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Assembly readies reorganization bill as Rutgers boards make plea for compromise

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Hours after a joint session of the boards of trustees and governors of Rutgers University voted to not support legislation introduced in the state Senate on Monday, a group of key Assembly Democrats announced this afternoon it would introduce identical legislation Thursday.

The bill will be introduced by Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees), deputy Speaker John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), budget Chairman Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus) and higher education Chairwoman Celeste Riley (D-Bridgeton).

At today's meeting, the boards' members approved, with one abstention, the principles of the Rutgers Act, and agreed to move forward on forming a committee to negotiate with the Legislature on a restructuring plan for higher education. The committee is expected to be formed Thursday afternoon.

Members said they were trying to move the ball forward through negotiation, but will remain firm on the established principles, among them agreement to merge with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, as long as the state provides adequate funding for integration and any deficits incurred during the assimilation of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Also, the board affirmed it will work to establish a collaborative agreement with Rowan University, as long as Rutgers-Camden maintains its autonomous status and any collaborative "mechanisms" are approved by both universities and the governing boards of Rutgers.

Trustee emeritus Ronald Giaconia, after the principles were voted upon, reminded the other trustees and governors that, when the Rutgers Act made the school a public-private partnership, the governance structure was set up to mitigate political influence on the institution. Giaconia said trustees who negotiated that agreement were the "founding fathers" of the current institution, who knew political interference would one day come.

Bob Williams, distinguished law professor at Rutgers-Camden, said there are constitutional issues at hand, but common sense tells you that the trustees in 1956 "didn't just hand the school over to the state with a handshake."

Williams also said while Rutgers-Camden would enjoy an increase in autonomy from the New Brunswick campus, the legislative proposal establishes two new levels of governance, including an overarching board that would include Rowan stakeholders and the governor's stakeholders. That would mean the university would have the Rutgers name, but no connection to the Central Jersey campus.

While control of the brand was an important factor of rejecting the legislation, cost was, too.

Trustee Abram Suydam Jr. told the crowd the numbers he received in the subcommittee about the cost of the restructuring should be made available — to the rest of the board as well as the public — because if he were a taxpayer, he would be "shocked" to learn the price tag of the original merger proposal. Suydam would not elaborate on numbers, adding "it's not my place" to be the one to divulge them.

In a public comment session, Timothy Farrow, treasurer of the university's alumni association, told the boards that, when Rutgers extended a hand to find compromise in the restructuring of higher education, the legislation authored was a "slap disguised as a handshake."

Giaconia said the boards are willing to work with lawmakers to see if all higher education stakeholders could "have their cake and eat it, too," because "for the sake of the public, we have to do what is reasonable."

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