Merger needed public's support

Posted: July 06, 2012

The plan finally approved to restructure New Jersey's higher education system represents a missed opportunity for southern residents of the state, who stood to benefit much more from a proposal to merge Glassboro-based Rowan University with Rutgers University-Camden.

The defeat, though, was understandable. Rather than generate broad public support, South Jersey politicians tried to jam the proposal through the Legislature, but were rebuffed when Rutgers students, alumni, and faculty successfully mounted a counterattack to keep their Camden fiefdom. In the end, even Rowan officials backed away from becoming part of a new university system.

But the watered-down restructuring plan that the Legislature approved last week leaves unanswered critical questions that will determine whether the overhaul will fix a higher education system long seen as fractured.

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, stands to gain the most under the reorganization. It will take over most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, gaining much-desired medical schools in Newark and New Brunswick as well as nursing and dental schools. Those moves will better position Rutgers to compete with the nation's top public universities.

Rutgers also will largely retain control over its Camden campus. That will satisfy all the Rutgers-Camden folks, especially at the Law School, who feared losing the Rutgers brand. Avoiding that became their all-consuming goal, so much so they forgot their own past criticism of the disparate treatment the Camden satellite was often afforded by it's mother-ship in New Brunswick.

There are some gains for Rowan under the restructuring legislation, most notably its new classification as a research institution, which is essential for its soon-to-open Cooper Medical School in Camden. But being called a research institution will be meaningless without the additional state support required to make Rowan attractive to top scientists and academics. Currently, Rowan has only one doctoral program — in education.

Rowan also will absorb UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford. But that institution has been so soiled by past scandals that revealed it to be a haven of political patronage that it will take a complete scrubbing before it can become a real asset to the university. Changing its name might be a good place to start, symbolically severing all ties to its stormy past.

With UMDNJ and the new Cooper institution, Rowan will join Michigan State as the only universities in the country to operate two medical schools.

The scuttled merger proposal would have created a new South-Jersey-based university system, with Rowan and Rutgers-Camden both reporting to the same overarching administration.

The thought of ceding complete control of their campus led Rowan officials to join the Rutgers naysayers. Too bad. The system envisioned could have made both schools stronger and helped stanch the loss of so many of South Jersey's young people who decide to go to college out of state and never come back.

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