New Jersey university overhaul faces key test

Posted: June 07, 2012

Battle lines were drawn more sharply Tuesday over the proposed overhaul of New Jersey's public universities a day before the plan faces a key test: votes by Rutgers' two governing bodies.

Two former governors lent their support to legislation introduced Monday to enact the proposal, and a legal opinion commissioned by its backers sought to sideline a center of opposition, the Rutgers University Board of Trustees.

Some trustees, however, held out the threat of litigation, and a legislative opponent lashed out at a prime backer of the plan.

On Wednesday, both the university's trustees and its smaller board of governors are scheduled to vote on a statement opposing any substantial restructuring of the state university system. The board of governors was a wild card, its leanings unclear.

An adverse vote would place a considerable hurdle in the path of Gov. Christie, the Republican who proposed the initial plan, and Democratic leaders in the State Senate, who on Monday introduced a bill that would loosen administrative links between Rutgers and Rutgers-Camden, create a joint board to oversee Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University, and merge most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers.

In a lopsided vote last month, Rutgers' board of trustees objected to ceding power over its Camden campus.

The board of governors has yet to express an opinion, and on Tuesday some members said that it might pivot from voting on the statement of disapproval and instead vote directly on the legislation.

Christie has offered tentative support for the bill.

"I'd like to get there and confer with my colleagues," said Joseph Roberts, the former Assembly speaker and member of the board of governors, who has close ties to South Jersey Democrats and party leader George E. Norcross III, a high-profile backer of the overhaul.

Under one draft version of the statement under consideration by the two Rutgers boards, the university would give greater autonomy to its Newark and Camden campuses and work in closer collaboration with Rowan but would retain its existing governing structure, which the legislation aims to alter.

The vote comes as political support grows behind the bill, introduced Monday by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).

Former governors Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican, and Jim Florio, a Democrat, issued statements Tuesday urging those involved to see that the legislation not meet the fate of past attempts to overhaul higher education in New Jersey.

DiFrancesco complimented Sweeney for rejecting "the parochialism that doomed so many previous efforts" and said that "of all the proposals that have been advanced over the past 30 years, this one stands the greatest chance to succeed."

Whether the board of governors, 6 of whose 11 members were appointed by governors past and present, will be swayed by the political momentum is a subject of speculation. Only one member, Candace L. Straight, an investment-banking consultant and Republican fund-raiser, was appointed by Christie, according to Rutgers.

Were the two boards to split, it could set up a legal fight.

The structure of two governing boards was created in 1956 when Rutgers, formerly a private university, was solidified as the State University of New Jersey. The board of governors was given authority over the running of the university and the trustees were given power over the land that the university held at the time of the agreement, according to a history on the university's website.

The arrangement was intended to protect the school from political influence, said Adam Scales, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden who is opposed to the restructuring.

Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who sponsored the legislation with Sweeney and Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex), said in an interview Tuesday that they would consider moving ahead without the board of trustees. Norcross is a brother of George Norcross.

A legal opinion written last month by the law firm DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole for the Senate leadership, which became public Tuesday, disputes the trustees' argument that the 1950s agreement gives them control over Rutgers-Camden.

The brief says the trustees' claim over 1.7 acres of the now 30-acre campus is invalid because the state granted part of the land and provided money for improvements.

The possibility that legislative leaders would try to bypass the trustees has been discussed for some time and the board is prepared to take legal action, said some members, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The board of trustees has been promised a degree of self-governance and independence. They're there as guardians of Rutgers' independence," Scales said. "If it goes to court, it could take years to resolve."

The legislation has also prompted a new flare-up of long-standing regional strife between North Jersey and South Jersey Democrats.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex) criticized the bill as devised behind closed doors and lacking analysis of the costs associated with the reorganization. Much of Rice's ire was directed at George Norcross, who he said was pushing the university overhaul to benefit his interests.

"I have great concerns as to George Norcross' role in this regard, no matter how much my colleagues deny his concerns and interest," Rice said, citing Norcross' leadership of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, which is to open a medical school later this summer with Rowan.

Norcross, a managing partner of the parent company of The Inquirer, responded that "Sen. Rice should focus on being for something that promotes higher education for the citizens of New Jersey and stop being a typical politician who's against everything and for nothing."

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, said he would fast-track the Sweeney legislation and planned to schedule a committee hearing soon.

Backers of the overhaul are saying that if they can get a plan approved they will work to put a multibillion-dollar bond question before voters in November, to upgrade facilities and add buildings to campuses around the state.

The 88-page bill, released late Tuesday, quickly drew angry reaction from opponents at Rutgers-Camden, who saw it as a political takeover of their campus.

But Donald Norcross said the bill was being misinterpreted. He said Rutgers would retain control over academic affairs at the Camden campus, including faculty tenure.

He also said a joint Rutgers-Rowan board would have authority only over matters affecting both campuses, such as shared facilities and joint programs - despite language in the measure that gives it authority to "approve or disapprove of any decision of the board of trustees of Rowan University or the board of trustees of Rutgers University-Camden."

With the school year now over, Rutgers-Camden was almost deserted Friday morning. In the cafeteria, Joe Dallesandro, a 25-year-old chemistry major from Woodbury, picked at a sandwich and wondered whether the students had been heard.

"We've been expressing our voice very strongly, but it's only the Rutgers administration that is listening to us," he said. "I'm feeling kind of used and abused."


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

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