New Jersey lawmakers agreed to restructure the state’s higher education system in a plan Governor Chris Christie said would take Rutgers University “from good to great.”
Rutgers, the state university based in New Brunswick, will take over the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The agreement doesn’t extend to Christie’s proposal to fold Rutgers’ Camden campus into Rowan University to form a large research institution based in Glassboro.
Rutgers, founded in 1766, is the eighth oldest college in the U.S. and has an enrollment of about 57,000, according to the university’s website. The Newark-based medical school has about 7,000 students. Christie said the reorganization would help New Jersey become a leader in medical education and research.
“It accomplishes exactly what I wanted to accomplish,” the first-term Republican said of the compromise reached with Democrats and passed by the Senate and Assembly late yesterday. “It’s going to be an enormous step forward for economic development in this state and allow Rutgers to go from good to great.”
The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Democrats Joseph Vitale of Woodbridge, the leader of the health committee, and Donald Norcross of Camden, brother of George E. Norcross, a Democratic Party leader and chairman of Cooper University Hospital, who pressed for an overhaul in southern New Jersey.
Christie, 49, said the restructuring will streamline bureaucracy and lower costs. Rutgers will assume $665 million in debt from the medical school and refinance it at lower rates. Vitale said the plan, while costing $50 million to implement, will bring savings in the future.
In addition to reshuffling the medical school, Christie had urged lawmakers to fold Rutgers-Camden into Rowan.
Rutgers employees said the merger was politically motivated and would weaken their school’s name recognition. In March, Rutgers students and faculty presented lawmakers with thousands of signatures opposing the move.
Senator Bob Smith, a Democrat who represents New Brunswick, said the reorganization bill sailed through the Legislature without a full reckoning of the changes or their costs. The state should look to increase funding for all colleges and universities before turning to restructuring, he said.
“I’ve been here a while and I’ve seen a lot of bad processes developing legislation, but I have to say this is one of the top 10 or even number one,” said Smith, who entered the legislature in 1986. “We’ve treated higher education as a dog in this state.”
Last week, at least 10 Democratic lawmakers said they might withhold support for the state budget unless Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver agreed to delay voting on the university mergers. They later relented; all Democrats voted on June 25 in favor of a $31.7 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Under the new agreement, Rutgers-Camden and Rowan will cooperate on their health-sciences programs while maintaining separate campuses and trustees, Vitale said.
The Rutgers Board of Governors adopted a resolution yesterday that supports the plan “in general.” The school agreed to an effective date for the reorganization of July 1, 2013, which would allow time to study the matter before voting on it, according to an e-mailed statement from Greg Trevor, a Rutgers spokesman.
Norcross said the reorganization would elevate the status of Rutgers’s campuses outside of New Brunswick.
“Satellite campuses have been underserved by a majority of governors for the last decade in Camden and Newark,” he said. “Today that changes.”
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