Christie Lends Support for New Jersey Higher Ed Reform

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has lent his preliminary support to a legislation proposed by a Democratic lawmaker Stephen Sweeney, that would change the landscape of the state’s higher education system. The bill would break up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and would combine Rutgers-Camden campus with the neighboring Rowan University.

A new governing board would be established to oversee the day-to-day operations of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, while many of the administrative links currently connecting the main Rutgers campus and the Camden campus would be severed. Although the plan doesn’t go as far as the Governor’s earlier proposal that would have completely merged Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, he called it a “positive and critical step,” and expressed hope that the reorganization would be quick and will be completed by the end of this month.

The governing board will have the final say on any decisions made by Rowan University and the new R-C board of trustees.

The legislation is cosponsored by Sens. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex). Among its highlights:

All UMDNJ’s assets in Newark and New Brunswick, except University Hospital, would be moved to Rutgers. University Hospital, in Newark, would become independent. UMDNJ, a sprawling network of eight campuses, employs 14,000 people across the state.

\Rutgers-Camden would be “granted autonomy” and operate under a seven-member board of trustees. The school would receive funding directly from the state.

Rowan would be designated a research institution, ensuring greater state funding.

The initial merger plan by Christie was met with protest by Rutgers University faculty and alumni, and some see the new proposal as the same merger by a different name. Andrew Shankman, a history professor at R-C, says that the school’s connection with Rutgers University has been all but severed, and being allowed to retain the Rutgers name is nothing but a sop.

Not everyone sees it in quite the same stark terms. The R-C Chancellor Wendell Pritchett, who opposed the outright merger at a meeting earlier this year, said that the compromise shows that the Senate President recognizes the importance of the Rutgers-Camden as an independent institution and said that he is looking forward to working with Sweeney to further refine the legislation.

The timing of the bill’s announcement is not accidental as it comes days before the scheduled Rutgers Board of Trustees vote to oppose any proposal for the university restructuring.

In a statement Monday, Donald Norcross said: “We have worked very hard over the last several weeks to listen to all sides of the debate and incorporate their ideas into this plan. Real change will be achieved only through respectful collaboration.”