Deflecting complaints, Christie says Rutgers-Camden and Rowan "going to merge"

during a visit to Trenton Catholic Academy, where he was questioned about joining the two universities. Many faculty and students at both schools oppose the plan. JULIO CORTEZ / Associated Press
during a visit to Trenton Catholic Academy, where he was questioned about joining the two universities. Many faculty and students at both schools oppose the plan. JULIO CORTEZ / Associated Press (Gov. Christie talks to students)
Posted: March 21, 2012

TRENTON - Gov. Christie insisted Tuesday that he expects action by July 1 on merging Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University, brushing aside objections to the plan one more time, like a weary parent deflecting familiar complaints from his children.

"They're going to merge," he said, sounding almost bored, at a news conference in Hamilton Township. "That's what's best for the higher education system in New Jersey."

While Rutgers-Camden students don their red shirts and march outside the State House, and faculty line up at legislative hearings to say they'll leave if asked to merge with Rowan University in Glassboro, Christie's response never wavers.

He dismissed the notion that Rutgers-Camden should preserve its name because it is better-known than Rowan, a university in Glassboro renamed in 1992 after industrialist Henry Rowan, who donated $100 million.

"I've heard the complaint nobody knows Rowan University," Christie said. "Well after we do this, they will."

Those who don't support the merger, he said, are a vocal minority.

But Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett said students, faculty, staff, and alumni in his campus are united in opposition. Should a merger be forced upon them, "I do expect that there will be litigation," he said Tuesday.

Christie was at Trenton Catholic Academy Tuesday morning to talk about his plan to spend $1 million on college scholarships for 1,000 students in 14 urban districts. He greeted a classroom of high school students who sat with their hands neatly folded on their desks, and then slapped high fives with children from lower grades.

At the news conference later in the school's gym, however, reporters peppered him with questions mainly about the Rutgers-Rowan merger.

Combining the two South Jersey campuses is part of a larger overhaul of New Jersey's higher education system that would create three major educational hubs - in the northern, central, and southern parts of the state.

The plan was proposed by an advisory committee Christie created last year that released its final report in January.

But while Christie said he expected swift action, whether by executive order or by legislation, university officials don't expect the process will move that quickly.

"No one is expecting any of the proposed mergers in Newark or South Jersey to be implemented by then," said Peter J. McDonough Jr., vice president of public affairs at Rutgers University.

"The July 1 deadline is a deadline for taking some action," he said. "It's a deadline for enacting legislation, or the effective date for an executive reorganization plan. It's not an integration date."

Up north, Newark will remain the hub of parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey that will become the New Jersey Health Sciences University. But the institution will lose its link to three other schools merging with Rutgers.

A steering committee is hashing out details of the central Jersey aspect of the plan, which would merge UMDNJ's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, School of Public Health, and Cancer Institute of New Jersey into Rutgers' main campus in New Brunswick. This merger is estimated to cost $40 million, Rutgers officials said.

But no such committee has formed to discuss how to assimilate Rutgers-Camden into Rowan, McDonough said.

There's no price tag, no plan to bring multiple bargaining units together, and no detailed answer to how Rutgers-Camden's law school will maintain its accreditation, which is nontransferable, according to faculty who testified at a legislative hearing Monday.

"We're going to be able to work that out with the ABA [American Bar Association]," Christie said when asked about the law school. He called the argument an "artificial roadblock."

Rowan plans to reveal on Thursday a "road map" to the merger, a university spokeswoman said.

McDonough said Rutgers officials have talked with the governor's office about some potential hurdles they'll likely find in merging with Rowan, but that's about it.

For now, Christie doesn't seem to be sweating the details or the potential costs.

"So whether the state has to step up and assume some of these costs, those costs are spread out over time. . . . In a state that has a $30-plus billion budget, if you think I'm going to stop the transformation of higher education that's going to make the state more competitive economically and more competitive educationally over $40 million? No, not going to do that. That's penny wise and pound foolish."

Whether the Rutgers Board of Governors or Board of Trustees must approve the mergers is debatable, Christie said. He'll ask the attorney general's office to look into it.

He cautioned that Rutgers officials can't pick and choose from the advisory board's recommendations: Either they swallow the bitter pill of turning over their Camden campus, or they lose their gains in New Brunswick.

"I cannot believe that Rutgers University is going to turn down the opportunity to be able to get Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the Cancer Institute and the School of Public Health over this dispute," he said. "Let me make something very clear: It all happens, or none of it happens."


Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joellefarrell.

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