Rutgers boards draw a line, but offer talks

Posted: June 08, 2012

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The two boards that oversee Rutgers said Wednesday that they didn't want to relinquish control over campuses in Camden and Newark, but appointed a committee to negotiate with legislators over a sweeping proposal to restructure higher education in the state.

The boards met just two days after the state Senate's Democratic leaders introduced a bill proposing those changes, giving control of the university's Camden campus to autonomous boards and linking it more closely to Rowan University.

Republican Gov. Christie has guardedly approved of the bill.

In approving a set of "principles," however, the trustees and governors held off on rejecting the legislation outright, saying they would convene a committee immediately to begin talks with the legislators.

"The door is open," said Rutgers board of trustees Chairman Ken Schmidt. "We want to move the ball forward." But he added that legislators would have to take into account the boards' principles.

The terms include a willingness to expand and give greater autonomy to the New Brunswick-based university's Newark and Camden campuses, work more closely with Rowan, and take over parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey - if the state provides "funding for the anticipated onetime costs of integration."

But the document also affirms that the university's governing structure, established in 1956, will not be amended and that the campuses will continue to answer to the university president.

Some opponents of the proposed overhaul called the vote a victory.

"The board members made clear the current legislation is unacceptable," said Adam Scales, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden who has led faculty opposition to the governor's plan. "We'll see what the final plan is, but the goalposts have been moved."

U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) said in a statement that the vote was "a clear rejection of the current legislation" and asserted that the boards' differences with the overhaul bill "must be taken seriously" by legislators.

In the days before the vote, legislative backers of the overhaul had privately expressed hopes that the board of governors would reject language against losing Rutgers-Camden. In a previous vote, the trustees had insisted on not ceding control of the campus.

Still, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who sponsored the legislation along with state Sens. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex) said in a statement that he was "pleased that the boards recognized the importance of moving forward to strengthen higher education in New Jersey."

Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) said he and cosponsors would introduce identical legislation Thursday.

In a statement, Christie's office said: "We are encouraged that the Rutgers governing bodies have established a joint committee and are ready to engage in this reorganization of higher education in New Jersey. We look forward to bringing these discussions to a successful conclusion by June 30."

How big the gap is between the boards' principles and the legislation was a matter of contention both during and after the meeting.

"If you look at the legislation and the principles, you can't square them," said trustee Albert Gamper, former chairman of the board of governors. "There doesn't seem to be much wiggle room for negotiation."

But Jerry Harvey, vice chairman of the board of governors, said the principles were a "foundation."

"Both the legislation and the principles are open to some degree of interpretation, and I think that will be the basis for discussion," he said.

Less than a month from Christie's July 1 deadline for a deal on higher education - the same deadline for the state budget to be passed - the boards' vote represents a test for the governor. He's trying to avoid becoming the third governor in a row to fail to change the structure of the state's public universities.

Four months ago, he announced his plan to remake the universities - in particular, Rutgers, which he described as "good but not great."

The 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 for Rutgers' Camden campus to be made part of Rowan University.

The report drew protests at Rutgers-Camden, where faculty and students accused the governor of cutting a political deal with South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, a high-profile advocate of the changes.

The 88-page bill that followed makes provision for Rutgers-Camden to keep some connections to the larger university, but provides for its finances to be run by an independent board overseen, in turn, by a joint Rowan/Rutgers-Camden board.

The joint board's powers, Donald Norcross, a brother of George Norcross, emphasized, would not extend beyond capital projects and joint programs. All of UMDNJ - with the exception of University Hospital in Newark - would go to Rutgers.

How much all this will cost and the financial implications for the institutions involved are unresolved questions.

At Wednesday's meeting, in the university's more than 200-year-old Whitman Hall, board of governors treasurer Bruce C. Fehn said taking over UMDNJ and its $662 million in debt could mean Rutgers would "take a hit on the credit rating, maybe one notch."

Trustee Abram Suydam Jr. said the cost of moving Rutgers-Camden into Rowan alone would "make taxpayers wince." He declined to provide his cost estimate.

George Norcross, a managing partner of The Inquirer's parent firm, declined to comment on Wednesday's vote.

Norcross has long championed a large research university in the south that he believes will draw the high-tech industries that have long skirted the region.

For months, Rutgers' leadership met with the state's political leaders, including George Norcross, Sweeney, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. On Monday, Sweeney and his cosponsors introduced their legislation, which they called a "compromise."

"We look forward to working with government officials to refine what they have on the table," a Rowan spokesman said Wednesday.

Rowan also announced that its trustees are to vote on Wednesday to remove the "interim" from President Ali Houshmand's title at least until a search is resumed for a new permanent president.

Houshmand has been interim leader for one year and has two more years on his contract, but has said he does not want to be appointed permanently to the post.

Rowan said the move was being made to provide stability amid the big changes being considered by the state.


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

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