceling the University of Medicine and Dentistry into several parts to create a new New Jersey Health Science University and to give control of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to the Rutgers main campus in New Brunswick.

But many other recommendations came as a surprise to higher-education leaders and students. The panel's preliminary report in September didn't even mention Rutgers-Camden, a commuter campus that enrolls about 5,800 students, and offers 35 undergraduate degrees and 23 graduate programs, including three doctoral degrees.

The Rutgers University Senate, representing faculty members at all three of the university's campuses, has passed a resolution opposing the merger with Rowan, and students at the Rutgers campus at Camden staged a protest Thursday.

Wendell E. Pritchett, chancellor of the Camden campus, said losing the affiliation with Rutgers would be unfair to students who came to earn a degree from that university. And it would diminish the reputation of the institution in the eyes of both current and potential faculty members. "With all respect to my colleagues at Rowan, we're a different institution," he said.

Political Payoff?

As is often the case in New Jersey, political patronage is being blamed for the advisory committee's suggestion to award control of a branch campus of a much larger research university to a much lesser-known institution. Rowan enrolls about 11,000 students and has just one doctoral program, in education.

In this case, pundits and political insiders are pointing to George E. Norcross, an insurance magnate and chairman of the Cooper Health System in Camden, which will be a partner with Rowan's new medical college when it opens.

Mr. Norcross, a Democrat, is credited with helping the current State Senate president ascend to his post and with helping the governor pass some key legislation, such as reforms to the state's pension and employee benefits. In news reports, the governor has said that he and Mr. Norcross did not discuss the reorganization plan. Mr. Norcross, however, has affirmed that he has long advocated for a larger research university in southern New Jersey.

John P. Sheridan Jr., president and chief executive of the Cooper Health System, says his institution would benefit from the added research and prestige of adding the nearby Rutgers campus. But the larger benefit will be to the region's residents, who will have greater access to higher education. And the economic development that could result from the merger will also be a boon for an area of the state that is often overlooked, he said.

Unclear Future

But building a significant research portfolio will take significantly more time and money, and all of the goals could be achieved more simply by encouraging greater collaboration between Rowan and Rutgers-Camden, said Mr. Pritchett, the branch campus's chancellor.

The political path to approving the advisory panel's report is nearly as complex as the proposals and fraught with uncertainty. Rutgers's two governing boards must both approve the proposals, and it's unclear if they would be willing to trade the Camden campus in order to gain the medical school in New Brunswick, said Samuel Rabinowitz, an associate professor of management at Rutgers-Camden and a nonvoting member of the university's Board of Governors.

Senator Lesniak, whose district is close to Newark, says that region will also lose out in the proposal. He also said the governor might use the state budget as leverage to convince the governing boards. Legislators, too, will have a chance to consider the merger, but will likely have to vote to reject it, rather than approve it, under the state's laws.

Senator Lesniak said the panel's current proposal is lacking significant details, including a way to improve higher-education access in the state without more money for buildings.

"They ignored the elephant in the room, and that is, this can't be done without a billion-dollar bond issue for higher education in the state," he said.