Rutgers-Camden chancellor denounces merger plan

Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell E. Pritchett: "I am opposed."
Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell E. Pritchett: "I am opposed." (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 03, 2012

Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell E. Pritchett spoke out forcefully Thursday against Gov. Christie's plan to merge the school into Rowan University, adding his weight to a movement within the state's flagship university to try to block the proposal.

Later in the day, Richard McCormick, president of the Rutgers system, issued a statement saying he had spoken with Pritchett and "shared many of his concerns."

"This is a very significant proposal. I will carefully consider all of the options before recommending to the Rutgers governing boards what I believe to be in the best interest of the entire university and the state of New Jersey," McCormick wrote.

The statements follow days of pressure from Rutgers-Camden alumni, faculty, and students, who are urging the university's boards of trustees and governors - McCormick sits on both as a nonvoting member - to vote against the proposal.

At Thursday's question-and-answer event in Camden, Pritchett's comments drew riotous applause from hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni crammed into a campus auditorium.

"Let me be clear about this. I am opposed to the takeover of my campus, of our campus," Pritchett said.

"I agree South Jersey and our campus need more resources. I want to applaud the committee for recognizing that. But not this way," he said, referring to the governor's higher-education task force's recommendations.

Last week, Christie announced plans to overhaul the state's higher-education system, moving assets among Rutgers, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and Rowan with the aim of creating what he said would be a stronger public university system that could rival the best public universities in the country.

"Rutgers is good, but not great," he said of the university, which has campuses in Newark, New Brunswick, and Camden.

The governor's office did not return a phone call Thursday for comment.

The proposal for South Jersey involves merging Rutgers-Camden into Glassboro-based Rowan, creating a split campus that would include a law school, two business schools, and the soon-to-open Rowan-Cooper Medical School in Camden.

The concept is to create a research university that would both expand the historically low number of higher-education seats in the region and create an institution that could attract biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

Rowan has been an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal. Since a $100 million donation from industrialist Henry Rowan in 1992, the former teachers college has developed a lauded engineering program and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new dormitories and on redevelopment of downtown Glassboro.

Adding Rutgers-Camden would be another coup.

"He's a leader of a great institution, and he's supporting his constituents," Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona said of Pritchett. "The [governor's] committee came out with the recommendations, and we're supportive of them, and we will let the governor decide what the right decision is."

The prospect of being folded into Rowan has aroused intense passion at Rutgers-Camden, a predominantly commuter campus of more than 6,000 students set at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

On Thursday, alumni filed onto campus clad in school colors, commiserating with students who carried signs declaring "Save Rutgers-Camden."

"It's like an executive at Procter & Gamble saying we should change the name of Crest and Tide today. They would be asked to hand in their resignation at the end of that day," Steve Geonnotti, a Rutgers-Camden alum, said at Thursday's meeting.

Those opposing the merger said they had no intention of letting up.

Students were planning to travel to Trenton to protest Monday as the state Senate Committee on Higher Education hears testimony on the proposal. And alumni were working on a meeting with George E. Norcross III, the Democratic leader and chairman of Cooper University Hospital, who has been a vocal advocate of a Rutgers-Rowan merger.

Governors before have tried to overhaul New Jersey's universities and failed. Were the Rutgers boards - a mix of political and university appointees - to vote against the merger, it's unclear what, if any, recourse Christie would have.

This week, a spokesman for the governor declined to comment on that possibility.

Tim Farrow, a graduate of Rutgers-Camden Law School and treasurer of the Rutgers University Alumni Association, said Pritchett's statements Thursday were a boost.

"The fact that he came out in very strong fashion might seem like an obvious thing to do when your whole campus is rallying in opposition," he said. "At the same time, he is an employee of the university. I'm sure it wasn't an easy thing for him to do."


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

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