Unions seek amendments in higher education bill

Posted: June 14, 2012

TRENTON — Labor unions representing faculty, staff, and others who would be affected by a bill to overhaul higher education in New Jersey have asked lawmakers to tweak the measure so that thousands of current employees are protected.

The unions are seeking amendments that ensure collective bargaining rights and contracts, limit the authority of a new Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden governing board, and guarantee no layoffs at University Hospital in Newark by providing financial stability to the money-losing teaching hospital.

A draft of their recommendations was obtained by the Associated Press on Tuesday.

There's no word on which changes, if any, will make it into the 100-page bill before it is voted on by lawmakers. The bill gets its first legislative hearing in the Senate on Thursday. A near-identifical bill is in the Assembly.

The legislation creates a quasi-merger between Rowan and Rutgers-Camden and transfers most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry to Rutgers. The School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford would go to Rowan, which was granted a medical school in 2009 in partnership with Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

Restructuring proponents envision broader educational opportunities in South Jersey, especially in the health sciences. They include Gov. Christie and Democratic Party leader George E. Norcross III. Norcross, a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer, is Cooper's chairman; his brother, Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), is among the sponsors of the bill.

Rowan's trustees signed off on the legislation Monday, but asked to retain authority over matters on the Glassboro campus. The legislation as drafted calls for a new joint board to oversee Rowan and Rutgers-Camden. The trustees and the unions want the its authority limited to collaborations between the schools.

The legislation also calls for the Camden and Newark campuses to be overseen by new, eight-member governing boards. Rutgers wants to retain authority over its satellite campuses; the bill gives the university ultimate authority over Newark but not Camden.

The amendments also seek job protections for current employees — including assurances that current contracts will be honored and that tenure and other rankings will be upheld. The unions also are seeking assurances that no one will be laid off as a result of the overhaul.

Another area of concern is cost. Rowan would assume the osteopathic school's debt under the proposal, and Rutgers would absorb UMDNJ's debt, which totals hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rutgers' governing boards — the Board of Trustees, which is mainly advisory, and the more powerful Board of Governors — last week affirmed principles objecting to any loss of autonomy on its campuses, but authorized negotiators to try to work out a compromise with the Legislature. The proposed amendments address some but not all of the boards' concerns.

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