Norcross brothers diverge on fate of Rutgers-Camden

Donald Norcross: "Vital" that Rutgers brand stay in Camden.
Donald Norcross: "Vital" that Rutgers brand stay in Camden.
Posted: March 04, 2012

Five weeks after Gov. Christie announced his intention to combine Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University as part of an overhaul of New Jersey's public universities, setting off fierce opposition, a key actor in the drama held out the prospect of a compromise last week that aroused both hopes and suspicions.

In an opinion piece that some found enigmatic, State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), brother of a powerful backer of the merger, Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, wrote that it was "vital that the Rutgers brand stay in Camden."

But he added that the school "continues to suffer from major funding inequities that are unacceptable" at the hands of the university's flagship campus in New Brunswick, and hinted at retaining a Rutgers-Camden that would be independent.

"Rutgers-Camden must be liberated from northern interests and allowed to flourish along with Rowan through a joint governance structure that truly respects and preserves both distinct communities," he wrote in the Courier-Post.

He caught the attention of the network of Rutgers alumni, professors, and students that has emerged to oppose the merger, which has been recommended by a gubernatorial commission.

At the Metro Diner in Brooklawn on Thursday night, a band of opponents, many of them clad in Rutgers red, who had gathered to plan strategy, tried to read the new tea leaves over club sandwiches and coffee.

"I read that op-ed, and it looked like a complete flip-flop," said one man about Donald Norcross' initiative.

Another feared it would still dilute the Rutgers-Camden brand. "I'd hate for us to become Rutgers lite," said Paul Loane, 63, of Mount Holly, a member of the Rutgers-Camden Class of 1970.

Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell Pritchett conceded at the gathering that he was not sure what was happening. "There are many ways to interpret that op-ed," he said.

The question on everyone's mind was, Did Donald Norcross' stance - and that his piece was e-mailed to news media by his older brother - suggest that George Norcross was wavering?

The older Norcross, a wealthy insurance executive and chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, has championed a Rowan-Rutgers-Camden combination, saying it will draw more science and medical research dollars and their associated industries to South Jersey.

When Christie announced in January that Rutgers-Camden would be removed from the Rutgers state university system and merged into Rowan, it seemed to validate Norcross and South Jersey Democrats.

But the blowback from Rutgers alumni, students, and professors has been intense.

At a Rutgers board of governors meeting on the Camden campus last month, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) was booed when he suggested that opponents should hold their fire until the full plan was rolled out.

In an interview Thursday, Donald Norcross, who lives across the street from the Rutgers-Camden campus and has a daughter attending law school there, faulted the way the plan was introduced.

He said that while details would have to be worked out, he would like to see Rutgers-Camden become independent, maintaining relationships with both its current parent university and Rowan but having its own board of governors and keeping its finances separate from those campuses in Newark, New Brunswick, and Glassboro - "a Rutgers South," he said.

"I believe the only way is to divorce our Rutgers from the Rutgers up north, to keep those academic ties but have our own board," he said.

"Rowan is a great institution and has grown by leaps and bounds. And where it makes sense there could be collaborations and partnerships. But what I talked about is creating a Rutgers-Camden on its own," he added.

He said he was not speaking for his brother, and when contacted Friday, George Norcross said he continued to support a merger.

As for his brother's position, "this shows the people who think we walk in lockstep are wrong," he said.

For the network of Rutgers alumni, professors, and students that has kept up a barrage of opposition from the moment Christie announced his plans, the latest political intrigue is a sign its efforts are working.

"I don't think they were expecting this reaction," said Andrew Shankman, a history professor at Rutgers-Camden. "And now they're trying to figure out how they're going to get what they want in this new world."

With a "Save Rutgers-Camden" website up to solicit donations for advertising buys, the opposition effort does not appear to be subsiding.

At the diner Thursday night, Pritchett left early, explaining it was better if he, as a Rutgers official, was not privy to all the plans the merger opponents might be working on.

But before stepping out the back door, he implored the approximately 100 people gathered there to keep fighting.

"Maybe we'll be able to celebrate soon, but there's a long way to go," he said.

One Rutgers board member who opposes the merger but asked not to be named because of involvement in negotiations, wondered whether talk of a compromise was intended to quiet the protests.

The board member added that in the end it will be Christie and the two Rutgers boards that likely will make the decision.

At a news conference last week, Christie suggested that the media might be reading too much into the disparate public statements coming from South Jersey Democrats.

"Do you have a quote from George Norcross saying that he agrees that we should compromise?" he asked in response to a question from an Inquirer reporter. "The merger's going to go through. . . . I'm following the commission's recommendations because it's what's best for the state of New Jersey."

Contact James Osborne

at 856-779-3876 or

Inquirer staff writer Joelle Farrell contributed to this article.

comments powered by Disqus