Rowan endorses merger bill but wants autonomy

Posted: June 13, 2012

Rowan University trustees on Monday supported legislation proposing an overhaul of higher education in New Jersey while also expressing concern over a joint governing board controlling Rowan and Rutgers-Camden.

Following a more than two-hour meeting in Glassboro, the board issued a statement endorsing cooperation between the schools as long as the agreement retained "the individual autonomy of both institutions and their respective governing boards."

"It's a question of autonomy," university spokesman Joe Cardona said. "They support the legislation, but not the joint board ... as it's written."

The statement came one day after the Rowan Faculty Senate announced it was considering a resolution opposing the legislation, which breaks up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and moves its assets to Rutgers, and creates the joint board to govern Rutgers-Camden and Rowan. The bill was introduced last week by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).

Concern has focused on the powers of the joint Rutgers-Rowan board. One of bill's sponsors, Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), said its authority would not extend beyond issues such as consortium arrangements and capital projects benefiting both campuses. But Rowan faculty came out Sunday against Sweeney's legislation, fearing the joint structure could mean one campus' resources might be diverted to aid the other.

Sweeney said Sunday said the concerns would be addressed as the legislation was refined in the weeks ahead.

The Rowan board's position comes five months after Gov. Christie announced sweeping plans to overhaul New Jersey's public universities toward making them more competitive with those in other states. South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, brother of the senator, has long championed a large research university in the region and has been a vocal supporter of the governor's plan. He is a managing partner of the parent company of The Inquirer.

For months Rowan officials were outspoken supporters of Christie's overhaul, under which they were to absorb Rutgers-Camden. But that provision was dropped under Sweeney's legislation, leaving the board to reassess its position in a closed-door meeting Monday.

In its statement, the board said the legislation required "additional analysis," and it instructed the board chairman James J. Gruccio and Rowan president Ali Houshmand to meet with legislators to adjust the bill.

"There is support from the proposal among the board," trustee Martin McKernan said. "It expands the opportunities for higher education in Southern New Jersey."

About three weeks from the deadline to pass next year's budget — which both Christie and Sweeney also have set as the deadline for reaching a higher education agreement — the biggest hurdle appear to be Rutgers' two governing boards, which last week said would not support any plan that took away control over its campuses.

The boards said they were open to negotiations with legislators, but Sweeney said Sunday that he was still considering whether there was a point considering what he believed to be a hard-line stance by Rutgers' board of trustees.

Trustees privately have expressed their intention of taking the matter to court if legislators tried to pass an overhaul without their approval. Sweeney said Sunday that he saw little chance of avoiding such a scenario.

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

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