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Rutgers' governing bodies working to issue statement on merger talks

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Rutgers University's two governing bodies are working together to issue a joint statement about the ongoing compromise talks about the fate of the school's Camden campus, which is in limbo as part of a larger proposal to overhaul the state's public university system, according to a Rutgers source.

The board of trustees was scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon in closed session and had planned to put out a "set of principles" related to any Rutgers-Camden merger or collaboration with Rowan University, while also noting they were open to compromise, according to the source. But the trustees' meeting was canceled less than 24 hours after it was announced because of a desire to get both governing boards on the same page, according to the source, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the merger talks.

"We all want the same thing, but we don't want to disrupt the autonomy of Rutgers," the source said.

A second source, trustee Lucas J. Visconti, confirmed that the trustees' executive committee has been meeting with the board of governors, but said he couldn't comment on the specifics of what was being discussed at joint meetings or why Thursday's meeting was canceled.

"It's a very fluid situation," Visconti said. "Things'll evolve, I'm sure, today and tomorrow, because I understand that Senator (Stephen) Sweeney is preparing his legislation to circumvent the Act of 1956." That law established the board of governors as Rutgers' primary governing body while giving the trustees legal power over university property acquired before 1956 and preserving the institution's autonomy.

The other source said trustees are unhappy with what they believe Sweeney's legislation will propose, and want to negotiate with him before he makes his bill public.

"You don't do this fight in public. You work it out," the source said.

Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said May 15 he was drafting legislation related to a Rutgers-Rowan merger or partnership, and hoped to have something in legislators' hands by June 1, but provided no details. Today, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Sweeney didn't expect negotiations to be completed in time to introduce the compromise legislation by June 1. Sweeney told the Inquirer he wants to introduce legislation soon — perhaps next week — to allow time to vet it. A message left for Sweeney at his legislative office was not returned.

Gov. Chris Christie has set a July 1 deadline for a merger plan to be in place, and Sweeney told the Inquirer he hopes to have a plan approved by that date. There have been no details on what constitutes a "plan," and whether it could be just the passage of legislation

Rutgers trustees have opposed the idea of losing the Camden campus to Rowan, with Visconti calling the potential merger a land grab that would be contrary to the intentions of the creators of Rutgers. Visconti also has concerns about the overall realignment plan, which includes proposed changes at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

A stumbling block to the creation of a joint statement by the two Rutgers boards was the unavailability of board of governors Chairman Ralph Izzo, who is reportedly away, according to the first source. Izzo did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

A Rutgers spokesman, Greg Trevor, could not comment about the planned meeting of the trustees, or its abrupt cancellation. Asked about work on a joint statement by the two governing bodies, Trevor said he had no information.

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