"It's not like merging a corporation. You have alumni networks and a hundred-plus years of history, and all these very strong roots," said Dan Hurley, director of policy analysis at the association. "You get merger talks flaring up here and there in different states. But they never go anywhere."
While the odds might be stacked against them, many in South Jersey's political and academic elite are pushing hard for a large research university that could attract the high-tech industries that the region has watched pass it by.
They make the case that bringing together two relatively small universities, their respective graduate programs, and two medical schools would create a full-fledged research institution that could compete for national funding. More money could mean a higher-profile faculty and better facilities, which could equate to more attention in the U.S. News and World Report and other rankings, and maybe, one day, an institution that would compete with the likes of Rutgers' main campus in New Brunswick.
"Our research expenditure currently hovers around $6 million to $7 million annually, but in five to 10 years, with consolidation, we could reach close to $60 million, and that positions us in the top 200 research institutions in the country," said Rowan University's interim president, Ali Houshmand. "There are a lot of details that will need to be worked out, but we are very enthusiastic about the concept."
The proposal is only a small part of a debate about the future of New Jersey higher education.
In January, Gov. Christie convened an advisory committee to seek efficiencies within the state's universities and colleges, including the possible creation of a larger university in South Jersey. The findings are expected by the end of the year.
But many wonder whether that initiative will meet the same fate as past efforts to consolidate the 31 public institutions that make up New Jersey's higher education system.
In 2002, Gov. Jim McGreevey commissioned P. Roy Vagelos, the former chairman of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., to look into strengthening UMDNJ. Seven months later, Vagelos came back with a plan to combine Rutgers, UMDNJ, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology at a cost of $1.3 billion. University officials, facing the dismantling and rebuilding of their institutions, balked.
Norman Edelman, a professor at the State University of New York-Stony Brook and former dean of the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, sat on the commission under Vagelos. He described the failure of that commission as a product of trying to do too much too fast.
"It had started out as a review of UMDNJ, and it turned into something else, and a lot of people were caught off guard. But Roy wanted to get it done all at once," he said. "It was unrealistic. They should have merged the boards and changed the stationery and rolled it out slowly. Going so fast, it was dead on arrival."
This time around, the approach seems more measured.
There is as yet no talk of creating a centralized system as in California or New York. Rather, as discussed in a report this year by former Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean, mergers would happen piecemeal - the first step most likely being the combination of UMDNJ's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and School of Public Health into Rutgers' New Brunswick campus.
That in itself has prompted resistance among many at UMDNJ, as well as North Jersey politicians, who spoke out Thursday night against such a move at a hearing.
"I don't think it is fair for New Brunswick to benefit when the city of Newark doesn't benefit," Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) told the Newark Star-Ledger.
A UMDNJ spokesman declined to comment on the proposed mergers.
Norcross, in an interview Friday, downplayed resistance within the state, saying, "Whenever you talk about a concept without great specificity, there is going to be anxiety."
He described his own interest as bringing South Jersey's higher-educational offerings in line with those in the central and northern parts of the state.
"It's been apparent for years there's been a lack of capital dollars going to [Rutgers'] Camden campus," said Norcross, who briefly attended the university.
The shape and form of an eventual University of South Jersey - a working title - is a long way from being figured out.
Bringing together four sizable institutions, each with its own internal politics, is expected to present a formidable challenge. And for now, some university officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to the idea of a merger.
"Universities are very big places, and they have very idiosyncratic approaches to education and administration," said Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett. "I'm not opposed to that discussion; however, at present, my campus is focused on getting more resources. And it feels very positively about its connection to Rutgers."
A South Jersey university is only part of a negotiation that will begin in earnest if and when Christie or the Legislature decides to move ahead on reconfiguring the entire state's universities and colleges. That would begin the process of figuring out how each institution's assets and programs are divided, what jobs go where, and a myriad of decisions that will make or break any deal, said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D., Middlesex), chair of the Education Committee.
"There's a consensus among everyone it's a worthy goal," he said. "The devil is going to be in the details."
The general idea of creating a large research university in South Jersey is getting some positive reviews.
Cigus Vanni, a guidance counselor at Cherry Hill High School West, is in the midst of strategizing high school seniors' plans for next fall. He has been seeing more students staying close to home the last few years, a product, he believes, of frugality in the poor economy and the improvement of Rowan's programs in recent years.
A campus nearby that could rival the appeal of Rutgers-New Brunswick would be a big hit among students, he said.
"One of the big things students are looking at is reputation, respect," he said. "You're not going to get kids from Kansas or Washington, but you're not going to get them anyway."
Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876