N.J. college reorganization talks appear stalled

Posted: June 29, 2012

Lawmakers and Rutgers University board members trying to resolve sharp disagreements over Gov. Christie's plan to restructure the state university system were were locked in negotiations Wednesday night, the eve of a climactic vote in the Legislature scheduled for Thursday.

For days, legislators and aides have been meeting with a negotiating team set up by Rutgers' two governing boards.

As of late Wednesday, the sides had not come to terms on two critical issues, the potential costs of the proposal and who would control Rutgers-Camden, according to two individuals involved in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

The state plans to include Rutgers-Camden in a megauniversity complex in South Jersey that would also include Rowan University in Glassboro and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.

The Rutgers board of trustees has threatened to litigate if Christie and the Legislature move ahead on the plan without their consent. The trustees are pushing lawmakers to delay a vote.

On Wednesday evening, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), one of the bill's sponsors, said the Assembly's majority Democrats would caucus ahead of Thursday's vote to see where support lies.

"Clearly the members will consider all options, but I don't know what the final decision will be," he said. "I will say the concept that underscores the legislation is something we ought to accomplish."

A spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), another legislative sponsor, said the senator would not comment until after Thursday's vote.

Under the legislation, Rutgers would take over most of UMDNJ, which was founded by the state in 1970 and has been rocked by scandal in recent years.

During a town-hall meeting in Brick this week, the Republican governor said the merger would mean Rutgers would enter the top 25 of universities in the country in terms of research funding.

But holding up his plans are Rutgers' two governing boards, which maintain that they have veto power over any restructuring of their campuses in New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark.

"That's an issue that will unfold as we move forward," Wisniewski said.

At an Assembly Budget Committee hearing Monday, Rutgers board of trustees vice chairman Dudley Rivers testified that the legislation "provides enormous opportunity" and "may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," but urged legislators to amend the bill so Rutgers retains full control over its Camden campus.

Since Christie introduced his higher-education plan in January, he has faced a near-constant barrage of opposition from constituencies as varied as Newark ward leaders and college history professors.

But he has had the support of the powerful South Jersey Democrats, led by insurance executive and Cooper University Hospital Chairman George E. Norcross III, who has long championed for a large research university in the south. Norcross is also a managing partner of the parent company of The Inquirer.

After protests at Rutgers through the spring, Sweeney introduced this month what he billed as compromise legislation, in which control over Rutgers-Camden would be split.

The larger university would still control academic matters such as tenure, but finances, operations, and construction would be controlled by an independent Rutgers-Camden board and another board that would jointly govern Rowan.

Under the latest version of the legislation, UMDNJ's debt-ridden University Hospital in Newark would become autonomous, and an advisory board would be created to give Newark's political leadership greater say in how Rutgers' myriad schools and institutions in that city would be run.

In recent weeks, the bill's language has undergone multiple rewrites and the opposition has taken twists and turns, leaving some in both the Assembly and the Senate confused about what exactly they would be voting on Thursday.

"There are a lot of supporters on both sides of the aisle," said State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington). "But there are a lot of consequences we just don't know. I fear that we're just moving too quickly."

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

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