The political pillaging of Rutgers-Camden

Posted: June 15, 2012

By John Wall

Politicians and power brokers seem intent on pushing through legislation to restructure South Jersey's higher education institutions without analyzing the cost to taxpayers and students or the effect on research and teaching at Rutgers-Camden and Rowan Universities. Magical thinking and vague promises have overshadowed any genuine dialogue or careful analysis.

A poorly conceived restructuring, especially one of such a radical nature, could yield the kind of corruption, patronage, and other problems seen at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, another bad idea pushed through by politicians many years ago. The faculty, staff, and students at Rutgers-Camden and Rowan actually know what it takes to provide high-quality education, but their voices and concerns have been almost completely ignored in this debate. Higher education faces dramatic new challenges, such as global competition and exploding tuition, but of these our politicians seem utterly unaware.

What's more, the merger legislation being considered would rob Rutgers' boards of the governing authority enshrined in the 1956 Rutgers Act, an unconstitutional breach of contract that portends a long and expensive court battle.

The elephant in the room is the continuing problem of higher education funding. Even after all these months of debate, and with less than three weeks until Gov. Christie's purported deadline for a merger deal, no political leader has described the overall cost of restructuring. This is probably because it would be even higher than the $1.3 billion price tag estimated for a similar merger of the states' universities 10 years ago.

By some measures, New Jersey has ranked near the bottom among the states in public funding for universities over the past decade. It has not only failed to keep up with demand; it has cut higher education appropriations significantly. Proponents of a merger claim it would mean more state funding, but such investment would materialize only if the state's politicians actually decided to provide it — a tenuous possibility at best in the current economic climate.

If there must be a legislative solution, it should at least be held to the "do no harm" standard well known in medical ethics. Let's not cannibalize something that is working in South Jersey for the sake of political expediency or pie in the sky.

Rutgers' Boards of Governors and Trustees have shown the way forward by affirming a set of "Principles Regarding Higher Education Restructuring." These principles are good for South Jersey in two ways: They require that Rutgers-Camden remain governed within the structure of Rutgers University, retaining its position as the only Association of American Universities-accredited research university in the region (and one of only 61 nationwide). And they guarantee Rutgers-Camden a fair share of university resources, giving it the tools and autonomy it needs to thrive in the fastest-growing part of the state.

Given these principles, state legislators need to explain to the taxpayers why they are so intent on an unsought, expensive restructuring. They need to explain what they hope to accomplish that the Rutgers principles do not already accomplish for free. Without such an explanation, it's easy to conclude that elected and unelected power brokers are simply trying to get their hands on Rutgers-Camden's resources, partly to alleviate the fiscal distress wrought by Rowan's absorption of Cooper Medical School.

We at Rutgers-Camden welcome a candid debate about the future of higher education in South Jersey. But such a debate has not even begun. Instead, we stand on the brink of a disastrous political bargain that would turn a vibrant, growing campus into a dysfunctional patronage pit.

John Wall is a professor and the chairman of the philosophy and religion department at Rutgers-Camden.

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