The comments came as skepticism grew among many in Trenton about the likelihood of gaining consensus in a little over a month’s time. Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) last week called the odds of striking a deal by July 1 about the same as being struck by lightning.
Taking on a task that past governors have failed to accomplish, the Republican governor has proposed a radical restructuring of New Jersey’s higher-education institutions that he says would allow them to better compete with public universities in other states. Under the plan he presented in January, Rutgers’ Camden campus would become part of Rowan University and major components of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, including the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, would fold into the larger Rutgers system.
But after more than four months of discussion among New Jersey’s political leaders and academics, significant opposition continues.
While talks have progressed on a compromise aimed at preserving the Camden campus’ connection to the Rutgers system, there remains disagreement over the makeup and role of an independent board overseeing that campus and Rowan and what role Rutgers’ governing bodies would play, according to people close to the talks.
A meeting of Rutgers’ board of trustees has been scheduled for Thursday in New Brunswick to discuss the proposal.
Adam Scales, a Rutgers-Camden law professor who has led faculty opposition to the merger, said many on campus were opposed to giving a discussed Rutgers-Rowan joint board control over the Camden school’s finances.
"A managing board focused on joint collaboration, 99 percent of the faculty wouldn’t have a problem with that," Scales said. "But anything that looks like a wide-ranging board, that would merit very widespread rejection here at Rutgers."
Sweeney declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations, which involve many top political figures including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and South Jersey Democratic dealmaker George E. Norcross III. Norcross is a managing partner of Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of The Inquirer.
Newark politicians have recently renewed their objections to Christie’s overhaul, calling it a loss for their city. On Tuesday, State Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex) and other North Jersey legislators held a public meeting at Newark City Hall on the future of UMDNJ. They have called for any deal to include a means to pay off UMDNJ’s more than $600 million in debt, which threatens its financial stability, and to protect the thousands of jobs that the Newark-based institution provides at its schools and University Hospital, one of the largest health-care institutions in the state.
State Sen. Richard Codey (D., Essex) said steps needed to be taken to protect the future of the hospital. "There’s no doctors in that area, so the emergency room serves like it would a physician’s office for a lot of people in the city," he said.
The question hanging now is whether Sweeney and the South Jersey Democrats can craft a deal that would meet the approval of Rutgers’ trustees, the North Jersey Democrats, and the governor, who has maintained that he is not open to compromise.
Sweeney said he was keeping Christie apprised of the negotiations and hoped to have a plan approved by July 1, when the state budget needs to be finalized.
"It’s going to be harder to accomplish anything going into a gubernatorial election," he said, referring to Christie’s need to focus on his campaign if he chooses to run for reelection next year.
The plan to overhaul the higher-education system has "unfinished issues throughout the state, but they’re not impossible to reach. ... When I get off this phone call, I have some other people to call."
Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @osborneja.