Kevin Riordan: Christie decree risks Rutgers' ties to Camden

On campus, Andrew Seligsohn (right), civic engagement chief, with Elijah Sykes of security staff. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
On campus, Andrew Seligsohn (right), civic engagement chief, with Elijah Sykes of security staff. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer (On campus)
Posted: March 22, 2012

Rutgers-Camden at the start of the 1980s was a little fortress on an island.

Wedged between the Ben Franklin Bridge and Cooper Street, it began to grow, adding dormitories, athletic facilities, and a stylish new wing to the law school that originally put it on the map.

But Rutgers-Camden did more than simply build buildings: It opened the gate, bridged the moat, and nurtured relationships with the neighbors, the neighborhoods, and the city.

Now the fruit of three decades of grassroots work is endangered by Gov. Christie, who from Trenton has decreed that the Camden campus be divorced from the state's flagship university and absorbed by Rowan University, based in Glassboro.

This arranged marriage is supposed to yield boatloads of cash for a vast new research university on not one, but two campuses in South Jersey.

In the 57 pages of what Christie evidently regards as a divinely inspired commission report, which is mostly about the dissolution of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the revolutionary proposal for a Rutgers-Rowan mashup receives a cursory handful of platitudes.

But verbiage alone hasn't built the link between Rutgers-Camden and the city. Or the one between Rowan and Glassboro, for that matter: As it has dramatically expanded its campus, the former Glassboro State College has done an admirable job of connecting with its host community, too.

Rowan also has had a presence in Camden. It began renting classroom space in the city in 1969 and also offers advanced degree programs for public school faculty and administrators.

But it is a far less visible player in the life of the city than Rutgers. Rowan's heart is in Gloucester County.

"Meaningful partnerships are built out of [individual] relationships," observes Andrew Seligsohn, director of civic engagement at Rutgers-Camden. "Over time, people get to know each other, work together, and trust each other."

Rutgers is a source of tutors, mentors, and volunteers for people and projects in Camden and surrounding communities - 230,000 hours worth of such service during the previous academic year.

Its graduate students do field work with institutions, agencies, and community organizations. The university-affiliated LEAP Academy Charter School, the Rutgers schools of social work and law, and the campus itself are embedded in the life of the city.

And in a neighborhood once deeply ambivalent about Rutgers, the new North Camden Schools Partnership provides after-school programs for 120 public school students.

"This is not an act of philanthropy," says Seligsohn. "Our future as an institution is tied up with the future of this city. We are anchored here."

Proponents of the merger like to point out Trenton State's successful evolution into the College of New Jersey. Often cited as well is Rowan's startling transformation from a teachers' college known mainly for a Cold War summit meeting to a university with respected engineering and other programs.

But combining two distinct and distinctive academic institutions into one new megauniversity with two campuses, one urban, one suburban, is not simply a matter of changing signage and stationery.

"No one knows what the merger will mean," Seligsohn says, adding: "If you suddenly change around the source of leadership and the funding streams and where decisions are made, all of these things are put at risk. They're relatively fragile.

"I have no reason to believe all the good things would disappear in a merger. But I do worry that the commitment to this campus and the city could decline. There are just a lot of things we don't have the answers for."

No wonder: The handful of people who gathered in rooms, mostly out of public view, to concoct this proposal and deliver it to our bipartisan political leadership were not tasked with providing answers to practical questions.

Camden and Glassboro are two islands separated by 20 miles.

That's a mighty big moat.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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