New target date, fall 2015, for combining Rutgers' two law schools

Posted: February 25, 2014

NEW BRUNSWICK Rutgers University president Robert L. Barchi announced a plan a year ago to merge its two law schools, with the ambitious goal of having students this fall enter a unified program.

Then came the basketball scandal, which caused personnel changes, including the Newark campus' law dean becoming the university's top lawyer. And then the Camden law school dean announced his coming departure to fill the newly created post of campus provost.

At the same time, leadership shuffling at both campuses meant new chancellors would oversee the transition.

Combined with the unexpected complexities of merging two separate institutions, administrators say, the delays have pushed the new target to admit students to one Rutgers law school to fall 2015.

"We don't exactly know what'll happen, but what we would hope is next year [the American Bar Association] would let us recruit as one," Rutgers-Camden's law dean Rayman Solomon said last week, "because we were far enough along in the process that they could see that this was happening."

When a single Rutgers University School of Law emerges, leaders hope it will have a higher profile, in part because of the timing: The schools will merge just as the university joins the powerhouse Big Ten athletic division and its academic counterpart.

"Those are major public research universities that have a single flagship law school. And that's what Rutgers would now have. . . . It wouldn't divide its resources between two separate ones," said vice dean John Oberdiek, who will become acting dean of the Camden law school at the end of this semester.

The Newark law school has a foothold in the New York legal market, and the Camden school is an entryway into the Philadelphia market, Oberdiek said.

"You'd be hard-pressed," he said, "to find another school in the country that will have that kind of reach."

Barchi announced the law school merger in February 2013; it would be part of a larger vision of a more unified university, he said.

Rutgers decided in 1967 to retain two autonomous law schools, which the university acquired by absorbing stand-alone institutions. Both have remained largely separate since, each with its own accreditation, faculty, and curricula.

Combining them has been slow, partially because there are few, if any, precedents for a merger of existing accredited schools within one university, Solomon said. He hopes the bar association will sign off on the move in the next few months.

Because law schools admit students only once a year, the earliest the unified school could welcome a new class would be fall 2015, Solomon and Oberdiek said.

"We want to do this right. . . . There's no artificial time pressure on us to do this by X time or something happens," said Ronald K. Chen, the acting dean of the Newark law school. "It's still on track. I'm not worried about it at all."

In the meantime, the two schools are setting the groundwork to merge.

"They're doing the curriculum, they're teaching classes together, they're figuring out how to reconcile student journals," said Wendell Pritchett, chancellor of Rutgers-Camden. "They're doing all of the stuff that is actually part of the merger."

Camden's publication, the Rutgers Law Journal, will combine with Newark's Rutgers Law Review, adopting the latter name in August.

"We're known to be the go-to for state [constitutional] law scholarship. That's something that Newark is going to be benefiting from, getting our expertise and our legacy in state con-law," said Alexandra Jacobs, the third-year law student who is the editor-in-chief of the Rutgers Law Journal. "It's sort of marrying these two legacies into something that's better than the sum of its parts."

To bridge the 90-mile distance between the two schools, Rutgers is looking to build an "immersive learning classroom" at each school by spring 2015.

Identical rooms, where one entire wall is covered by a videoconferencing screen, will give the effect of each room's being half of a complete room.

For now, faculty members have been using a conference room with a 60-inch screen to teach students across the campuses. Professor Kimberly M. Mutcherson invited Newark students into Camden's flagship South African Constitutional Law course, teaching nine Camden and eight Newark students.

Mutcherson has had some technology issues, she said, and had to learn to teach without using PowerPoint presentations, which can't be displayed without covering the students on screen. But, she said, she has had no major complaints.

"I was a little nervous about how that would play itself out, and it really feels like one group of people," she said, citing group presentations in which Camden and Newark students have chosen to work together.

As a faculty member, Mutcherson said, she is also excited about the possibilities for offering "boutique courses" based on faculty specialties.

"Is it going to take time for people to start thinking of themselves that way? Absolutely, it's not going to be something that happens a month from now," Mutcherson said. "But I think as people start getting comfortable with the idea . . . we'll ultimately come up with some really fantastic ways to come up with more robust experiences for students."

Barchi echoed that sentiment Friday:

"I see a time not too far down the line when students can be on either campus taking the same courses by synchronous education, and we don't need duplicate faculty in both places. We can have specialty faculty that are growing in one area in one location vs. the other, so the physical location becomes less and less important."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220    @elaijuh

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