"For all the people down here who expressed great concern about all this from the beginning, I hope that your fears are allayed and that the needs of this region and this university are beginning to be satisfied," Christie told faculty and students.
Christie's original plan had called for Rowan, with its main campus in Glassboro, to absorb Rutgers-Camden, stripping the Rutgers name from the branch of the New Brunswick school. That plan was abandoned amid strenuous protests and threats of legal action from Rutgers-Camden students and faculty. Rutgers-Camden survives, with more autonomy and more funding.
"I think we won," said Kate Epstein, 30, a history professor at Rutgers-Camden. "I feel good about the final product, although I think there was some revisionist history going on up there at the podium."
After months of negotiations between politicians and members of Rutgers' two governing boards, the Democratic legislature produced a 128-page bill days before approving it at the last major voting session before lawmakers' traditional summer break.
The law calls on Rutgers-Camden and Rowan to form a joint board to create and oversee a college of life sciences.
Rutgers will absorb six of UMDNJ's seven schools, and Rowan will take over its School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.
Rowan will also gain state designation as a research institution, allowing it to create doctoral programs in biomedical engineering and pharmacology.
Christie, a Republican, had set a July 1 deadline for enactment of the legislation, a date that he acknowledged Wednesday was arbitrary.
"I picked July 1 as the deadline because that's when they [lawmakers] leave town and that's how I could get legislation done," he said. "I picked this July 1 because I knew if we didn't get it done now, we weren't going to get it done for years."
Rutgers' governing boards are reviewing the legislation and have yet to officially sign off on it. The board members are expected in the months ahead to ask for some changes to the bill, parts of which were written during a frantic late-night session.
On Wednesday, Rutgers board of governors chairman Ralph Izzo expressed gratitude to the state's political leaders.
"The bill was vastly improved because our state's leaders were willing to set aside partisan differences to work for the public good," he said in a statement.
State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), a prime sponsor of the final bill, joked, "It's good to be back on Rutgers' campus and not get hollered at."
Norcross said he had heard from a lot of Rutgers-Camden students, but their "secret weapon" was his daughter Corey, a second-year law student at Rutgers-Camden who lobbied on behalf of her school.
"Higher ed in New Jersey has been talked about being reorganized for literally decades," he said. "I can't tell you how proud and how happy I am that the governor and the Legislature have acted to give Camden and South Jersey . . . what it deserves when it comes to resources."
Norcross's brother, George E. Norcross III, a key Democratic leader, chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden and a managing partner of The Inquirer's parent company, was a prominent backer of the overhaul.
Speaking to the Associated Press, he predicted a tripling at the Rutgers-Camden campus in the next decade.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) thanked Christie at least four times during his remarks for showing "courage" in pushing for the law. Two previous Democratic governors had failed to enact similar measures.
The overhaul will lead to higher-paying jobs in the pharmaceutical and engineering industries that South Jersey now lacks, he said.
"A better-educated community is a healthier community all the way around - education, education, education," Sweeney said. "And this comes from a union ironworker that didn't go to college. That's why I value it even more."
Democracy is messy, Christie said, referring to the turbulence that accompanied the legislation.
"I never was really all that concerned that Donald was getting the hell beat out of him down here," Christie told the audience of students and faculty, who received him with polite applause and didn't laugh at his joke.
Restructuring higher education will help Camden in ways other revitalization efforts have not, Christie said.
"The difference with what this is going to be is, these are permanent capital investments that are going to be made that are going to leave a footprint here," Christie said.
Camden's woes were evident nearby. Not far from where an electronic sign on Cooper Street welcomed Christie to Camden, a man slept on the sidewalk, shaded by the decaying awning of the vacant Hotel Plaza.
Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @joellefarrell.
Inquirer staff writer James Osborne contributed to this article.