Rutgers boards to vote on statement opposing Rowan merger

Posted: June 01, 2012

Rutgers University's two governing boards are set to vote next week on a statement opposing a proposed deal in which the university would hand control of its Camden campus to an independent board, potentially dealing a major blow to Gov. Christie's plans to restructure New Jersey's public universities.

In a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, the board of trustees and the board of governors each will vote on a "statement of principles" saying Rutgers is open to collaboration with other schools and to giving greater autonomy to its campuses in Camden and Newark, as long as ultimate control remains with the two boards, according to officials close to the talks. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

While the resolution is not certain to pass - more than half the board of governors is gubernatorial appointees - if it is approved by both boards it would likely scuttle talk of creating a new board overseeing Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University. That compromise proposal has been floated by some in hope of ending opposition to Christie's proposed outright merger of the two schools.

And with less than a month before Christie's July 1 deadline for a deal, the fate of the proposed statewide university overhaul would be called into question.

"If the board of governors doesn't support this, it's in trouble. I don't know how you supersede the board of governors," said State Sen. Robert Singer (R., Ocean), who sits on the Senate Higher Education Committee and supports the governor's proposal. "It's one week away. We have to see."

The potential compromise emerged from closed-door negotiations involving members of the board of governors and some of the state's most powerful political figures - including State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Democratic leader George E. Norcross III.

Those talks followed Christie's announcement in January that he would overhaul the university system in an effort to attract more research dollars and better compete with higher-ranked schools in other states.

Sweeney and Norcross, both vocal supporters of the merger of Rowan and Rutgers-Camden, did not return phone calls for comment. Norcross is a managing partner in Philadelphia Media Network, parent company of The Inquirer.

Under the governor's original plan, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey would transfer the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and other New Brunswick-based institutions to Rutgers, which would hand its Camden campus to Rowan.

But opposition has been fierce, both from students and faculty at Rutgers-Camden and from North Jersey, where this week legislators circulated a 12-page list of conditions to any higher education overhaul.

The conditions include finding a plan to pay off UMDNJ's $662 million in debt; keeping Newark's University Hospital part of UMDNJ; and giving greater autonomy to Rutgers' Newark campus.

Sweeney was scheduled to meet with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), State Sen. Ronald Rice (D. Essex), and other legislators on Thursday but asked to reschedule, Rice said.

"Essex [County] needs to sit down with South Jersey," Rice said Thursday. "We've been reading for almost a year what everybody else wants to do, so we wanted to have a foundation for the discussion that expressed our needs."

The convergence of geographic pressure, a shrinking timeline, and the pending vote at Rutgers has put Christie's proposal at a seemingly critical crossroads.

He could become the governor who succeeds in making the higher education changes the previous two administrations were unable to. On the other hand, a governor who until recently seemed unstoppable cloud suffer the latest in a series of blows. On Thursday, a second of his state Supreme Court nominees was rejected by the Senate.

"The momentum has definitely shifted to the opponents of the merger," said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. "For a while, this governor was essentially omnipotent and could get the Democrats to kowtow because he had so much momentum. He still has strong approval ratings, but we have seen a couple of chinks in the armor and this could be a big chink."

The governor's office did not respond to questions about how he would respond were the two boards to move against the proposal, but disagreed that the opposition was gaining ground.

"There is a much larger constituency up and down our state that will benefit from the reorganization beyond those who oppose it," spokesman Michael Drewniak wrote in an e-mail.

Members of both boards participated in crafting the statement, according to the sources. But the outcome of Wednesday's vote in New Brunswick is far from certain.

The board of trustees' vote in favor of the resolution is virtually assured: The more-than-50-member board voted yes on a stronger statement against the proposal last month.

The 12-member board of governors is seen as more susceptible to political pressure and will be a tougher call, according to those close to the proceedings.

A spokesman for the Rutgers administration had no comment.

Christie has the reputation of being a skilled strategist and it's unlikely he would have made his university overhaul proposal without figuring he had the votes, Harrison said.

"This governor tends to make decisions that are strategized to the nth degree. My feeling is someone figured out the composition of the board of governors. He wouldn't want to go all this way and have the Rutgers board turn it down," she said.

But questions are circulating whether the time has not come to start looking at less ambitious options.

Singer, a vocal backer of merging Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, said the process might have to be spread out over time.

"If we don't get the whole thing, maybe do the Rutgers-UMDNJ thing now and we have to wait on Rowan and Rutgers," he said. "It's important to get this moving the right way. Half a pie is better than no pie."


Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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