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Chris Christie's plan for Rutgers

As a lot of people noticed on Friday, incoming governor Christie released his transition team reports on Friday. There are two specifically that could be very meaningful for Rutgers University. They're interesting documents, and the sections that I reviewed are fairly non-partisan. First up, there's the Gaming/Sports and Entertainment committee report. While not having a direct impact on Rutgers, most site readers will probably be very pleased to read the following sentence.

Xanadu: This project appears to be a failed business model. The NJSEA needs to engage the owners (NJSEA owns the land, not the buildings) to open or surrender the property.

Later on, the report describes the Xanadu project as "abandoned". Bob Mulcahy (a former NJSEA head) was on the transition committee responsible for the report, and no doubt relishes an opportunity to stick it to his would-be assassin George Zoffinger.

If you're still smarting over the rescinded promise of $30m in state aid for the Stadium Expansion (on the heels of hundreds of millions for the new Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands), or just a plain taxpayer, you probably won't be pleased to learn that the report corroborates other independent analyses of the economic impact of the new Giants Stadium that it will "will not be a financial contributor for the NJSEA; over time it will be a drain."

Here's the biggest RU-centric bit.

Regarding concerts; the State directly or indirectly controls 4 venues where concerts can be held (IZOD,
PNC, AC Convention Center and Rutgers); an integrated policy should be developed for these facilities; if possible, include Giants/Jets Stadium and PRU Center.

Later on, in the section about the competition between Izod and the Rock in Newark, Rutgers Stadium is directly mentioned owing to the looming plans to book concerts at the expanded stadium. There are plans afoot to coordinate bookings between all the facilities.

One entity booking both buildings, as well as for that matter the PNC Arts Center, Atlantic City Convention Center and any concerts on the Rutgers main campus makes sound sense and should absolutely be studied as a way to maximize the entertainment industry in the State. But without further substantial analysis, the three-way arrangement seems untenable.

Any further comment without additional details would just be pure speculation. For now, it's important to be vigiliant about subsequent developments here.

Moving on to Higher Ed after the jump, which is both more important and potentially far more substantive.

The report doesn't pull any punches on the last two decades of higher ed policy. New Jersey ranks 50th among all states in terms of public college enrollment, and first in net migration of students out of state. Christie went to Delaware, and Greg Schiano went to Bucknell; and now, they're both seemingly charged with the task of keeping the best and the brightest within state borders.

Attempts at building on excellence and growing quality, sophistication, size, scope, and national and international reputation are greeted with suspicion and branded as "mission creep" or unnecessary to serving NJ students. Competitor states have taken the opposite tack, nurturing such initiatives and building their higher education infrastructure to serve the economic and societal needs of the state.

These circumstances have hobbled NJ, interfering with the development of a first-rate home-grown workforce, stifling synergistic opportunities for the creation of new knowledge and applied research, dampening the institutions’ ability to attract external funding to the state, sending billions of education dollars to competitor states, and seriously prejudicing the state’s ability to provide accessible, affordable, high quality higher education opportunities to its citizens. Much of the harm can be traced back to four primary causes: (1) the abandonment by the state of support for the facilities of its public campuses; (2) the total lack of any rational basis for operating appropriations; (3) the vagaries of financial aid policies; and (4) an environment of over-regulation and the dysfunctionality of government processes with which the institutions must engage.

There's a danger with the post in just quoting the entire report; anyone interested really should take a look at it all. As a recent alumnus, I can attest that my number one concern for the future of the university is with facilities. Enrollment is currently vastly overcrowded (ironic, considering the above point). Presently, there aren't enough dormitories, so some students have to be housed at a hotel miles down Easton Avenue. This was primarily caused by the recent more drastic cuts, but years of fiscal neglect combine with overcrowding to create an awful burden on campus facilities. That's of course completely sidestepping the much larger tuition burden on families.

Parts of Livingston look just as much the WWII-era military barracks that they literally were. While parts of the Colleve Ave campus are very nice, many classroom and living facilities are in need of major repair or replacement. The university administration is well aware of both concerns, but their hands are tied by the present fiscal crisis, which predates the more-recent recession in New Jersey and nationwide. It all boils down to funding, which readers should keep in mind as they continue through the document.

New Jersey is distinguished from just about every other state in the nation by its failure to provide capital support to its higher education institutions. Prior totwenty years ago, the state’s capital support was, even in the best of times, minimal and inadequate. Over the last twenty years, capital support has been virtually eliminated in its entirety. As a consequence, in order to provide adequate space for instruction, up-to date equipment and technology, to respond to the changing needs of evolving disciplines and programs, to accommodate the intensive needs of complex research activities, to provide adequate core campus infrastructure, and to invest in the repair and maintenance necessary to the continued use of campus facilities, the state’s institutions have had to borrow the funds necessary to meet at least some portion of their capital needs, making NJ institutions among the most leveraged in the country.

The extent to which New Jersey stands alone in the nation in regard to the abandonment of even
minimally adequate higher education capital facilities support can be seen clearly with a few
examples. ... These numbers and practices are replicated all over the country and compare to New Jersey’s investment of virtually zero.

The report strongly supports the notion that higher education is an investment in the state's economy, an argument that Rutgers has repeatedly tried to make. The claim is that every dollar invested into the school has a fivefold return, and hence the budget cuts of the past two decades are not only short-sighted but destructive.

The bottom line?

1. The new administration should act immediately, in collaboration with the higher education community and the legislature, to prepare a realistic, long‐term plan to support the capital facilities development of the state’s higher education institutions.

2. In anticipation of future investment in higher education, which is a policy priority of the new administration, the new administration should take the initiative to develop a rational funding structure for future operating support, aligned with state priorities and based on clear policy objectives.

3. Careful attention should be given to the purposes and costs of NJ’s very considerable investments in financial assistance to college students, and all financial aid programs should be regularly reviewed to assure that they are based on clear policy objectives. The state’s financial aid policies should not be permitted to transfer unfunded mandates to the institutions.

It's all well and good, but be cognizant that New Jersey facing yet another budget deficit, the Christie administration has already made rumblings about further cuts on the horizon for FY 2010. It's likely going to happen without a second bailout of stimulus funds from the federal government. If that's not the case, and the economy continues to lag over the next several years, it's quite possible that Gov. Christie will be in the exact same position as Corzine on the topic. It's one thing to have a good grasp of the topic, but it's another entirely to make the topic a priority with so many difficult decisions looming on the table.

As one final thought, it's interesting to note that the otherwise-ambitious report makes no mention of the on-and-off plans to merge Rutgers-New Brunswick and UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson. As the report notes, Rutgers Medical School was severed from the University in 1970. That's an absolute absurdity, creating needless barriers and bureaucracy and limiting collaboration opportunies. RWJ hospital is only a few blocks from the College Ave. campus, and other facilities are right on the Busch campus.

It's a decision that pretty much everyone agrees needs to happen in some form.

After two years of obscurity, the idea of merging Rutgers, New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into the University of New Jersey has found new support. Gov. Jon Corzine, Senate President Richard Codey and Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. all support the idea of a merger.

Rutgers University President Richard McCormick also endorsed the merger.

In his annual address to the university community on Sept. 18, McCormick said that while "the revelations of the past year [at UMDNJ] have hurt everyone in the state," Rutgers and UMDNJ should merge.

According to McCormick, even though the Cancer Institute of New Jersey is part of UMDNJ, 45 percent of its faculty comes from Rutgers. The Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey is also jointly managed by Rutgers and UMDNJ. McCormick also cited other fields in which the two schools collaborate effectively.

"Could it be better if, somehow, these research universities were combined? And specifically, would it be better if the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center was part of Rutgers? You bet it would," McCormick said.

Which is somewhat of a turnaround. Back in 2002, Gov. McGreevey infamously proposed to merge the three Rutgers campuses, NJIT in Newark, and all UMDNJ facilities into one goliath University of New Jersey. The plan ultimately collapsed because of the daunting price tag, political infighting, and other logistical worries. The other UMDNJ campuses have their own problems too. Either way, further comments on any kind of future merger are conspicuously absent from the report.