Benefits, credibility at stake for Rutgers-Camden in merger

    An essay published on this past November detailed concerns about the rumored merger of the Rutgers-Camden campus, Rowan University, Cooper University Hospital, and University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey College of Osteopathic Medicine. While some of the details have changed, what the faculty, staff and students of Rutgers-Camden feared would happen is now many steps closer to reality.

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

    An essay published on this past November detailed concerns about the rumored merger of the Rutgers-Camden campus, Rowan University, Cooper University Hospital, and University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey College of Osteopathic Medicine into a new educational entity that would be called the University of South Jersey.

    While some of the details, including the name, have changed, what the faculty, staff and students of Rutgers-Camden feared would happen is now many steps closer to reality. On January 25, Gov. Chris Christie announced that he supported in its entirety the recommendations of his UMDNJ Advisory Committee, including the recommendation to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University into an “expanded Rowan University.”

    This committee, initially created to examine and improve the delivery of graduate medical education in New Jersey and in response to concerns about the cumbersome bureaucracy that plagued the nation’s largest free-standing public health sciences university, has determined that, rather than drastically reconfiguring UMDNJ, it would instead recommend the break-up of Rutgers University.

    So, why is this happening now?

    As some in the state government have reminded us, this recommendation follows the recommendations made by then Gov. McGreevey’s Vagelos Commission in 2002, which suggested that UMDNJ be split into three separate educational institutions, each of which would then be joined with Rutgers’ three separate campuses and all (with New Jersey Institute of Technology) brought together into one large research university system.

    That report did address concerns about the size and reputation of UMDNJ by suggesting the dissolution of that institution. It did not attempt to create a new and separate research institution in South Jersey that would essentially be forced to compete with Rutgers for resources and state support.

    So, why is this really happening now?

    The Cooper Medical School of Rowan University is due to open this September, and when it does it will be the only medical school in the United States that is not a part of a research university. George Norcross, the chair of the Cooper Hospital Board of Trustees, chief proponent of the new medical school, longtime benefactor of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and known South Jersey Democratic Party boss, orchestrated the creation of the new medical school.

    In creating this association with Rowan, a university more focused on teaching than research, it soon became obvious that there was a dearth of science and research programs and faculty available to support the needs of a medical school. So, although the governor’s reaction when asked about Norcross’ involvement in this plan was “Look behind the curtains, he ain’t back there,” Christie’s response seems a bit disingenuous to anyone who’s aware of the power that constitutes the Democratic Party in South Jersey.

    In a recent appearance on Radio Times, George Norcross made the point that Rutgers-Camden has been neglected by New Brunswick. The buildings are old, and Rutgers is spending money earned on the Camden campus to finance the New Brunswick football program, were some of his stronger assertions. One might wonder if, as Christie said, “he ain’t back there,” why was Norcross on WHYY discussing the potential merger along with the Camden chancellor and the interim president of Rowan?

    Yes, there are old buildings on the Rutgers-Camden campus, but there is also a brand-new law school building, a number of attractively renovated facilities, and a 12-story residence hall nearing completion. Enrollments have increased dramatically over the past decade.

    Our students, who now number close to 6,700, are likely not attending Rutgers-Camden for the buildings, however. They are attending because of the faculty and programs on the Camden campus. Gov. Christie talks about the need for a strong research institution in South Jersey, but that already exists in Camden.

    Nursing at Camden is a case in point. Transformed from a small upper-division program and a department in the College of Arts and Sciences, where no faculty member had received tenure in more than 20 years, the newly named School of Nursing has developed a four-year program of nursing and dramatically increased enrollment in the RN to BSN program (where nurses from community colleges study for an additional two years to receive a bachelor’s degree), including a strong presence on the Atlantic Cape Community College campus (truly a South Jersey location).

    It is now in the planning stages of the development of a graduate program and has been able to recruit strong nursing faculty who have gone on to receive tenure. And there are very strong candidates on the tenure track. To continue this growth, Rutgers-Camden depends on remaining part of a research university system, with its extensive library resources and research infrastructure.

    Rutgers-Camden would benefit from more autonomy and from retaining a greater share of the resources it generates. And Rowan would benefit from additional resources as well. But to say that a folding of Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University would raise Rowan to the level of a research institution, all without any extra resources (no funds have been earmarked as of yet for this organizational restructuring), is at best an unfounded leap of faith.

    What would result is a Rowan University that was bigger by half, and a flow of faculty and students from Rutgers to anywhere else that would have them. The premise of the governor’s decision is that Rutgers-Camden will join with Rowan and become a prosperous and productive research institution, which includes medical, law, business, nursing and engineering schools, but this is highly unlikely.

    The reality is that Rutgers-Camden would lose the benefits it gets as a campus of a research university, its tuition revenue will instead cover Rowan’s high debt service, and the medical school will gain some needed credibility and faculty who can teach the basic sciences.

    The argument that this merger will improve the city of Camden is specious at best. Admitting 100 medical students will do no more to raise the standard of living in the city than the other waterfront development has done. In addition to attracting students into the city, from the undergraduate to Ph.D. levels, Rutgers-Camden has developed a strong civic engagement program, including programs in the city’s public schools, support for the LEAP Academy Charter Schools, pro bono legal assistance, nursing health fairs, and the highly acclaimed university-wide Future Scholars Program.

    Chancellor Wendell Pritchett has made the commitment to improve the life of the residents of Camden, and the Civic Engagement Fellowship, a program for faculty who have chosen to include the city and its residents in both teaching and research has just been inaugurated. Students come to Camden, in ever-increasing numbers over the past five years, to earn a Rutgers degree. There has been no comparable flow of Rowan students into Camden, in spite of Rowan’s presence here for many years.

    The Board of Governors and the Trustees of Rutgers will review the merger proposal along with the other, more attractive pieces of this proposal set in New Brunswick and Newark. The legislature must carefully consider this merger proposal; we cannot allow the governor to rule this state by fiat.

    If there is indeed some merit to the proposal, let this decision be made following public hearings and legislative due diligence. A major decision such as this, unprecedented in the state or indeed in higher education history, should not be decided without a full accounting of its benefits and costs.

    Bonnie Jerome-D’Emilia is an assistant professor at the Rutgers-Camden School of Nursing.

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