In May 2011, Governor Chris Christie appointed a five-member advisory committee to make recommendations for restructuring the assets of The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey ("UMDNJ"). The committee's mandate was to recommend ways that the state could "maximize the impact of the State's investment in public medical, dental and nursing education and training, and associated efforts in biomedical research and medical sciences education." The panel was even referred to as the "UMDNJ Advisory Committee." The advisory committee seemed to stray from its mandate by making a recommendation to give control of Rutgers University's Camden campus, including its law and business schools, to Rowan University.
The panel's final report did address medical education, recommending the division of UMDNJ into several parts to create a "New Jersey Health Science University" and to turn over control of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to the Rutgers main campus in New Brunswick. The recommendations regarding the Camden campus, however, met with immediate opposition. The Rutgers University Senate, representing faculty members at all three of the university's campuses, passed a resolution opposing the merger with Rowan. Opposition to the merger of the Camden campus led to student and faculty rallies and lawn signs throughout Southern New Jersey.
Then on May 3, 2012, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution stating that: "1. We are committed to Rutgers-Camden, its students, its prospective students, its faculty and staff, and its service to higher education, to the Camden community, and to the people of the State of New Jersey; 2. The proposed severance of Rutgers-Camden is inconsistent with the mission of Rutgers University. While we do not support such severance, we remain open to alternative proposals where Rutgers-Camden remains part of Rutgers University; 3. the proposed inclusion of RWJMS and other units of UMDNJ into Rutgers University should be considered on its own merits."
Based on my conversations with parties with knowledge of the circumstances leading up to the proposal to merge Rutgers Camden and Rowan, the idea surfaced largely as a response to the perceived lack of commitment to the Newark and Camden campuses by outgoing Rutgers University President, Richard L. McCormick and his former Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Philip Furmanski.
This perception was amplified by two actions taken by this leadership tandem:
1) The overall Rutgers Business School has historically been based in Newark. The School carried out a major renovation of leased facilities at 1 Washington Park in Newark. Yet, the administration also expended significant and scare resources in building the Janice H. Levin Building at 94 Rockafeller Road in Piscataway. The perception was that the leadership at Rutgers embarked upon the Levin Building construction as a "counter-weight" to Newark because university leadership believed that the pre-eminence of the New Brunswick/Piscataway campus should always be maintained.
2) When Cooper University Hospital in Camden approached Richard McCormick and Philip Furmanski about partnering with Cooper to create a medical school in Camden, the Rutgers administration appointed a senior university executive to scope out the opportunity. The person in question strongly recommended that Rutgers accept the invitation to partner with Cooper. The perception in South Jersey is that the administration declined the Cooper proposal for fear that accepting the Camden medical school would jeopardize the quest to obtain control of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Rutgers' refusal to partner with Cooper and the apparent reasons why they refused to do so have led many in South Jersey to conclude that the Rutgers Camden Campus will never be a priority for the state university. Ultimately, Coopers successfully teamed with Rowan University and the medical school is being built.
It is now unclear whether the divestiture of the Camden campus will proceed.
Formed by Royal Charter in 1766, Rutgers was a private corporation governed by its Board of Trustees. In 1956, N.J.S.A. 18A:65-3 (the "Rutgers Law") was adopted by the New Jersey State Legislature and approved by the Board of Trustees with the express purpose of establishing Rutgers as the State University of New Jersey. The law created a new governing board for Rutgers, the Board of Governors. That body is charged with operating Rutgers, yet the Board of Trustees was retained and, by law, was given an overall advisory capacity over Rutgers' affairs. It was charged with controlling the properties, funds and trusts of Rutgers vested as of August 31, 1956, and with insuring the preservation of the Rutgers Law's provisions for the essential self-governance of the University.
The Board of Trustees can prevent even the compromise that is being proposed from being implemented. Based on the resolution it passed on May 3, 2012, it appears unlikely that it will sign on to the proposed compromise.
Rutgers is America's eighth oldest institution of higher learning and one of the nation's premier public research universities. Serving more than 58,000 students on campuses in Camden, Newark and New Brunswick, it is one of only two New Jersey institutions represented in the prestigious Association of American Universities.
Its newly named president, Robert Barchi, will be presiding over one of the most challenging times in the university's history. It will be critical for him to work diligently and quickly to dispel the perception that the university administration is not fully committed to the Newark and Camden campuses. It will be particularly important for him to meet with business, academic and political leaders in South Jersey where faith in the University has waned to an all time low.
The debate, and even the disagreement, about the university re-organization has highlighted that our citizens and leaders are passionate about this issue. Regardless of what side of this debate we are on, it is clear that New Jersey cares deeply about its institutions of higher education. It is impressive how leaders throughout our state have understood the nexus between higher education and economic growth. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, we must renew our commitment as a state to excellence in education at all levels.