Talks reported to tweak plan to merge N.J. universities

Posted: April 11, 2012

TRENTON - A dozen or so high-level Democrats and top university officials have been meeting privately in recent weeks to discuss ways of tweaking Gov. Christie's plan to restructure three New Jersey universities so it is more acceptable to opponents.

The meetings involve well-known Democratic leaders and at least four members of the Rutgers Board of Governors, whose approval is needed to make the plan happen. Legislative sign-off is also likely necessary for at least parts of the plan, which Christie wants agreement on by July.

Democratic power broker George Norcross III and Senate President Stephen Sweeney have been in on the meetings, according to several people with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, now on the Rutgers Board of Governors, and Rutgers' outgoing president, Richard McCormick, a supporter of the plan, have also been involved. The people spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss private conversations.

The meetings have been held at a West State Street law firm less than a block from the state Capitol, where Democrats sometimes congregate to hash out policy positions.

No one from the governor's office has sat in on the meetings, those with knowledge of the sessions say, though it is possible Christie's office has been briefed.

The focus of the meetings has been on how to make the proposal better for the most vocal opponent, Rutgers-Camden, and satisfy Democrats with constituencies that oppose it.

People with knowledge of the meetings said the goal has been to develop a hybrid - a potentially less drastic restructuring alternative than the one Christie proposed - while keeping the basic framework of the merger intact.

In January, Christie proposed giving fast-growing Rowan University the clout of a major research institution by merging Rutgers-Camden, including its law and business schools, into the South Jersey school once known as Glassboro State College.

Rutgers, whose main campuses are in New Brunswick, 30 miles southwest of New York City, would absorb parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, gaining a medical school. The remaining parts of UMDNJ would be renamed the New Jersey Health Sciences University.

Rowan gained a medical school in 2009, when Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine and the Legislature created the school at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and named Rowan as the operator. Its first class will matriculate this fall.

Norcross, an insurance executive and a managing partner in the group that recently purchased the parent company of The Inquirer, is chairman of the board at Cooper.

Norcross and Sweeney did not immediately return calls for comment Tuesday. Roberts and McCormick declined to comment.

In testimony before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday, McCormick said he had been involved in talks - initiated by lawmakers - aimed at appeasing the vocal opposition from Rutgers-Camden faculty, students, alumni, and staff over the prospect of being subsumed by Rowan.

"In recent weeks, noticing the outcry, legislators reached out to me on how to best reach the goals [of the realignment] without sacrificing the [Rutgers] name," he said.

McCormick said he was optimistic a compromise could be reached, but he declined to discuss details after the hearing.

Christie has indicated an unwillingness to compromise on the plan, but that was before an online petition to stop the merger had collected 13,000 signatures. Christie's office declined to comment Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg also has been an outspoken critic of the restructuring plan.

Last month, Lautenberg wrote to the U.S. education secretary asking for a federal review of the plan to merge Rutgers-Camden with Rowan, suggesting it was meant as a power grab by Norcross to boost the credit rating of Rowan, which has reached a borrowing limit in its commitment to build the medical school.

Sweeney criticized Lautenberg as "misguided" and the Republican governor called the 88-year-old Democratic senator a "partisan hack" and said he should retire.

Earlier Tuesday, the head of the state Senate's Budget Committee said Democrats would not vote on Christie's higher-education restructuring plan without knowing how much it would cost.

Sen. Paul Sarlo of Wood-Ridge said the reorganization plan likely would not be voted on until after the state budget is adopted June 30.

Sarlo said meeting Christie's July 1 deadline would be impossible without cost estimates.

State Higher Education Secretary Rochelle Hendricks told the budget panel the number-crunching would take up to two more months. Hendricks and several college presidents appeared before the committee Tuesday to answer questions about the governor's proposed higher-education budget.

Hendricks said steering committees at the affected schools were working out merger costs and details, and the schools have begun exchanging financial information.

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