When South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross met with the Star-Ledger last month to lay out what a “compromise” in the takeover of the Rutgers-Camden campus might look like, he said he was putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Now, his chief agent in the legislature, Steve Sweeney, has shown what all the king’s men have created: a monster system that is takeover by another name. If this version of the reorganization passes with the consent of the Rutgers boards, the university’s independence will be compromised forever.
A primary element in the proposed reorganization of higher education in the state is a measure to grant both the Newark and Camden campuses greater autonomy from control in New Brunswick. Each campus would have its own board of trustees and receive its own appropriation directly from the state, while still operating under the Rutgers name. In Camden, however, the new board of trustees would be under the authority—fiscal and operational—of a newly created board of governors that would have ultimate authority to accept or reject actions not just of Rutgers Camden’s new board, but also of Rowan’s existing board.
The proposed legislation posted by Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney late yesterday may appear to be keeping Rutgers in South Jersey, but it is a merger of the two institutions by another name. George Norcoss, the primary proponent of a merger in South Jersey, could not help but admitting as much by crowing to the Inquirer—the paper he has become managing partner of at the height of the takeover controversy—that the proposed legislation would “create a new research university of over 20,000 students with a medical school, a law school, and engineering school, and two great universities in Rowan and Rutgers-Camden.” This has been the theme of takeover proponents from the moment Norcross first proposed a University of South Jersey in October, 2010.
Two great universities acting as one? That’s the proposition, as the legislation states clearly in Section 19 creating the Joint Rowan University-Rutgers Camden Board of Governors: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, the board shall have full authority over all matters concerning the supervision and operations of Rowan University and Rutgers University Camden.” This new board, which would substitute for Rutgers-Camden for the board of governors in New Brunswick and add yet another layer of authority over the existing board at Rowan, would have seven members—two each from Rutgers-Camden and Rowan—the remaining three appointed by the governor. Since under the proposed legislation the governor appoints all members of the board of trustees at Rowan, he or she would have effective control over the governing body of the two existing universities.
The challenge to Rutgers’s integrity is obvious. Through the device of a 99 year lease, to be compensated at a rate of $1 a year, Rutgers would in effect be giving away the physical assets of its Camden campus, valued conservatively at between $100 and $150 million. Section 19 proposes directly to override the authority of Rutgers’s existing board of trustees by prefacing the establishment of authority in the new joint board of governors with the language, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary.” If the Rutgers Board of Trustees agrees to that provision alone, it will have effectively negated the acts of 1945 and 1956 establishing Rutgers as the state university of New Jersey.
While some at Rutgers-Newark may welcome the concessions Mayor Cory Booker apparently wrested from South Jersey Democrats, New Brunswick should be mortified by the provision that would stick the university with all of UMDNJ’s debt, some $660 million. Combined with the effective loss of the Camden Campus and other costs the state would saddle the university with, the bill could well approach the $1 billion and more estimated for the Vagelos report issued more than a decade ago. At least then Rutgers was given a chance to reject the terms of the proposed reorganization. This legislation would force Rutgers to accept arrangements it did not initiate and it did not offer to pay for. In this light, it’s hard to see how Richard McCormick could praise the proposal, except to add yet another misstep on his part that has led Rutgers to this crisis in its history.
Crisis is not too strong a word. The proposed legislation would not just force Rutgers to shrink its authority in the state, it would give the governor four additional appointments to the Board of Governors for the central campus, effectively giving this governor and every successor effective control over higher education at every level.
Had this been a mutually devised approach to meeting needs in higher education, one could see working with the system that has been proposed. Instead, we are being asked to rely on a political bargain driven by South Jersey Democrats.
Give them credit. South Jersey Democrats have followed the script laid out by the consultants they hired to implement the takeover last November. “It is important that those responsible for managing the transition to a New Rowan university spend as little time as possible explaining how and why the protests have missed the point,” the University of Pennsylvania’s Learning Alliance advised in its January 26, 2012 report. “Rather, those responsible for managing the transition to a New Rowan University should spend the great majority of their time describing the opportunities a New Rowan University makes possible.” When objections overwhelmed the positive narrative deemed appropriate for the takeover, George Norcross took unprecedented steps to change the conversation, generating extensive interviews at the Courier Post as well as the Star-Ledger, both of which remain posted as videos on the papers’ websites. As for the Inquirer, there is little doubt that editorial policy has uncritically bought into the arguments for the proposed consolidation of South Jersey universities. Unlike the Courier or other papers in the state, it has refused even to meet with representatives of the Rutgers-Camden campus.
The Rutgers boards could and should kill this proposal in its infancy at its meeting tomorrow. Rejection of the terms of the legislation won’t prevent it from going forward, but it would vastly improve chances for amending the worst portions of the proposal, most notably the joint Rowan-Rutgers governing board. If the boards fail and the legislation passes, garnering as it does the support of North Jersey as well as South Jersey Democrats, it undoubtedly will be challenged in court. If that happens, the Camden campus will continue to be compromised with this challenge to its integrity. One can’t help but be reminded of another section of the Learning Alliance report as it urged its clients to move expeditiously towards the takeover on July 1, 2012:
“We believe it will be possible to realize the Advisory Committee’s vision of having in place a major research university in South jersey even if the full integration of Rutgers-Camden is delayed. All that is required to start the process is the designation of Rowan as a public research university, the necessary reclassification of staff, and a substantial augment in the funds available to the New Rowan university to build the infrastructure a successful major research university will require.” Section 21 of the proposed legislation establishes Rowan as a research university. Presumably a research development fund intended to advance collaboration between faculties of the two institutions of the kind identified in the Learning Alliance report could follow.
As for the faculty at Rutgers-Camden, the Learning Alliance report is equally forthright: “If Rowan, Cooper University Hospital, and the State of New Jersey make clear their intention to establish a major research university in South Jersey, we believe that sooner or later the great majority of faculty at Rutgers Camden will ask to join.” in other words, it’s death by a thousand cuts. Rutgers the State University, its faculty, and current and potential students, who face skyrocketing costs for their education, deserve better.
Throw out the Rowan-Rutgers governing board and maintain the integrity of the university as a whole. The alternative represents a blow that Rutgers may never recover from.