Rumored South Jersey university merger could drive away scholars and dollars

    The rumored consolidation of Rowan University, Cooper University Hospital, The College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Rutgers-Camden campus into single “University of South Jersey” will not address the actual educational needs and concerns of the people of South Jersey.

    Rumors are roiling about a proposed merger of South Jersey educational and medical institutions, with decisions seemingly being made from on high at a breakneck pace. No doubt, that South Jersey remains in need of quality higher education facilities and opportunities. The rumored consolidation of Rowan University, Cooper University Hospital, The College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Rutgers-Camden campus into single “University of South Jersey,” however, will not address the actual educational needs and concerns of the people of South Jersey.

    Scotch-taping these different and disparate institutions together—as reported by James Osborne in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Oct. 18, 2011)—will not magically produce the kind of research juggernaut imagined. In fact, it is quite likely that unilateral and unreflective executive action along these lines will result in the opposite: a weak, third- or fourth-tier institution. Such a move would squander the already significant value and strengths painstakingly developed and assembled in Camden over the last decade.

    The way forward is not to diminish value but to build upon it. Such an effort begins by realizing that a research university already exists in South Jersey.

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    Rutgers-Camden has experienced an unparalleled quantitative and qualitative growth trajectory over the last five to seven years. The campus now supports the largest undergraduate and graduate student enrollments in its history. Three new and unique doctoral programs have already attracted significant national and international scholars to South Jersey and have helped to draw much national and international attention and praise to the campus with associated conferences and research initiatives. Rutgers-Camden is home to a world-renowned opera singer and, recently, to a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. “genius grant”) recipient. The campus boasts nationally ranked business and law schools. Many faculty have doctorate degrees from Ivy League institutions, from major state and private universities like Stanford, Berkeley and the University of Chicago, and from highly regarded international universities and programs.

    These achievements have been possible precisely because the campus is part of Rutgers University, a well-known world-class institution. To sever the affiliation with Rutgers to form a new, no-name entity will decimate the significant equity of scholarship and human capital already accumulated and invested. Scholars and dollars will not flow to the South Jersey in the amounts needed because the University of South Jersey will not be recognized as a peer institution. Indeed, it is possible that scholars and dollars will flow out of the region should this version of consolidation be imposed.

    A hasty move like the one rumored, without the input and consultation of those involved, would be folly, resulting in a poorer educational environment than what exists now. Importantly, it is unclear how a new super-university will function without a world class library system that Rutgers currently offers. No higher educational entity or system can possibly aspire to be a significant, competitive research institution without well-funded, top-of-the-line research facilities, starting with the library. Additionally, for a single new university to be formed out of the existing ones, difficult questions and logistics would need to be addressed by those in the know, including the duplication of academic departments and administrative staff, conflicts surrounding differing curricular requirements, issues of accreditation, and the like.

    What is needed is deliberate and serious conversation among key stakeholders—educators from all the institutions involved, community leaders, public servants—to assess exactly what these needs are, to inventory the values and strengths that already exist among the campuses involved and to discuss the synergies and complementarities that can be exploited. This conversation has yet to be initiated or proposed. Perhaps workable models can be found in the five college system in Massachusetts or the arrangement among Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore where there exist provision for things like joint programs and shared library access.

    The motivation to strengthen higher education in South Jersey is right-headed and an important direction in which to move. But, to think that quick executive action will produce the desired result is wrong-headed and, hopefully, only an empty rumor.

    A good deal is not clear and nothing has yet to be proposed formally; what is clear, however, is that a collaborative and deliberative approach will serve all parties well in the long run.

    Dan Cook is Associate Professor of Childhoods Studies and Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden.

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