Rutgers boards: Won't cede control over Camden or other campuses

Posted: June 07, 2012

Rutgers' two boards declared Wednesday that the university's governing structure would remain intact, signaling to Gov. Christie and legislative leaders that their plans to remake the state's public universities could face significant hurdles ahead.

A set of "principles" approved by the boards of trustees and governors expressed willingness to expand and give greater autonomy to both the university's Newark and Camden campuses, work more closely with Rowan University in Glassboro, and have Rutgers take over parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey — if the state provides the money to do so. But they affirmed that they would not open up the subject of giving up control of any of the university's three campuses.

The meeting of the boards came just two days after Democratic leaders in the state Senate introduced legislation that would restructure how Rutgers is governed. It would give control of the university's Camden campus to an independent board and create a joint board to manage Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University — with political appointees holding the majority on both bodies. Identical legislation was introduced in the Assembly Wednesday.

After the vote, the two Rutgers boards expressed willingness to open negotiations with legislators toward what board members described as an opportunity to move the university forward.

"Both the legislation and the principles are open to some degree of interpretation, and I think that will be the basis for discussion," said Jerry Harvey, vice chairman of the Rutgers Board of Governors.

Adam Scales, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden who has led faculty opposition to the governor's plan, called Wednesday's vote a victory.

"The board members made clear the current legislation is unclear," he said. "We'll see what the final plan is, but the goalposts have been moved."

Four months ago Gov. Christie announced historic plans to remake the state's public universities, and in particular Rutgers — which he described as "good but not great."

His plan, drawn up by a task force led by biotech executive and Rutgers trustee Sol Barer, called for parts of the scandal-tainted University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to be transferred to Rutgers and Rutgers' Camden campus to be made part of Rowan University.

The report drew almost immediate protest at Rutgers-Camden, where alumni, faculty, and students accused the governor of cutting a political deal with South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, who has long championed a large research university in the south that he believes would draw the high-tech industries that have long eluded the region.

For months, Rutgers leadership met with the state's political leaders, including Norcross, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Camden), and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. On Monday Sweeney, along with state Senators Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and Joseph F. Vitale, introduced what they called "compromise" legislation.

Under its 88 pages, Rutgers-Camden would stay connected to the larger university academically but its finances would be run by an independent board, which would be overseen by a joint Rowan/Rutgers-Camden board — the powers of which Donald Norcross, a brother of George Norcross, said would not extend beyond capital projects and joint programs. All of UMDNJ — with the exception of University Hospital in Newark — would go to Rutgers.

George Norcross, who is a managing partner of The Inquirer's parent firm, declined to comment.

U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.), a critic of the proposed overhaul, said in a statement that the vote by the Rutgers boards was "a clear rejection of the current legislation" and asserted that the two boards have "the final say" over changes at the university and their differences with the merger bill "must be taken seriously by the legislature."

Earlier, testifying before trustees and governors in New Brunswick Wednesday, faculty questioned the concept of the legislation as a compromise and urged the boards to affirm the principles, which were drawn up before the legislation was introduced, Harvey said.

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

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