Gov. Christie has made elevating the profile of New Jersey's public universities to the ranks of elite systems like Michigan and California a priority, in the hope of attracting federal research dollars and the industries that come with them.
In June, Christie won a major victory when legislators approved an ambitious overhaul of the state's public universities, dissolving the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and divvying up its medical and health-related institutions - with Rutgers University being the biggest beneficiary.
Rowan University will acquire UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford from the deal.
Hanging over New Jersey is an exodus of pharmaceutical jobs. Since 1990, employment in that industry - a major component of the state's economy - has decreased by more than 30 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
State officials want to see a $1.5 billion expansion in classrooms and lab space at community colleges, state universities, and private colleges. In addition to the proposed bond issue, the projects would rely on 25 percent in matching funds from the institutions themselves and $567 million from a different set of bond programs.
Which school will get what funding remains undecided. But according to the Department of Higher Education, $300 million would go to public research universities such as Rutgers; $247.5 million to public nonresearch universities; $150 million to county colleges; and $52.5 million to private institutions.
Last November, every college and university in New Jersey came up with a wish list of projects totaling $6 billion - though a request from Princeton University for $130 million for a new environmental science center will not be considered due to the large size of the university's endowment, a spokesman for Building Our Futures said.
In Camden, Rutgers-Camden and Rowan are looking to build an integrative medicine and genomic medicine center where faculty from both schools can collaborate on research.
In Glassboro, on its home campus, Rowan wants to spend $16.5 million on a new business school.
In Galloway, Richard Stockton College wants to finish its unified science center. It so far has only enough funding to pay for two-thirds of the project, said Sharon Schulman, CEO of external affairs.
The relative lack of state funding in New Jersey for higher education has long ruffled feathers among public university officials, who have watched institutions in other states build new labs and other facilities that attract top faculty and higher research funding.
"We are the second-largest university in the state, and I am out of laboratory space. I can't hire another faculty member," said Susan Cole, president of Montclair State University, who heads the advocacy group representing state universities. "New Jersey institutions are very good. We are very well located and can attract faculty. But we have missed a lot of opportunity in terms of building programs and expanding instruction and research."
A poll by the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics last week reported support for the bond issue among likely voters has grown to 62 percent.
And it has the support of construction unions, which have significant political clout and, according to Building Our Futures, stand to see an estimated 10,000 new jobs.
Business interests supporting the issue include Verizon, PSE&G, Prudential, and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
But referendums, which are low on the list of ballot questions and subject to low turnout, are always prone to be swung by opponents, Sweeney said.
Already, Americans for Prosperity, the Virginia-based conservative advocacy group, has hinted it might campaign against the bond issue. And the New Jersey Taxpayer's Alliance reported in a study last year that state colleges are sitting on $1.3 billion in unspent reserves.
"From the citizens' and students' perspective there probably is some benefit, but there needs to be some oversight," said Jerry Cantrell, president of the alliance.
With the state unemployment rate at 9.9 percent, one of the highest in the nation, and its debt rating on watch, voters could be leery about taking on greater debt, said John Weingart, associate director of Eagleton.
"There is bipartisan support for the bond issue, but it is getting very little attention," Weingart said. "It's not a profound thing to say it could go either way, but it's the truth."
Should voters approve the bond issue, another battle will quickly begin as universities and colleges compete against each other for funding.
That decision will ultimately be made by the Christie administration and the Legislature, and on university campuses debate is under way about what is a priority.
"Even within Rutgers and Rowan, there are many competing interests," said Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett. "Your stakeholders like George Norcross and Steve Sweeney have been saying we need to grow [South Jersey] as a life sciences center, so I would imagine you would see an emphasis in that area. We disagreed on some things but we agreed on that."
Pritchett was among the opponents of a plan supported by top South Jersey Democrats to merge Rowan with Rutgers-Camden. It ultimately was withdrawn. Norcross, a powerful Democratic leader in New Jersey, is a managing partner in the parent company of The Inquirer.
At the Rowan and Rutgers-Camden sciences departments, faculty are already abuzz with talk of increased funding for research and greater collaboration between disciplines - a necessity in growing fields like biotechnology.
Thomas Merrill, a mechanical engineering professor at Rowan who also runs a small medical-device company, is hopeful the region could develop into a technology hub but said it had a long way to go.
"It's really hard to get people with the necessary experience here," he said. "If I was in Boston, I would have no problem finding people."
Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @osborneja.