A controversial plan to restructure New Jersey's system of higher education has passed both legislative chambers, albeit in a significantly different form than was originally proposed by Gov. Chris Christie in January. After a full day of last-minute and sometimes contentious negotiations, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 29-9, and the Assembly split at 59-19.

In its final form, the legislation preserves Rutgers-Camden's permanent and full association with Rutgers University while creating a joint board to govern future voluntary collaborations in health science projects with Rowan University. This provision, arguably the most furiously contested throughout the six-month battle over what was initially conceived as a full merger between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, marks a significant victory for those who opposed the separation of the Camden campus from its parent institution.

"I'm completely satisfied with this bill," glowed Andy Shankman, a Rutgers-Camden history professor who's helped spearhead resistance to the proposed merger. "Nothing about Rutgers-Camden going forward can accurately be portrayed as a merger."

Rutgers governing boards of Trustees and Governors are withholding support for the bill until they have time to review it, though the overall mood seems to be one of cautious relief.

The role of UMDNJ

According to the legislation, all assets and programs of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) will be transferred to Rutgers -- with two exceptions. Newark's University Hospital will become an independent teaching hospital funded directly by state appropriation. And the School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) will become part of Rowan over the public objections of its faculty, trustees, and students, as well as the administration of UMDNJ.

SOM's Student Political Action committee, which formed in response to this legislation, released a statement last night decrying passage of the bill. It began, "We, the students of the School of Osteopathic Medicine, vehemently object to the State Legislature's actions today merging SOM under Rowan University in the name of restructuring medical and health education. It is unthinkable that they would award SOM, one of the top three osteopathic schools in the nation, to a sub-par Rowan University."

Representatives from Rowan did not respond to a request for comment on yesterday's events. Under the law, which is expected to be signed by Christie, all three Rutgers campuses will receive their own chancellors and governing boards -- though Newark's is advisory and Camden's has more decision-making authority -- and both smaller campuses will receive some direct funding from the state. The state auditor is now required to develop a mechanism to measure the allocation and transfer of resources across campuses, ostensibly to ensure fairness.

Addressing concerns about political patronage, only one member of the Newark board would be a political appointee, and three of the 13 members would be required to live in designated north Jersey counties. Rutgers-Camden's new seven-member governing board will consist of four gubernatorial appointees from the southern counties, subject to approval of the state Senate. Rutgers' primary Board of Governors will expand to 15 members but will maintain the existing balance between political and non-political appointments.

Rutgers will create a School of Biomedical & Health Sciences to include current health programs and the transferring UMDNJ schools except for The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, which will remain an independent entity within Rutgers. The university has 75 days to decide whether it wants the attorney general to represent it in cases of malpractice against UMDNJ and University Hospital.

Sponsors are hailing the bill's passage as the key to transforming New Jersey's system of higher education from one that ranks 47th nationally for its levels of state funding to one that ranks among the best in the world.

"By bringing together all the elements into Rutgers as one entity this is going to really catapult New Jersey onto the national stage. It will make an enormous difference," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex).

"The School of Osteopathic Medicine comes over to Rowan, which is about to start its first med school class and gain research status, and there's the new relationship with Rutgers-Camden in the health sciences -- I think that's a win for all of South Jersey," said Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden).

Supporters were scrambling to finalize amendments and line up votes up to an hour before the official tally was taken. Because the final amendments were introduced the day of the vote, the chambers could only vote after approving an emergency provision that demanded agreement by a supermajority -- 30 votes in the Senate and 60 in the Assembly. Although Senate supporters were believed to be relatively confident of passage before the vote finally went to the floor, a few opponents still spoke out against the speed with which this legislation was undertaken, along with the ongoing lack of a reputable estimate of cost.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway), whose district includes Rutgers, New Brunswick, and its satellite campus in Piscataway, said, "I still have concerns, money being among them. We have treated higher education as a dog in this state, and at a period of time when we can't even fund our existing research universities, aren't we getting our priorities wrong? I've seen a lot of bad process in my day and this one goes to the top ten, maybe even the top one."

And Sen. Dianne Allen (R-Burlington) broke ranks with her South Jersey delegation to vote against the bill, wishing in advance of her vote that legislators would take more time to figure out the details of the restructuring. "We only give [Rutgers] one full year to do that," she said. The restructuring is to be complete by July 1, 2013.

But co-sponsor Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said the costs would be offset by the financial gains that will result from Rutgers' transformation into a world-class institution. He also noted that Rutgers should no longer have to refinance its debt -- a cost estimated by Rutgers trustees to be a total of $155 million -- because it's no longer parting with its Camden campus.

"I don't see how it can trigger a defeasance," Sweeney said after the vote. "We took [trustees' and governors'] language. It would be hard for them to argue."

Before the vote, the fate of the legislation in the Assembly was less determined, though when members of that body convened, there was little to no spoken dissent.

Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-Union), who earlier this week led a small and unsuccessful revolt of lawmakers who threatened to delay a vote on the state budget unless a special session was called to debate the restructuring over the summer, was among those who cast a nay vote. "Today was a sad day for the legislature and the state," he said. "Most members voted on things they didn't understand. This might be the worst policy development I've seen as a legislator because we don't understand the long-term implications to the state's financing and higher-education performance."

Before the votes were taken, sponsors from both houses informed their peers that Rutgers' Board of Governors had met earlier in the day to endorse the bill by a vote of 9-1. But they failed to mention that the governors only voted to support the UMDNJ piece of the restructuring plan, as opposed to the entire bill.

Further, the governors only supported the UMDNJ component conditionally because the final version of the bill hadn't yet been drafted. At a press conference held by two of the bill's Senate co-sponsors just after the governors concluded their meeting, Sens. Norcross and Vitale repeated the assertion. It was only after being pressed by reporters that they acknowledged the governors' stipulations that the merger should adhere to a set of principles affirmed by both of Rutgers' governing boards earlier this month.

Rutgers Governor Gordon MacInnes told NJ Spotlight after the meeting of the Rutgers' Board of governors, which was conducted by conference call because it was announced late last night, "This is not an endorsement of the bill. Governors acknowledged they don't have a final bill in front of them to inspect. We respect the efforts made by sponsoring legislators to come up with an improved bill and want to keep open the lines of communication on what is a complicated situation."

The governors could not be reached for comment after the vote.

Final negotiations

During the press conference, Vitale and Norcross also argued that only governors – and not trustees -- have the legal authority to challenge the bill if they determine it to be in violation of a law passed in 1956 that established the current structure of governance for Rutgers.

Norcross said, "With all the changes we're dealing with, the leadership of Rutgers is the Board of Governors . . . Trustees will do what they do, and we believe that many of the issues that were important to them, they will see are provided for."

A legal memo circulated yesterday that was commissioned by Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) and prepared by a private firm that concluded, "Since the Trustees' property is not being transferred or intruded upon in any way, the proposed legislation does not infringe on any of the Trustees' powers. For these reasons, while their endorsement is welcome, it is not required as a matter of law."

While it's unclear whether the firm had access to review the most current version of the bill, neither the firm nor a representative from Sweeney's office responded to a request for comment, a memo prepared by the Office of Legislative Services earlier this week affirmed that the Trustees, do, in fact, have a legal right to rule on these types of affairs.

"Adding members to local boards of governors, those are governance issues that would clearly require the consent of both boards," explained Alan Stein, a constitutional law professor at Rutgers-Camden who is active in the anti-merger group Save Rutgers-Camden.

The point may be moot as trustees and legal scholars tracking the process are relieved that the bill, which they say they still need to review thoroughly with counsel, may not violate the so-called '56 act and may therefore not cause the university to sue the state, even though there's no "consent clause" in the bill that would allow the boards a grace period to review the legislation. However, legislators have several weeks to propose minor changes to the bills in order to make them more clear, legally binding ,and palatable to stakeholders.

"I think it's clear both boards want to do due diligence and make sure it complies with the principles and the '56 act and handles major concerns. It certainly is a lot better than the original proposal, and negotiations made significant improvements but the devil's in the details," said Trustee Jeanne Fox.

George Norcross, chairman of Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, reacted happily to the bill's passage in an email. "Best thing to happen for Camden in last 50 years. Rutgers Camden will triple in size over the next 10 years," he wrote.

And Christie told radio listeners during his monthly call-in segment on 101.5 FM that the restructuring will create three "centers of excellence in New Jersey" and move Rutgers from "good to great."

 


NJ Spotlight is an online news service providing insight and information on issues critical to New Jersey, with the aim of informing and engaging the state's communities and businesses.