Rutgers trustees boost compromise plan

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg tells those gathered at Rutgers-Camden that he will fight Gov. Christie’s merger plan. MEL EVANS / Associated Press
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg tells those gathered at Rutgers-Camden that he will fight Gov. Christie’s merger plan. MEL EVANS / Associated Press
Posted: May 05, 2012

A compromise on the proposed merger between Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden moved another step closer Thursday as the Rutgers board of trustees passed a resolution stating that the Camden campus must stay within the university and suggesting that it was open to compromise to make that happen.

Weeks in the making, the resolution is largely symbolic and comes three months after Gov. Christie announced plans to overhaul New Jersey’s public universities with an eye toward making them more competitive — a process that is to include a shrinking of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and giving Rutgers a long-sought medical school and other health facilities.

“We’ve considered and heard a lot, and we felt it was appropriate for the board to be heard at this point, with the governor’s July 1 deadline fast approaching,” trustee Lora L. Fong said in an interview. “Rutgers is the state university of New Jersey, and Camden has been part of Rutgers for a significant period of time.”

In the resolution, adopted by a 32-4 vote, the trustees said that a merger of Rowan and Rutgers-Camden would “preclude many citizens of this state from obtaining a Rutgers University education and be contrary to Rutgers’ express mission,” “deprive Rutgers of property and assets,” and “remove from Rutgers a broad range of undergraduate, graduate, and professional educational offerings” and “faculty members that have attained national and international recognition for excellence.”

While individual trustees have made their opinions on the merger known, the resolution following a meeting in New Brunswick represented the first public statement on the matter from the 59-member board, which oversees the Rutgers system along with the university’s board of governors, which has yet to take a public position on the issue.

It comes as closed-door negotiations continue between top Rutgers officials and powerful political figures including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Democratic dealmaker George E. Norcross III over a potential compromise that would keep the Camden campus within the Rutgers system but give it its own board with oversight over the school’s finances and assets, according to sources close to the talks.

Whether a deal can be worked out by Christie’s July 1 deadline remains a question. Christie has insisted his plan will go forward as originally written. But with Rutgers officials and key legislative leaders apparently coalescing around an alternative plan, and his ability to push the overhaul through by executive order drawing legal questions, the Republican governor might have little choice but to accept the compromise if he wants something to happen.

The Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

Earlier in the day, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), an opponent of the merger plan whose heated exchanges with Christie and Norcross have turned him into a hero among Rutgers-Camden students and faculty opposed to the plan, made his first appearance at the Camden campus since the controversy erupted in January.

As the 88-year-old senator walked to the Campus Center for a news conference to tout his efforts in Washington to preserve low-interest federal student loans, students and faculty cheered and hollered.

Ryan Fallon, a 19-year-old junior at Camden, approached Lautenberg to thank him for his stand against the planned merger.

“It’s reassuring for us. We’re studying for finals right now,” he told the senator.

The crowd gathered for the speech was a who’s who of Camden politicos, including Mayor Dana L. Redd. State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) stood and listened as the crowd yelled his brother’s name in egging Lautenberg to resume his verbal assault on George Norcross and Christie. George Norcross is a managing partner of Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of The Inquirer.

But Lautenberg, while making a reference to “the governor and his cohorts” and saying he was ready to fight until the end, largely demurred from repeating his harsh criticism from March.

“Today is a friendly day,” he said.

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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