It's official. South Jersey is home to a new research hub, the result of what some are calling the most expansive university merger in U.S. history. 

Politicians, academic leaders, doctors and students gathered Monday on Rowan University's medical campus in Stratford, N.J., to celebrate Rowan's new designation as a research university, its acquisition of the osteopathic school from the now dismantled University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and its new partnership with Rutgers University on a health-sciences school in Camden.

 

Standing before a packed auditorium, New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney D-Gloucetser, said the merger marks "one of the greatest days in the history of South Jersey ... what it is going to be is an economic powerhouse."

The academic restructuring all came through the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Restructuring Act, which went into effect Monday.

Initially, the university merger was going to be very different. Rutgers-Camden was supposed to become part of Rowan. Under intense pressure, that part of the plan was abandoned.

UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine is now part of Rowan, while the rest of UMDNJ's schools have merged with Rutgers.

Academic leaders, including Rowan president Dr. Ali Houshmand, say obtaining the designation of research university opens the doors to new funding and partnerships, as does Rowan combining forces with the osteopathic school.

"The impact is going to be monumental," Houshmand said. "It creates pockets of excellence and then you bring the faculty of both together, to create a powerhouse in the area of life sciences and medical education."

Rowan already has an allopathic medical school, Cooper, which launched last year. The osteopathic merger makes Rowan one of two universities to have a DO and MD degree program. Michigan State is the other.

Houshmand says the merger will allow for new doctoral programs and other graduate and professional degrees, as part of the Rutgers-Camden partnership. Added resources, he hopes, will also pave the way for bigger medical classes, more medical residency opportunities, and, by 2015, a six-year combined undergraduate medical degree program.

Dr. Tom Cavalieri, dean of Rowan's osteopathic school, says the plans are more than necessary, in light of a pending medical workforce crisis.

"The council of teaching hospitals of New Jersey is estimating that, by the year 2020, we will be short 3,000 physicians within the state of New Jersey," said Cavalieri. "Half in the primary care fields and half in specialty areas."

Cavalieri points to an aging population and the onset of the Affordable Care Act as the main drivers of that need. In New Jersey alone, nearly half a million more residents could gain access to primary care under the ACA, he says.

While excited for these changes, third-year osteopathic medical student and student body president, Kanad Mukherjee, says there are some more practical reasons to celebrate. More immediately, it means having a better place to study, to become a better doctor.

"Being part of an undergraduate institution like this is a really big deal. For anyone that's gone to college, when you had access to a meal plan, when got to go to gym when you wanted, when you could print stuff with ease... having access to the infrastructure at Rowan is huge," Mukherjee said.