University merger up to lawmakers, advisory agency says
Nonbinding opinion gauges authority for Rowan-Rutgers plan
11:34 AM, Mar. 28, 2012
Written by EILEEN STILWELL Courier-Post Staff
Gov. Chris Christie may have to toss his executive power from his own toolbox in order to restructure
higher education in the state, a proposal that includes merging Rowan University with and the Camden
campus of Rutgers.
Instead, he must get Legislative approval, according to a nonbinding opinion offered by the state’s
nonpartisan Office of Legislature Services.
“Keep in mind that OLS is offering an opinion only. The governor has not ruled out executive
reorganization,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak. “Regardless, we continue to work with the
Legislature to settle on the best approach.”
Christie dismissed the methodology as “plumbing” Tuesday during a visit to Atlantic City saying he will
accomplish the reorganization in the “most legally defensible way.”
Solicited by an unnamed legislator, the OLS opinion is based largely on a recent court decision that said
Christie overstepped his bounds by attempting to abolish the Council on Affordable Housing by
Christie had hoped to eliminate COAH and to reorganize higher education statewide under a 1969 law
that empowers the governor to reorganize departments with modest legislative approval. Since the
Appellate Division rejected Christie’s application of the law for COAH, he is not likely to get a different
outcome on the state’s public universities, according to the five-page OLS opinion.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services advises legislators of potential legal or financial pitfalls
stemming from bills or other actions. Opinions are nonbinding.
“I agree entirely with the OLS opinion,” said Robert F. Williams, a Rutgers School of Law professor
and associate director of the university’s Center for State Constitutional Studies. “We never thought the
governor had the authority to abolish COAH because it has an independent board. But Rutgers is not
even part of the government.”
Despite widespread opposition to a merger — frequently referenced as a “hostile takeover” by faculty,
students and administration at Rutgers-Camden — Christie is determined to make it happen and has set
July 1 as a deadline.
If the Legislature must approve, the deadline is likely to vaporize and individual legislators — like Sen.
Donald Norcross, D-Camden, who has tried to placate both sides — will be forced to take a stand.
His brother, George Norcross, chairman of Cooper University Hospital, has been the lead proponent of
merging Rutgers-Camden into Rowan because Cooper is partnered with Rowan in a medical school now
under construction in Camden.
The senior Norcross, who is not an elected official, believes the merger which would include the
medical school, along with Rutgers Law and Business schools and Rowan’s School of Engineering,
would create a super research university that would ignite the South Jersey economy and stop the brain
drain of students who leave the state and never return.
It would also be controlled locally, rather than by a board based in the center of the state.
Opponents say a merger would sacrifice one of South Jersey’s greatest assets, the Rutgers brand,
triggering a massive exodus of distinguished faculty and students from the Camden campus. They also
object to a plan with no cost analysis.
Introduced in January, a general outline of the proposal calls for a breakup of the University of Medicine
and Dentistry of New Jersey, a sprawling institution with eight schools sprinkled throughout the state, a
cancer institute, 15,000 employees and 6,000 students. The university is saddled with $668 million in
debt, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
Christie is adamant that the statewide plan must be adopted in its entirety. That includes folding the
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the School of Public Health and the cancer institute into north
and central campuses of Rutgers University. If the Rutgers board of governors wants those premier
institutions, it must agree to cut Rutgers-Camden loose.
“No one has articulated any rational reason why eliminating a Rutgers campus in Camden must be part
of the overall mergers of UMDNJ and Robert Wood Johnson with New Brunswick and Cooper with
Rowan,” said Neil Wise, a graduate of Rutgers-Camden School of Law, who is withholding his annual
donation to the university pending the outcome of the merger proposal.
“The only apparent reason to insist on a package deal — other than backroom political agreements —
seems to be to pick the pocket of Rutgers-Camden and its ability to attract grant money. Almost all of
the stated goals can be accomplished through collaboration and joint ventures, without loss of the
Rutgers presence and brand name,” he said.
Opposition to the plan picked up support this week from Cooper Grant, the neighborhood immediately
surrounding the Camden campus. The board voted 6-1, with four abstentions, against the merger,
according to resident Frank Fulbrook.
“We’re hoping the plan will fail under its own weight. If not, we’ll have to kill it with through
litigation,” he said.
Reach Eileen Stilwell at email@example.com or (856) 486-2464.