N.J. university overhaul clears Assembly budget panel

Walt Whitman in a Rutgers T-shirt.
Walt Whitman in a Rutgers T-shirt. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 26, 2012

TRENTON - New Jersey lawmakers negotiated late changes Monday to legislation restructuring the state university system, less than a week from Gov. Christie's deadline of Sunday for a deal.

The Assembly budget committee, working into the night, voted unanimously to move the bill forward ahead of a planned vote by the full Legislature on Thursday.

The Senate, meanwhile, delayed its vote on the legislation for a second time.

"We're working cooperatively," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a prime sponsor of the bill. "I feel confident we'll get this done when we vote" Thursday.

The measure, which has undergone multiple revisions since it was introduced this month and has been approved by two Senate panels, would be the biggest change to higher education in New Jersey in decades.

It would move the majority of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers University. It would also put Rutgers-Camden under the authority of an independent board as well as a joint board aimed at creating a research consortium with Rowan University.

Opposition from Rutgers has been fierce, with student and faculty protests being regular events throughout the spring. The university's board of trustees has threatened to litigate in federal court if the state moves ahead without its approval.

Before the vote, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill, said: "This legislation has to have the approval of the Rutgers boards of governors and trustees. . . . Without their support this legislation goes nowhere."

A number of amendments were made public late in the evening. One pertained to who would bear the costs of medical malpractice insurance and another to the use of the Rutgers name.

"It's a huge amount to go through. We're going to move this forward tonight, but it doesn't end here," said Declan J. O'Scanlon Jr. (R., Monmouth), the Assembly Republican budget officer.

Monday's amendments followed a series of concessions since the bill's introduction, including a guarantee that the state would bear any unexpected costs to the schools.

While unions and some other key constituents have signed on in recent weeks, opposition took a new turn Monday.

The president of UMDNJ, Denise Rodgers, and a stream of white-coated medical students testified before the Assembly budget panel - the first time that house had taken up the matter - opposing the transfer of the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford to Rowan.

They argued that the medical school risked losing its accreditation and would suffer a loss of research funding and an exodus of faculty.

"It's like cutting off a concert pianist's hands, reattaching them to someone else, and telling them to go out and play a concert," Ross Brockunier, a medical student in Stratford, said in an interview. "Everyone knows Rutgers; everyone knows UMDNJ. Nobody knows Rowan."

Assembly Budget Chairman Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) told the students that legislators were working on language that would guarantee that the school would not lose its accreditation.

"It's been a work in progress," he said. "It's moved considerably."

Rowan, which is preparing to open a medical school in conjunction with Cooper University Hospital in Camden this summer, has had its academic standing repeatedly questioned since January, when it found itself as the hub of the governor's plan for a research university in South Jersey.

"The fact of the matter is, people really don't know Rowan," university spokesman Joe Cardona said after hearing of the students' concerns. "It's natural for these institutions that have enjoyed a higher status to feel slighted. But we're confident in our capabilities."

The biggest threat to Christie's hopes to alter the higher education system remains the Rutgers trustees.

The vice chairman of the board, Dudley Rivers, a Johnson & Johnson executive heading the committee that is negotiating with legislators, drew hard questioning from legislators over the university's claim that it would have to restructure its bonds at a cost of $155 million if it loses financial control of Rutgers-Camden.

"I'm having a hard time with that number," said Assemblyman Gary R. Chiusano (R., Sussex). "We've had multiple hearings on this, and I still need more financial information." Rivers said he would provide it.

After the hearing, Rivers said the trustees were firm in their stance that any attempt to take away financial control of the Camden campus from the university's board of governors, the system's other governing body, would result in litigation.

At Monday's hearing, many of those who testified seemed resigned that the matter would end up in court.

"I think you're going to pass this bill, and I think you're going to get away with it in the eyes of your constituents, because they have a million and one things to worry about," testified Katherine Epstein, a history professor at Rutgers-Camden. "If you choose to support the bill, I can only hope that history will judge you harshly, while consoling myself with the thought that I may help to write it."

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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