Health sciences merger a victory for Rutgers

After months of rhetoric and negotiation, prospects for a merger between Rutgers and UMDNJ looked as bleak as ever by the middle of the week, if not bleaker. Months of political horse trading had only served to make the deal worse and even more unpalatable to Rutgers. Despite George Norcross commissioning New Jersey's pre-eminent political fixers to pronounce otherwise, in the end, the position of Rutgers University remained immutable. They had state law and the state constitution on their side (a fact recognized by Chris Christie BoG appointees such as Ralph Izzo and Candy Straight), and were prepared to dig in for the long haul. Despite New Jersey's backroom politicians breezily negotiating away their rights, it was time for Rutgers to stand up for itself against the forces of darkness at its doorstep.

Legislators seemed to accept the Office of Legislative Services’ analysis. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a sponsor of the university restructuring bill, told colleagues Monday night, “this legislation goes nowhere” without sign-off from the Rutgers trustees and Board of Governors.

In the end, Norcross caved on Camden and most of the other points of contention. By anchoring this debate, he likely will get Christie and the legislature to sign off on a ton of new funding for Rowan, received some vague commitment from Rutgers to spend more on satellite campuses, in addition to what amounts to a $2.5 million yearly subsidy to support Rowan's heavily-indebted Cooper Medical School. That is far from ideal of course, but the nature of compromise is that one has to accept awful things of that nature to receive some sort of equitable compensation in return. Now that the deal has been modified, it is a true compromise; whereas before, it was a total giveaway to Norcross (who would have stolen the Rutgers-Camden campus) and the Essex County delegation (who wanted outrageous subsidies), who were united in their desire to destroy the political independence of Rutgers University once and for all.

Rutgers did not blink, and in the end, were rewarded for holding steadfast in these negotiations. Now, by no means is this a perfect deal. They had to accept some concessions in terms of their governing structure and financial decisions. Probably the biggest detriment of all is that Rutgers was forced into a shotgun marriage with the UMDNJ facilities in Newark (absent the University Hospital charity care center), but at least New Jersey finally agreed to pitch in with UMDNJ's debt. Now, the UMDNJ facilities in Newark have a lot of potential mind you. Rutgers is by no means a model of ideal governance, but simply owing to an absence of political corruption, the former UMDNJ in Newark will spring far ahead. It won't be the galactic leap forward that the New Brunswick campus will see now that its shackles have been removed, but there is some potential here in theory. In practice, there's still plenty of risk of further political meddling from politicians in Newark and Essex County, who turned UMDNJ into a den of corruption and patronage for the entire sum of its existence.

The challenge for Rutgers now becomes whether or not any additional state appropriations will materialize beyond a planned (and frankly, relatively meager) bond vote in November. Boss Norcross isn't exactly the most reliable source, but he is crowing that Rutgers-Camden is poised to triple in size. What's clear is that any growth in Newark and/or Camden must not, cannot come at the expense of the flagship New Brunswick campus, which Newark and Camden benefit in virtue of merely being associated with. We saw exactly what the value of those satellite campuses was when Camden's incoming law school class disintegrated at the prospect of being ruled over by Norcross. Perhaps there is some merit in expanding enrollment at each with the goal of becoming more selective in New Brunswick, but there will be hell to pay if the current ratio of funding allocation is changed at all in NB's disfavor.

If New Jersey actually wants to fund Rutgers for once instead of squeezing it at both ends (cutting funding while both capping tuition and out of state enrollment), fine. Expand the satellite campuses, and the prospect of a further merger with NJIT in Newark should be considered. It should not happen by force mind you, but it should be a prospect explored with due diligence provided mutual consent exists, as if New Jersey actually is intent on building up the Newark campus, a further union would seem appropriate in theory. That does not mean there will not be considerable pratfalls mind you, especially considering that any further changes in Newark will likely lead to the Essex County delegation stepping up to line their own pockets once again, and would only increase the target on Rutgers's back from those who seek to annihilate its political independence.

Ultimately, Rutgers has to do what's best for Rutgers, and that's why the possibly very real protests of the former UMDNJ campus in Stratford are largely falling on deaf ears in New Brunswick today. That's too bad, but...it's not really our fight. Sorry. Being part of Norcross University is a fate that no one should have to endure. Now that the political crisis has passed, the onus falls on Rutgers to actually study the proposal in depth, which is quite the sad commentary indeed. They may in time request further financial concessions, or ask for redress from demanded changes to the university's governing structure.

Still, given the initial positive commentary from the Board of Governors and Pres. McCormick, the vast majority of the bill almost certainly will be implemented come 2013. It was not easy, but Rutgers is finally whole again, and will soon enough start seeing the spoils in terms of academic prestige, larger research grants, increased collaboration, more partnerships with New Jersey businesses, and improved efficiency. Between this, the School of Arts and Sciences merger in 2006, and rebuilding the Livingston campus, McCormick has firmly and resoundingly secured his legacy as a man who did a great deal of good for Rutgers University. He did the heavy lifting in spite of strong opposition, and now it falls on the incoming Robert Barchi to take the next step and return Rutgers to its rightful place as an elite higher education institution. As ugly and rushed as the overall process was, in the end, the public interest prevailed, and all of New Jersey will be better off as a result.

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