Research boost eyed from merging Rowan, Rutgers-Camden

Ali A. Houshmand, Rowan University's interim president, says South Jersey's relatively low educational attainment makes it hard to attract business.
Ali A. Houshmand, Rowan University's interim president, says South Jersey's relatively low educational attainment makes it hard to attract business. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 19, 2012

Among the reasons Gov. Christie has cited for restructuring public higher education in New Jersey - including the merger of Rutgers University-Camden and Rowan University - is the desire to create powerful research institutions that can draw a bigger share of federal research funding.

New Jersey has lagged behind other states and is missing out on economic benefits it could get from more robust research-and-development programs. The National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation, for example, two key providers of research funding in basic science, spent just $237 million in New Jersey institutions during fiscal 2011.

Funding levels are the worst in the southern half of the state: From all sources, private and public, Rutgers-Camden, Rowan, and Richard Stockton College of New Jersey drew just $20 million in research spending in the most recent fiscal year.

By contrast, the University of Pennsylvania alone took in $459 million from the two federal sources, generating millions in wages. The total for Pennsylvania was $1.5 billion.

Against that backdrop, South Jersey leaders advocating the merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan argue that it would give the region a chance to have its own high-ranking university, which would boost the economy of an area that suffers in comparison with North Jersey and Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs.

George E. Norcross III, an insurance executive and chairman of Cooper Health System, said he supported the merger primarily because he thought it could help Camden.

"Putting together and designating a research university that will have a law school, a medical school, an engineering school, 20,000-plus students, an identity for those who live and work in southern New Jersey, and the ability to attract corporate interests to help advance the successes of the new university is a great cause," he said.

Generally, counties in southern New Jersey have lower wages, higher unemployment, higher foreclosure rates, lower percentages of people with bachelor's degrees, and fewer places to get a bachelor's degree.

"This is not just a discussion about education. It's an economic-development discussion on how are we going to play out this southern half of the state," said Anthony Perno, president of the Cooper's Ferry Development Association, a group charged with revitalizing Camden, and a member of the advisory committee that recommended the merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.

The proposal has met fierce resistance from Rutgers-Camden faculty and students. A Rutgers-Camden finance professor, Eugene Pilotte, raised the prospect that the merger is being pushed to help subsidize the expensive new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.

But an independent expert offered support for the plan. Jim Diffley, a regional economist at IHS Global Insight Inc., said a research university in South Jersey could help the region.

"Increasingly in the Northeast, it is universities that power economic growth, and there is reason to think that they will become more important as the knowledge industries grow in importance in 21st-century economies," Diffley said in an e-mail. "Doing it right is always another matter in economic development. There is no guarantee of success, but I cannot fault the idea/opportunity."

Research published last year by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that academic research-and-development activity significantly increases the level of educated, skilled workers in metropolitan areas.

Nationally, 27.5 percent of the adult population 25 and older has a bachelor's degree. In southern New Jersey, only Burlington County is significantly above that, at 33 percent, according to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education. In Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs, the percentages range from 34 percent in Delaware and Bucks Counties to more than 40 percent in Chester and Montgomery Counties.

The relatively low level of educational attainment in southern New Jersey makes it hard to attract business, said Ali A. Houshmand, Rowan's interim president and a merger advocate.

Pointing to a New Jersey map showing percentages of bachelor's degrees by county, Houshmand said: "How can I look at this thing and try to encourage industries to come in here and relocate? Based on what? No matter how much tax incentive we give them, they say there aren't enough educated workers."

It goes beyond that, said Perno: Employers also want to know where they can get continuing education for their workforce.

Combining Rutgers-Camden and Rowan would provide the scale needed to dramatically increase educational offerings that might keep southern New Jersey residents from going to Pennsylvania and Delaware for further training in high-tech fields, said Perno and Houshmand, who spent six years at Drexel University and looks to it as a model.

Having a research university is key because, without one, top graduate students stay away, as do the best faculty, Houshmand said: "It's kind of a snowball effect."

Among the goals of taxpayer-funded university research - besides solving problems and curing diseases - is to spin off companies that create jobs, as has long been done in the Boston area and the Silicon Valley.

Penn has been in the top tier of research dollars for many years, but is widely considered to have not distinguished itself in business formation because the region does not have all the ingredients needed for such success.

"In the Bay Area, Boston, you have world-class research institutions, where faculty are receiving substantial research funding from the federal government, where you have funding in different sectors, where there is an established industrial base and an entrepreneurial ecosystem that can take advantage of that research," said Louis Berneman, founding partner of Osage University Partners, of Bala Cynwyd, and former managing director of Penn's Center for Technology Transfer.

Penn has the research, but the regional entrepreneurship has been lacking, likely limiting what a merged Rowan/Rutgers-Camden could accomplish. In 2010, the Philadelphia region ranked last in the Kauffmann Index of Entrepreneurial Activity for the 15 largest U.S. metropolitan regions.

This region had 150 entrepreneurs per 100,000 people compared with 620 in Los Angeles, which topped the ranking. Right above Philadelphia was Detroit, with 220 entrepreneurs per 100,000 people.

Terry Fadem, managing director of the Office of Corporate Research at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, said research was not all about generating start-ups.

"We place a lot of bets, all of them directed at learning something new, redefining the science," Fadem said.

Another word of caution to South Jersey would be that Penn's success at attracting research money is the result of decades of work, which a start-up research institution, such as the one proposed in South Jersey, could not quickly replicate.

"It's kind of like watching a really good athlete. It looks so easy," Fadem said.


Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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