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In New Jersey politics, you win or you die

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place the moment. Up until now, his two-plus years of dominance over New Jersey politics has forged through a divide and conquer strategy. New Jersey's inner city political machines in Camden and Essex County were only too happy to throw their lot in with Christie in 2009 when momentum started swinging his way in the suburbs, with the opportunity to kneecap local unions an added bonus even for budget-strained liberals like Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Progressives have been muttering and lamenting for the past two years, with significant Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature enthralled by Governor Christie and his vice-like grip over the iron throne of Westeros, er, Drumthwacket.

Christie remains in power, but that could turn in a moment were he to lose the favor of the House of Norcross, which currently claims dominion over the entirety of the hinterlands to the south.(Unlike many, I explicitly won't compare this modern South Jersey tale to HBO's Atlantic City-set Boardwalk Empire. For those keeping count, this is the second major Game of Thrones analogy on this site, after of course comparing John Marinatto to an evil, but equally foolish, Ned Stark.) The one exception, the one free city, interzone, island of independence, call it what you will - is the Rutgers outpost contained within the boundaries of the city of Camden. For George Norcross, the prospect of an independent and supposed "Northern" institution remaining entrenched within his sphere of influence, unwilling to heed his counsel, curry favor, or submit to his will, is an unacceptable and unending insult. The rest of Camden has obviously fared superbly under his reign, so naturally he was inclined to impose his charity on Rutgers as well.

Thus, Christie's support for the merger between Rowan and Rutgers, shotgun married into an otherwise-popular irridentist plebiscite. One is warranted, if not required, by sheer force of merit; the other demanded as an act of political deal making, payback, and patronage. Rowan and Rutgers are located about twenty minutes apart, but that's about it to the extent that the similarities go. While the general principle behind geographic reorganization might make sense at another time, this merger, birthed in scandal, designed to bail Rowan out of debt for constructing Cooper Medical School and help the George Norcross machine firmly consolidate power, while at the same time requiring an enormous influx of state subsidies as a prerequisite is completely unworkable.

In comparison, the Rutgers and UMDNJ campuses in New Brunswick and Piscataway are continuous, with the two institutions once whole before the medical school was unfairly ripped away (read the entire thing) from its undergraduate brother in arms.

The 400 bed teaching hospital vanished and was to be replaced by a 120 bed teaching hospital far from the campus. Moreover, we were now joined in a shotgun wedding with New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry, a school of previously poor reputation located in Newark, for reasons that we didn’t understand. From the point of view of most of the faculty and students this was the result of a monstrous and malignant breach of faith by the State of New Jersey, engineered by the recently elected Governor Cahill and his obedient henchman, Ralph Dungan the Commissioner of Higher Education. The faculty and students lobbied hard to prevent these events, but were not successful.

Regardless of your thoughts on Camden and Newark, the reparation of Rutgers Medical School was a historic, heinous, evil crime that must be corrected without a moment's delay. They stole from Rutgers, and now Rutgers deserves to be made whole again. That is the true tragedy that is being lost in all of the debate over Camden, which is really just a tertiary issue to what should be central here. With Rutgers ramping up its rhetoric (and maintaining final veto over any plan), and the public dead set against the Rowan merger, the Governor clearly needs a way out that would allow him to save face. If not with the voters that he will face in less than two years, than at least with his Democratic patrons/enablers. That is assuming the chances for a deal are sinking.

George Norcross has to be wondering at this point whether or not his white whale is even worth the trouble at this point. The combined institution will clearly be in tenuous financial shape barring a sharp influx of state resources. Christie's Republican backbenchers in the legislature would not be favorably inclined towards a higher ed bond to begin with, and especially one designed to transfer wealth from prosperous North and Central Jersey to economically-depressed South Jersey. With the merger will come increased scrutiny (it's already here), with faculty and students fleeing in droves as the "Rutgers tax" to New Brunswick is no longer repatriated with increased academic prestige. In that scenario, Norcross could win the battle and yet lose the war, saddled with an asset that cannot function without its existing human capital.

Chris Christie has proposed a plebiscite on gay marriage, so why not one on higher education as a way out of this conundrum? He needs still needs Norcross, but if they are backed into a corner, and the angry hordes were closing in, here's how this proposal could work. For the affected campuses (UMDNJ in New Brunswick and Piscataway, and Rutgers in Camden) let those who would be most affected vote - faculty, students, possibly even alumni. That the functioning part of UMDNJ would choose to reunite with Rutgers in a heartbeat over decades of Essex County corruption and influence peddling is not open to debate. What would be interesting to see is what happens in Camden. Beyond all the lies from the Norcross machine, their argument essentially boils down to "Your tax dollars are going up the Turnpike! Support us, and we'll show it to those bastards in New Brunswick and Newark. Just you watch!"

This is essentially why the proposal has been stillborn. While there is always grumbling on the Newark and Camden campuses about funding, and frankly, attention; they clearly do get a valuable asset in return for their financial support. Where King George and company have erred more than anything is in failing to recognize this, in assuming that Rutgers-Camden's inherent value can be divorced from Rutgers; its name seized and erased, its faculty overworked, its inclination towards research blunted, its treasury raided and spoils dispersed out to conquerors - without even slightly accounting for consequences. Clearly, any such bastard spawn would be considered wholly illegitimate.

That the faculty, students, administrators, and alumni have been so expressly vocal in their opposition, with voices of support falling on death ears, speaks volumes to how badly this has been miscalculated. The Norcross machine has tried to make their case. They have been rejected, utterly, by their constituents. It is now time to fortify that concern in the public record. Presuming everyone's mind does not change, these two reshufflings must be permanently divorced, with the machinations in Camden tabled for the time being - at the very minimum until they can be reformulated in a way that would be free of the kind of political interference that is certain to poison, if not bankrupt, any ultimate combination of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.

That is the frightening dystopian post-merger image that has taken hold, which now threatens to envelop everything and everyone within its path, including a Central Jersey reunion that is vital for the state's future economic well-being. Governor Christie, if you truly care about medical education in New Jersey and the state getting out of its fiscal funk, do the right thing and get the core merger here back on track and properly prioritized. Such a bold reorganization proposal publicly blowing up and immolating is the very last thing voters want to see. If you do not open your eyes soon, that is exactly what is going to happen.