Venture between Rowan, Rutgers-Camden moves slowly

Posted: January 21, 2014

After months of tense political negotiations and public outcry, a proposed merger of Rutgers University's Camden campus and Rowan University was scuttled.

In its place was a compromise: A joint board would be created so the two schools would work together in Camden on health sciences programs.

But the plan has been slow to move forward - the law that created the board took effect July 1, but two of the seven board members have not yet been appointed.

Meanwhile, politicians have worked for months behind the scenes to give the board more power.

Last Monday, on the last day of its session, the Legislature voted to give the joint board more authority, including eminent domain power in Camden. Gov. Christie has until the end of Tuesday to sign or veto the bill.

The governor, in the meantime, took his own steps to get the joint board moving.

Christie nominated Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd and former Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez to a related Rutgers board, a needed move in order to fill the vacant spots on the joint Rutgers-Rowan board. The state Senate immediately confirmed both.

What remains to be seen is what true role the joint Rutgers-Rowan board will have as it sorts out the demands of two universities - and their multiple governing boards - and the goals of lawmakers.

Rutgers and its Rutgers-Camden board of directors.When the "New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act" became effective in July, it created two boards: the joint Rutgers-Rowan board and a Rutgers-Camden board of directors.

"The legislation envisioned it [the Rutgers-Camden board of directors] to be a body that supervises the chancellor . . . and advocates on behalf of the campus," said Wendell E. Pritchett, chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, who steps down in June.

This is the board on which Redd and Cruz-Perez will serve. There are still two vacancies for Christie to fill before the 10-member board can meet for the first time.

A spokesman for the governor said no target date had been set for the remaining two appointments.

Until they are made, the Rutgers-Camden board can't name its appointments to the joint board.

Rowan University-Rutgers Camden board of governors. The joint board was designed to oversee the two institutions' programs in the health sciences, encouraging the use of shared services and the establishment of an "eds and meds" corridor in the city.

"For me, it was just an extension of Rowan University and an extension of Rutgers," said State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).

New programs in the health sciences will need approval from the joint board, whether or not they are considered collaborative.

The joint board can also make recommendations for joint faculty appointments, run shared programs, and build facilities.

It receives $2.5 million from each of its two host institutions.

"It's very complex," Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona said.

Cardona and Pritchett said that administrators had had meetings but that no decisions could be made until the board is complete.

Pritchett declined to comment on the role the joint board should have, saying the decision is his successors' to make.

In March, Rowan proposed to the state a $79 million joint health sciences building for Rowan and Rutgers. The 106,523-square-foot project was not approved.

"Rowan's prepared to take the lead, and that's what we've been saying," Cardona said of the joint board.

New powers for the joint Rowan-Rutgers board. For the last several months, Sweeney said, his office had worked on the "cleanup bill," S3127, that passed last week.

The bill would give the joint board new powers, including the authority to enter into contracts, exercise eminent domain in Camden, accept money and property, and "own, lease, dispose of, use, and operate property."

The law would also give Rowan, which already has eminent domain authority, the ability to enter into public-private partnerships, and would shield it for two years from any unexpected costs of absorbing part of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Christie has until the end of the day Tuesday to act on the bill. Sweeney said he had not discussed it with Christie directly.

"The governor will make his position on the bill known when he acts on it. He has not commented publicly," a spokesman said in an e-mail.

Sweeney said the bill came "from the fact that the joint board is going to be working in the city of Camden, trying to move through projects."

"To me, it was honestly a tool that's necessary to move forward to give that joint board more teeth," he said of the new powers.

Neither Pritchett, the Rutgers-Camden chancellor, nor Donald Norcross, the Democratic state senator whose district includes the city, could remember a specific time when Rutgers-Camden needed eminent domain.

Still, Norcross said, he supports the eminent domain power and voted in favor of the bill because he would like the joint board to have the same authority as Rowan.

"If you couldn't accept grants or contributions, money or property, it would be dead. And then it would be a board by name only and it couldn't do anything," he said.

Norcross and Sweeney said they believed eminent domain would be rarely used.

"We need to get things done. And sometimes it's going to be necessary. I hope that it's used sparingly, and I'm sure everyone's going to look to be as cautious as they can be when it comes to it," Sweeney said, "but we just need to make progress in Camden."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220       @elaijuh

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