An open letter to Rutgers-Camden: We don’t want to ‘take you over’ or ‘damage’ you

    Dear Rutgers-Camden: I am a proud member of the Rowan University family, with whom you will probably have an awkward arranged marriage. I need you to know some things before we get hitched — if we get hitched.

    The following essay, written from perspective of a Rowan professor, is one of a pair. The other is written from the perspective of a Rutgers-Camden professor.

    Dear Rutgers-Camden:

    I am a proud member of the Rowan University family, with whom you will probably have an awkward arranged marriage. I need you to know some things before we get hitched — if we get hitched: Rowan does not have cooties. Rowan folks do not want to “take you over,” as you insist we will. We do not want to “damage” you, as your Genius Grant winner fears we might.

    Personally, I am as confused and surprised as you are by the whole concept of a Rutgers-Camden merger with Rowan. I understand that you are angry, but please stop insulting and belittling my employer.

    I have taught at Rowan University for nearly 10 years. I am a member of Rowan’s local chapter of the Rowan University AFT Local 2373 and on the Rowan Faculty Senate. In this essay, however, I am speaking for me. These are my personal opinions, derived from observing the swirling maelstrom that is “The Merger Plan.”

    Friends outside of Rowan ask me: “Will this merger be a good thing?” and I answer: “I don’t know. Maybe. I need to know more details of how it will all work.”

    The biggest detail so far is that Rowan would remain intact and Rutgers-Camden would be absorbed by us. The name of Rutgers-Camden would be gone and with it, you fear, the prestige of the Rutgers name.

    I get that. But Rowan University is a great institution with smart professors, engaged students and a growing campus. Anyone whose perception is stuck in the 1970s and thinks this place is still “Glass-o-Beer College” full of lazy students needs to come visit our thriving campus.

    I’ve taught here since 2002, and in that time alone, enrollment has grown to over 10,000 students. Since 2002, the school built a new Science Hall, Education Building, bookstore, student apartments and Honors Housing. Even in a rotten economy, many of my journalism students are getting jobs all over the country.

    Rutgers-Camden should be honored to be associated with Rowan, not appalled.

    But appalled many of you are. Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor at Harvard who used to teach history at Rutgers, referred to us as a “fine” institution. That is like saying your ugly cousin has a “nice” personality.

    Jacob Soll, the “Genius Grant” winner, called the merger a “severe threat” to Rutgers-Camden.

    “There is no one I know at Camden who thinks this will help the university or students,” Soll wrote. “In the short run, Rutgers-Camden will be damaged, and faculty who will not want to work under unstable circumstances will, I fear, leave.”

    Wow. Are we that awful? It’s like many of the people at Rutgers-Camden think Rowan is nothing more than a clown college, handing out red noses and honking horns to our students.

    A history professor at Rutgers-Camden even brought Benjamin Franklin into the discussion. Andrew Shankman wrote an essay for the Star-Ledger in which he equated the merger of Rutgers-Camden with Rowan to the Sugar Act and Stamp Tax. Those government ideas didn’t work in the 1700s because they caused too much conflict, Shankman opined, and the merger won’t work today for the same reasons.

    Both Shankman and Franklin may have a point. But the truth is, both Rutgers-Camden and Rowan are state schools. This merger plan is being pushed by a governor, state senator and business leaders who usually get what they want.

    I wish the governor and senators would focus on other issues first. For example, the contract for the Rowan University faculty. I am a member of the Federation of Rowan College Educators (F.O.R.C.E.), Local 2373 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Our AFT contract expired in June 2011, and we are currently in a holding pattern. It’s been eight months, and the impasse between our union leaders and Gov. Chris Christie is likely to stretch on for a lot longer.

    In my opinion, the governor and lawmakers should firm up all the outstanding contracts in the state before taking on a behemoth of a merger. But I didn’t get elected to run things.

    The problem for both Rowan and Rutgers-Camden, I think, is the way this was all announced. At Rowan, we had been hearing rumors for months. Then in January, the Barer Report was released and — BAM! — we were merging. It felt rather sudden and done behind closed doors.

    I have a lot of questions, as do many of my colleagues: How will this work? Should it work? Will it help the schools or hurt them?

    Rutgers-Camden is convinced the merger is a mistake. They are protesting, meeting and discussing. In fact, I got some of my background for this essay from their extremely detailed website opposing the merger.

    At Rowan, there are no protests, just a lot of head-scratching and discussions about the future. Some of the concepts of the merger would be really exciting for us, and there is talk about how it could help the school, the students and the community. We worry about layoffs and changes. But it is interesting to think about becoming a research institution with a nationally known medical school.

    But why is it so surprising for Rowan to look towards the future and see its growth and change? It’s as if the Rowan folks are servants Thomas and Daisy from “Downton Abbey,” wanting better for ourselves and daring to rise above our station. The temerity!

    For the most part, I am taking a wait-and-see attitude and want to know more about how it will all work. Will class sizes increase? Who the heck is going to pay for all of this?

    Ali Houshmand, Rowan’s interim president is very enthused about the merger, and he made some very good points at a university meeting on Feb. 3. It was a pretty low key meeting, and even though Rowan University security showed up (probably because of the protests at Rutgers-Camden), they were probably fairly bored because we all just sat and listened.

    (Houshmand made some points about the merger included in these frequently asked questions.)

    The main point from Houshmand that stuck with me is that thousands of New Jersey graduates leave the state every year to attend college elsewhere. And once they leave, many of them never come back. We need to do a better job of keeping our students here in New Jersey. Maybe an expanded university, with research status and a thriving medical school, will do that.

    Maybe a merger isn’t the best idea. Maybe a consortium is. That has already been proposed by the faculty of Rutgers-Camden.

    They support a South Jersey Higher Education Consortium with Rutgers-Camden as the research flagship institution. A consortium does sound like a good idea, though why can’t both Rowan and Rutgers be research institutions? Is there a limit?

    I don’t think so. That is one of the many, many questions that still need to be answered. Let’s hope the governor and Legislature listen to everyone involved before shoving us all into an arranged relationship.

    But if it does happen, I swear that people at Rowan don’t have cooties.

    Kathryn Quigley is an associate professor of journalism. A former newspaper reporter, she has taught at Rowan University since 2002. Follow her on Twitter @WriterChickNJ.

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