Rutgers-Camden students mobilize to oppose Christie's merger plan

Rayman L. Solomon, dean of the Rutgers-Camden Law School, addresses students and faculty.
Rayman L. Solomon, dean of the Rutgers-Camden Law School, addresses students and faculty. (Above, Rayman L. Solomon,)
Posted: January 31, 2012

Amid the throngs of students filling the campus center at Rutgers-Camden on Monday, one weaved in and out, slipping a flier into their hands.

It wasn't advertising a fraternity party or a lecture; it contained instructions on how to oppose Gov. Christie's plan to take their school out of the Rutgers system and merge it with Rowan University:

Sign an online petition, e-mail government officials, and so on.

"At least we can do something," said Sofia Dahlgren, a 24-year-old junior from Medford, in line at the campus Starbucks. "It's just outrageous. Part of the reason I came here was the name. Where is our say in this?"

Since Christie announced his plan to remake higher education in New Jersey last week, Rutgers' Camden campus, a scenic mix of redbrick and industrial design at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge, has been overtaken with oppositionist zeal.

Rallies and petitions are being organized at a fast pace, and alumni and faculty are coordinating a public-relations campaign to try to block the proposal in the university system's boardrooms.

Under a 1956 law that made Rutgers, formerly a private college, the State University of New Jersey, the university's board of governors is given the power to "determine policies for the organization, administration, and development of the university."

Alumni from Rutgers-Camden, particularly the law school, which attracts students and faculty from across the country, are campaigning to have the boards vote down the merger, said Timothy Farrow, treasurer of the Rutgers University Alumni Association and a graduate of the Camden law school.

"It doesn't just come down to money, and I hope it doesn't come down to just that," he said. "But the [law school] alumni are unhappy. These are people who brought value back to that school, not just donations, but what they've done with the success they've had in their careers."

The question is whether the statewide Rutgers system's boards would be willing to give up Camden in exchange for obtaining the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway and two other institutions from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, as Christie laid out last week.

And if they block Christie's proposal, does the governor have the authority to go ahead regardless, setting up a potential legal battle?

Christie's office declined to comment.

Trustee Michael Bogdonoff, a Philadelphia lawyer and 1983 graduate of Rutgers-Camden Law School, said details would need to be determined before the boards could make a decision.

"Though I would hope that the situation could be avoided by some careful evaluation of options rather than forcing an up-or-down vote," he said Monday.

For Rowan, which would retain its name in the merger, bringing in Rutgers-Camden's law school and liberal-arts faculty - recruited to work under the Rutgers name - would be a clear coup on a par with the transformative $100 million donation from industrialist Henry Rowan in the 1990s.

But one alternative being circulated would be to create a consortium between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, in which each institution would continue to exist independently, with its own budget and tenure track, but would share resources and offer students the opportunity to study at either institution.

That counterproposal has the backing of the union representing Rutgers-Camden faculty and the Rutgers University Senate, an advisory board composed of faculty, students, alumni, and administrators. Both groups oppose the governor's plan.

In part, the opposition revolves around changing the name of the more than 60-year-old institution, formerly South Jersey Law School and the College of South Jersey before it joined the Rutgers system.

At a question-and-answer session at the law school in Camden on Monday, the primary concern was whether the school's diplomas would bear Rutgers' name or Rowan's.

"Let's face it, our main priority is getting a job," said Kevin Miller, a 23-year-old law student, explaining his attachment to the Rutgers name.

The idea of merging Rowan and Rutgers-Camden has been sold as a means to create a larger university for the region that could compete for a greater share of federal research money.

But in many minds, the idea of creating such a school across two campuses separated by 20 miles - Rowan's main campus is in Glassboro - is likely to mean the reshaped Camden campus would not be as successful as Rutgers has been in drawing faculty and students.

"Calling an institution a research university does not make it a research university, and it would take Rowan a long time to become the sort of facility Rutgers-Camden already is," said Andrew Lees, a history professor and president of the Rutgers-Camden Faculty Senate. "Rutgers-Camden would be a junior campus and would be left to wither on the vine."


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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