It was matched by a legislative process that seemed to be designed to minimize public confidence. Lawmakers' rush to pass something they barely understood or could justify was an embarrassment to everyone in New Jersey.
Nevertheless, a remarkable transformation took place last week in the closing hours of that bruising legislative process. Many deserve credit for it. Above all, however, we must credit the transformed themselves, including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), and his brother, South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III (who is one of The Inquirer's owners). Christie likewise displayed a suppleness that had been absent from many of his public remarks on the proposal up to that point.
That they all came to endorse the unalterable view of the Rutgers-Camden community and Rutgers' two governing boards is remarkable and welcome. That view, quite simply, is that Rutgers-Camden must remain fully of and within the Rutgers system.
Moreover, the law requires that both of Rutgers' governing boards consent to any change in the structure or governance of the university. Even the legislation passed last week and awaiting the governor's signature must be reviewed by the boards.
My view is that the legislation that was finally passed will preserve Rutgers-Camden within Rutgers while establishing a strong foundation for the development of biosciences across South Jersey. It confirms the essential right of Rutgers to control its destiny yet creates structures properly focused on promoting health-sciences collaboration between Rutgers and Rowan.
This robust but narrowly tailored legislation bears no resemblance to the UMDNJ committee's recommendations. It is light-years even from the bill introduced on June 7 and passed essentially unchanged from one committee to the next before it reached the floors of both houses. Also greatly improved is the bill's new Rutgers-Camden Board of Directors, which is fully subject to the governing policies of Rutgers.
The lightly examined, improvisational process has resulted in some ambiguities and omissions as to how all these pieces will fit together within the Rutgers system. But I am optimistic that the Legislature can swiftly follow up with some minor clarifications and amendments that will reassure many at Rutgers. Given that, the bill has the potential to mark a positive turning point in the development of Rutgers-Camden and the region.
This widely unexpected conclusion required what is euphemistically called "engagement with stakeholders." Rutgers-Camden's engagement has been pointed. And it took place as the campus suffered severe damage from the proposal and the process that followed. This fall, my first-year classes at the Law School will be less than half-full.
Rutgers-Camden will recover, though. Indeed, given responsible investment by the state and wise stewardship by Rutgers University, it can prosper. It's most likely to do so if all the concerned parties continue to listen to each other.
As higher education in New Jersey evolves to meet modern challenges, we must reflect on what ultimately led to success last week: the emergence of solutions that respected what everyone brought to the discussion. Many had despaired of accomplishing that in Trenton. They were relieved to be proved wrong at the eleventh hour. (It was not so, however, for the physicians and students of the UMDNJ School of Osteopathic Medicine, which was summarily absorbed into Rowan without even the fig leaf of an Advisory Committee recommendation.)
The law is a great teacher. Everyone involved in this process has learned a great deal about the enduring wisdom and reach of the 1956 statute guaranteeing Rutgers' independence and freedom from political interference. Those lessons can be taught again if need be.
In a democracy, you make policy with the politics you have. Our politics should more consistently reflect the kind of flexibility and judgment that only appeared as this process drew to a close. The people of this state deserve nothing less.
It now falls to all of us — academics, elected officials, and watchful citizens alike — to make the results of that process work for everyone in New Jersey. Rutgers-Camden will do its part.
Adam F. Scales is a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Camden.