The Star-Ledger on Rutgers/UMDNJ

Yesterday the Newark Star-Ledger published two editorials (1, 2) very favorable to Rutgers University in the context of a UMDNJ split/merger. They're on the side of the angels. I have some additional thoughts on the included op-eds from Richard McCormick and William Owen (UMDNJ president), as well as an interview with Tom Kean.

McCormick carefully lays out the case (expanded here) of why a split and merger would be a win-win for Rutgers and UMDNJ-NB. There isn't really any downside to either institution.

Owen's response is telling. In lieu of an argument, his position boils down to "The UMDNJ system is already in dire financial straights, and Robert Wood Johnson hospital is needed to subsidize our operations in Newark."

That's just it, he cannot possibly reason why this proposal would not be in UMDNJ-NB's best interests (as it clearly is), so he does not even try. The dual basis for his opposition is to preserve the UMDNJ administration's political clout, and continue subsidizing their failing operations. McCormick should be prepared for the full-scale backroom political campaign that's about to take place. Owen's comments are a direct attempt to rally the cavalry, but implicitly they're also likely to further alienate RWJ faculty and students.

The key for Rutgers moving forward is to not get dragged down by attempts to escalate rhetoric, and let this issue be defined by simple geography. Two Democratic party politicians in state senators Ray Lesniak (Union) and Ronald Rice (Newark) have already come out in favor and in opposition respectively. McCormick needs to let Gov. Christie take public ownership of the plan, while isolating Rice and Owen through courting other influential Essex County politicians like Cory Booker, Dick Codey, and Joe DiVincenzo. Now would be a good time to have a seasoned Trenton veteran like Bob Mulcahy on speed dial...

In an otherwise-supportive interview, Kean did not bring up the issue of Rutgers athletics, but responded somewhat negatively in response to a question from a Ledger report.

Q. Is it a mistake for Rutgers to spend so much money on its football program?

A. The success hasn’t been there. If you’re going to spend that amount of money, with the intent of raising prestige and national ranking, bring applications up and bring in income — well, it hasn’t been successful. You have to do it well, like everything else.

That's unfortunately the perception that exists. Rutgers only started investing in high-level athletics in the late 1970s, and for many years tried to compete on the cheap. It's importantly to again point out though that Kean did not raise the issue, hopefully aware of what a drop in the bucket athletics are with respect to the overall university budget. Rutgers athletics (in ALL respects) clearly does need to become more self-sufficient, but 99% of the way that this debate is currently framed is not constructive. It is very much possible to read the brief answer as more of a call for more-effective athletics administration, so there's no need to get in much of a tizzy.

Kean is correct that there is no proven direct correlation here, but the issue is a fair bit more complex.

The average SAT score for incoming freshmen at Rutgers peaked in 2005 and has been steadily dropping ever since. That doesn't contradict the Flutie Effect; what's actually happening is easily explained by other data. Undergraduate enrollment at Rutgers New Brunswick has shot up by over 3,000 students in the past four years (hence, all the stories about students living at a hotel in Somerset). The school administration can't raise tuition too close to the breaking point, so instead they loosen admissions and enroll more students that can pay tuition.

That is not an endorsement of the college football arms race or inconclusive-at-best research on the relationship between athletics and admissions. Every academic institution is different and has its own set of unique circumstances.

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