State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Tuesday he was working on legislation to be ready June 1 for restructuring New Jersey's public universities.
In an interview, he maintained that multiple options remained on the table, even as Rutgers officials suggested they were close to a deal that would keep Rutgers-Camden within the Rutgers university system.
"There's a whole bunch of variations" of the legislation, but "I'm not going to throw that out until I find something that can work," Sweeney, a Democrat, said after a groundbreaking ceremony for the Cooper Cancer Institute in Camden. "I'm strongly, firmly committed to finding a way to get this done."
Gov. Christie has set a July 1 deadline for settling on a university-system overhaul plan. Sweeney's legislation would represent a significant step forward.
Since Christie, a Republican, announced plans in January to merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University in Glassboro and parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers, Rutgers-Camden alumni and faculty opposed to the plan have threatened lawsuits, some legislators have been up in arms, and the Office of Legislative Services has issued an opinion questioning Christie's authority to push through his plan without legislative consent.
Rutgers officials and top political leaders, including Sweeney, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, have been meeting in closed-door sessions for weeks to try to work out a deal. Norcross, a managing partner in Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of The Inquirer, has been a vocal advocate of a merger.
What exactly a compromise would look like remains in question.
Last month, those close to the talks told The Inquirer that the discussion was focused on keeping Rutgers-Camden part of Rutgers but with an independent board that would end oversight by officials in New Brunswick over budgetary matters and day-to-day operations.
On Monday night, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that talks had turned to preserving the merger between Rowan and Rutgers-Camden with a new university that would be financially independent but that answered to Rutgers on academic matters.
On Tuesday, Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell Pritchett issued a statement seemingly dismissing that scenario.
"The framework, as discussed in meetings in which I participated, would give Rutgers-Camden administrative and budgetary autonomy, as well as its own governing board, while maintaining our critically important academic connections to Rutgers University," he wrote. "Rutgers-Camden would remain Rutgers-Camden in terms of our name and all that we value about the campus."
A spokesman for Pritchett declined to elaborate.
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) reiterated his opposition to the merger proposal Tuesday. "The people of South Jersey want Rutgers-Camden and Rowan to remain separate institutions. When mutually beneficial, these two excellent universities could — and should — collaborate on research and academic projects," he said in a statement.
Ira Roseman, a psychology professor at the Camden campus, said it was hard to tell what was really happening. "We're hearing two vastly different stories and vastly different interpretations," he said.
A group representing Rutgers-Camden faculty issued a statement Tuesday reiterating its objection to any form of merger.
"We reject any proposal for a joint board with final decision-making authority over Rutgers-Camden or its finances. Rutgers-Camden's dollars must no longer go up the turnpike, nor down any other local highway," the Committee to Save Rutgers-Camden said in a statement.
Another piece of the puzzle is Rutgers-Newark, which like the Camden campus is under the authority of Rutgers officials in New Brunswick. Academic and political leaders in Newark have been critical of the arrangement, and Sweeney said Tuesday he intended to find a deal that benefited both Newark and Camden.
"We want to leverage these institutions of higher education to strengthen the economies of these struggling communities," he said.