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Divergent views for Rutgers-Camden

The revelation about Rowan University fibbing on its reported SAT scores was a watershed moment for the proposal about whether to separate the Camden campus from Rutgers University and join it with Rowan. Rowan has considerable egg on its face after the snafu, with quantifiable proof delivered for the notion that Rutgers-Camden is a far more academically prestigious institution than Rowan. That key point though continues to flummox New Jersey President Stephen Sweeney.

"I’d want to get what’s mine," said Sweeney. "It is not getting its share of the capital or operating budget. Rutgers-Camden, given the resources, could recreate Camden. It could have a ‘Rutgers Boulevard.’ But Cooper (University Hospital and the under-construction and Rowan-backed Cooper Medical School) alone can’t transform Camden. Camden needs jobs to bring more revenue."

The one thing Sweeney is correct about that this is an argument about funding vs. academic prestige. What he does not realize is that the Camden campus receives considerable value in exchange for sending its dollars "up the turnpike," as Donald Norcross is quick to lament. They benefit from being associated with the academic prestige of Rutgers-New Brunswick. This is why the floated proposals to either have the combined Rutgers-Rowan merger maintain some semblance of the Rutgers name, or for Rutgers-Camden to remain part of Rutgers but receive increased funding and autonomy, are both complete non-starters for a Rutgers board that retains some vestiges of independence from New Jersey. If the Camden and Newark campuses want to benefit from New Brunswick's academic prestige, fine, but they have to pay for that privilege.

Sweeney and the Norcross brothers look at the transformation in New Brunswick over the past decade with seething jealousy. In their narrative, rich "North Jersey" is once again sticking it to backwater "South Jersey." That, of course, is complete nonsense. Rutgers is New Jersey's flagship public research university, and its well-being is essential as a driver for the entire state's economy. The comments by Celeste Riley are indicative. This again keeps boiling down to North vs. South, which isn't even true, instead of New Jersey vs. the world. The Norcross machine is trying to play checkers, while the rest of the world is learning intergalactic space chess. Sweeney might realize this had he actually been elected to his seat and appointed to his leadership role on merits, as to opposed to being the benefit of a coup against Dick Codey, and wholly being a puppet of South Jersey political boss George Norcross. Who, of course, only cares about a zero sum game pitting one side of the state against another.

This does not necessarily mean that regional educational consolidation (or the alternative of expanding Rutgers in Newark and Camden) in New Jersey is a bad idea. In spite of the lies, in spite of Rowan's crushing debt from building Cooper Medical School, New Jersey could well be better off by creating super-institutions in Newark and Camden. The problem is two-fold though. George Norcross and his machine clearly have bad intentions. They have been lying about the merger every step of the way, and clearly have bad intentions. Norcross does want to rebuild Camden, but he also wants a way station for his political cronies, looking at how North Jersey politicians abused UMDNJ for years with envy. Bailing out Rowan/Cooper, and sticking it to the rest of the state, and especially a Rutgers board that had no interest in spending millions to build Cooper are hefty tertiary benefits as well. Combining Rutgers-Camden and Rowan might make sense in a vacuum, but these are the last people you would ever want to see in charge of a merged school.

Second is the notion that Rutgers should be crippled in its status as the State University of New Jersey, with New Jersey diverting millions to Rowan from an already cash-strapped Rutgers. The idea is for NJ to distribute money using a geographic proportionality formula so that Rowan can go on a building spree. The truly disturbing thing is that New Jersey's Senate President is obsessed with regional parochialism in this manner. Sweeney is now on the record as favoring the welfare of one region of the state at the expense of the collective good for everyone. He clearly sees Rutgers as being a non-South Jersey institution, and thus unworthy of his support. Such an approach is beyond insane when Rutgers is supposed to be New Jersey's outlet for competing for more shares of the lucrative research funding pie. Why, exactly, should more of those dollars not be flowing into New Jersey? If Sweeney actually cared about higher education beyond it being used as a patronage mill, he wouldn't have stood idly by while state funding for higher education plummeted.

The critical issue for Rutgers as a whole remains restoring its medical school in New Brunswick. That should fairly be divorced from the Camden proposal, but if it is not, my position remains that the positives outweigh the negatives of a quid pro quo. Independent of that however, I do see the merits for regional consolidation in a vacuum, using the same logic (which everyone agrees on, although Newark still wants a hospital subsidy) on why the New Brunswick merger is a slam dunk. That is divorced of context though. It has become clear and readily apparent that the Norcross machine came into this process with less than noble intentions, and continue to negotiate without any level of sophistication or regard for the welfare of the common good. Taking that into account, there really is no choice but for Rutgers and Rutgers alumni to oppose the merger with Rowan. It might make sense in another context, but not this merger, and not with these bad actors, who should not be trusted to run a circus, much less a research university.

They have proven that they cannot be trusted, and the only reason this farce continues is because Chris Christie owes George Norcross both for legislative votes, and for having the Camden get out the vote machine stay home in 2009 while former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine went down in flames. The cost for Christie in severing the alliance would be severe, as he has been able to pass a remarkable amount of legislation considering the GOP's minority status in the NJ legislature. Gov. Christie needs to give proper heed to the concept of guilt by association however, with the people he is getting into bed with. Eventually, some of that public furor is going to spill onto Christie, which he can ill-afford with another state election coming up in 2013. There is no easy choice for Christie here, but the correct choice moving forward is to sever, and try to find some new allies who don't have the potential to sink his political future if and when this proposal does publicly blow up in a very unpredictable and ugly manner.