When discussions began last year over merging our area’s top universities and medical schools, the idea seemed trailblazing to some, too far-fetched to others.
The proposal involves a major shakeup in higher education in which Rutgers-Camden would be merged with Glassboro-based Rowan University. It is stirring up everyone from alumni to future students across the region. After all, no such mergers have ever occurred in higher education across the country.
While the thought of combining state institutions has been kicked around for at least a decade, this time around it has a few powerful proponents who have a very real interest in bringing it to fruition. Combine that with the support of Gov. Chris Christie—a man not exactly known for backing down—and now could be the time we see it accomplished.
The goal is simple to the brain trust behind it, also known as the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey Advisory Committee: to combine the resources already in our backyard to form one top-tier research facility. That new research designation for Rowan could welcome a shower of federal dollars, meaning better programs, more high-tech industries, and more reason for students to stay close to home.
It could reverse the trend where New Jersey ranks 47th in the country in its investment in higher education. Its No. 1 ranking? Losing more high school graduates to out-of-state-colleges than any other state.
Gov. Chris Christie announced in January that he endorses the findings of the committee, chaired by Dr. Sol Barer, a former biopharmaceutical company CEO who serves on the Rutgers Board of Trustees.
He believes this wouldn’t only drastically expand Rowan’s influence in the region, but would propel the soon-to-open Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, expediting the growth of the first new medical school in New Jersey in more than 30 years.
But as positive as the intentions are in the report, depending on the perspective, there’s both excitement and anticipation over the possibilities, and anger and dismay for what’s been described as a “hostile takeover.”
More questions than answers have developed over the last couple of months as frustration over the lack of information has grown. Students have staged protests on the Rutgers campus, alumni have threatened pulling back on their donations, and some professors aren’t sure if they want to stay.
The big mystery that remains is how exactly this would all work.
“That’s the billion dollar question,” says interim Rowan President Dr. Ali Houshmand.
Rowan: Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain?
Not only would Rutgers’ 6,000-some students be incorporated into Rowan’s more than 11,000, it would also acquire everything that comes with Rutgers-Camden, including its School of Law, School of Business, and multiple graduate and Ph.D. programs. Most importantly, it would retain the Rowan name.
“So much strategic research needs to be done,” says Houshmand. “We need to set aside personal feelings and egos and look at the bigger picture.”
That “bigger picture,” according to proponents—most notably Democratic powerbroker George Norcross and recent supporter Senate President Stephen Sweeney—is a vast improvement to educational opportunities in this part of the state as well as a much-needed boost to the economy.
To understand the need for this type of reorganization, Houshmand points to statistics. Thirty percent of the state’s population lives in South Jersey and the total seats available for students totals 23,000. The total seats in the entire state amount to 185,000. “Thirty percent of the population has access to 12.5 percent of the seats,” he says. “That’s a huge discrepancy. The need is definitely here.”
Plus, the national average for adults with baccalaureate degrees stands at 27.5 percent. In North Jersey, the average shoots well above that at 38 percent. Here, it drops to 24.19. “You can’t have counties like Cumberland, with only 13 percent of its adult population with baccalaureate degrees, and expect new industry to come in here and start creating jobs,” Houshmand says.
South Jersey has ever-widening pockets of poverty that many think start with a lack of decent educational opportunities. A more talented, educated workforce will attract the type of industries that are in other areas of the state, such as the pharmaceutical companies around Princeton, Houshmand believes.
This is only the beginning, he reminds. There would be several years of work to do regarding combining degrees, curriculum, payroll, human resources, and the entire culture of the institutions. But it’s a task worth pursuing, he believes.
“My job is to provide the best educational opportunities in order to improve people’s lives,” Houshmand says. “Will it be bumpy? Absolutely. There’s no doubt.”
The key is that under a merger, the two campuses would be considered one research institution, vital for the extra funding proponents are promising. Under the structure, Rowan would be poised to receive research grants, more state funding, and private industry investments.
“There undoubtedly would be capital and operating dollars that would be directed here,” says Norcross, one of the staunchest supporters. The insurance executive is also chairman of the board at Cooper University Hospital and one of the driving forces behind the partnership with Rowan that resulted in the creation of the medical school.
“The benefits for South Jersey would be a much larger university than exists now, one with a research designation, which is very important for seeking grants and other forms of support,” he explains. “It would create a big identity for South Jersey, which is very important, and it would combine the best and brightest of both Rowan and Rutgers universities.”
As far as how this could actually be accomplished, he notes, “I’m an advocate of the concept of growing something larger for the benefit of South Jersey, the logistics of which need to be left to professionals.”
Rutgers: Is it Worth the Sacrifice?
This proposal leaves Rutgers-Camden in a precarious position. If and when the governor issues an executive order to the Legislature regarding the reorganization, all of its affects in North and South Jersey would be lumped into one order.
Up north, Rutgers would receive UMDNJ’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, School of Public Health, and Cancer Institute. But all of this would have to be approved by the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees, which are based up north, as well as the Legislature. So would seceding Rutgers-Camden be a worthy trade?
One Rutgers trustee, who didn’t want to be named, said she is very upset and angry about the idea of giving up the Camden campus, though she does fear others may not share her opinion and may see gaining a medical school as more important than retaining the Camden campus.
Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick has said little more publicly than his testimony at a hearing of the Senate Higher Education Committee. There he shared that if given the choice, he doubts the boards would willingly give up the campus. But it doesn’t appear there will be an opportunity to pick and choose among the recommendations, as it’s been repeatedly stated that this is an all-or-nothing deal.
Trustees, faculty and staff ask why a collaboration among the campuses can’t serve the area in the same capacity, a question also raised by the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden.
As the highest in command at the Camden campus, he has become one of the many faces of the fight to retain its identity. At a recent forum on the proposal, he was greeted by hundreds of scarlet-wearing students chanting his name as he took the stage, and the first words out of his mouth only resulted in louder applause and a standing ovation.
“My name is Wendell Pritchett, I’m the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, and I’m opposed to the takeover of my campus,” he said. “I am opposed to the takeover of our campus.”
He added he agrees with the basis of the argument that the region, and Rutgers-Camden itself, desperately needs more resources. But he does not believe this is the answer. “There are many ways to go about promoting higher education in South Jersey that do not involve the loss of the Rutgers name for our campus or the takeover of our campus,” Pritchett said.
Houshmand, on the other hand, is sticking by the committee.
“We are ready for anything they recommend,” he says. “If it’s a merger, we’ll merge. If they recommend an umbrella [approach], we’ll do that.”
Rallies have been full of emotional pleas from students, many of whom consider Rutgers part of their family. Already some 10,000-plus signatures have been collected on an online website opposing the merger.
Though it has been promised by both universities that all Rutgers-Camden students, until after any merger takes place, will receive Rutgers degrees, many say the issue is larger than themselves and they’re concerned about Rutgers’ future—not just their own. “It has nothing to do with not wanting to be a part of Rowan,” says Susan Johnson, a graphic design major. “It’s not even just a Rutgers-Camden issue. This is an issue for New Jersey.
How is this not going to cost money? Where is the money coming from to do this?”
“It was just a shock,” says associate professor Dan Cook of his reaction upon first hearing the news. “The feelings on campus are almost universally opposed to it.”
As the director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Childhood Studies—the very first department in the country to offer a doctoral degree in the study—he feels the work of students and researchers during the last 10 years has been undercut. Rutgers is home to a recent MacArthur Fellowship (AKA “genius grant”) recipient, along with a significant amount of faculty with Ivy League Ph.D. degrees.
“We’ve been on an upward trajectory. The Law School and the Business School have been gaining in national standings. We’ve instituted our doctoral programs, some of which have national and international reputations already.”
He referred to the situation as a scotch-tape solution, which “will not magically produce the kind of research juggernaut imagined.”
What’s Next?< BR> No one is denying that Rutgers has an international reputation, while Rowan has a strong regional and a growing national one. What officials at Rowan are hopeful of is that Rutgers will acknowledge Rowan’s standings and what it has to offer, and sit down for a discussion about what can be done together.
“I think people need to look at Rowan as it is now,” says professor Jay Kuder, chair of Rowan’s Department of Language, Literacy and Special Education. “This is an ambitious university with excellent students and faculty. There is an entrepreneurial spirit here that welcomes new challenges and is not afraid of change.”
And Rowan knows a thing or two about change, having changed its name twice in the last 20 years thanks to a $100 million donation by industrialist Henry Rowan, followed by the rapid growth that led to university status in 1997.
“I think the proposal is confirmation of the transformation that has been going on at Rowan,” says Kuder, who has been there for 28 years, including time as dean of the graduate school. “I see this as an acknowledgement of our growing presence in the region as a leader in business, technology, communication and the arts as well as our long-time leadership in education.”
Houshmand concludes that he views this as a partnership, whether Rutgers-Camden sees it that way or not. He says he has the utmost respect for the Camden campus and the quality of what they deliver. “Therefore, my position is not a takeover, rather integration between two great institutions.” He adds that Rowan has created a merger planning team, made up of deans, faculty, staff and others, and he hopes to work with Rutgers soon.
“From what I gather, our Rutgers colleagues are not yet ready to engage in that conversation. We respect that. We will wait until they are ready to have a conversation with us, but we are ready as of right now.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 12 (March, 2012).
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