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Bill introduced to reshape higher education in New Jersey

Gov. Christie lent guarded support to a bill introduced by Democratic legislative leaders Monday that would dramatically reshape higher education in New Jersey by drawing Rutgers-Camden closer to Rowan University and by breaking up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Gov. Christie lent guarded support to a bill introduced by Democratic legislative leaders Monday that would dramatically reshape higher education in New Jersey by drawing Rutgers-Camden closer to Rowan University and by breaking up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

The legislation, introduced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), would establish a board to govern Rutgers-Camden and Rowan and sever many of Rutgers-Camden's administrative links to the larger university.

The bill is not exactly along the lines of Christie's January proposal, but he called it "a critical and positive step," adding that he "looks forward to working together to achieve this reorganization by June 30."

The Republican governor's plan, especially his proposal to merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan, has stirred months of protests from Rutgers students, alumni, and officials, and led to closed-door negotiations among political leaders on a possible compromise.

The legislation is cosponsored by Sens. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex). Among its highlights:

All UMDNJ's assets in Newark and New Brunswick, except University Hospital, would be moved to Rutgers. University Hospital, in Newark, would become independent. UMDNJ, a sprawling network of eight campuses, employs 14,000 people across the state.

Rutgers-Camden would be "granted autonomy" and operate under a seven-member board of trustees. The school would receive funding directly from the state.

Rowan would be designated a research institution, ensuring greater state funding.

The joint Rowan/Rutgers-Camden board would be able to "approve or disapprove" decisions by each school's board of trustees.

That Rutgers-Camden would have "autonomy" but exist under a complex governance structure in which it is subject to oversight by a joint board overseeing it and Rowan raised suspicions among many Rutgers faculty.

"This a merger with Rowan in everything but name," said Andrew Shankman, a history professor at Rutgers-Camden. "It seems we've been completely cut off from Rutgers, despite the fact we would somehow retain the name of Rutgers."

In a statement, Sweeney said: "No one will get everything they want, but everyone will get something they want."

Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell Pritchett, who had staunchly opposed the merger at a campus meeting earlier this year, issued a statement that "I am deeply gratified that Senate President Sweeney recognizes the importance of Rutgers-Camden and wants to see us continue to flourish." He added: "I look forward to working with legislative leaders to refine this proposal."

The legislation comes at a critical juncture in the governor's efforts, backed by key legislative leaders, to remake the state's university system.

It comes less than 30 days from the legislature's vote on next year's budget, which Christie has set as a deadline for the university plan, which he introduced saying it would boost the universities' national competitiveness.

It is also only days ahead of votes scheduled for Wednesday by Rutgers' current boards of trustees and governors on a statement opposing any drastic restructuring of the university.

Norcross, a brother of powerful Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, has opposed Christie's plan to merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan. But he said Monday that his legislation avoided the pitfalls of that plan.

In a statement Monday, Donald Norcross said: "We have worked very hard over the last several weeks to listen to all sides of the debate and incorporate their ideas into this plan. Real change will be achieved only through respectful collaboration."

For many in the political establishment, the legislation represented a starting point.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who last week helped draft a contentious list of demands for higher education in Newark, was among legislators who, while praising Sweeney's efforts, withheld endorsing his proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) said: "This is not some idea that is not allowed to be questioned. It is another step in the legislative process."

Questions of cost continue to hang over the proposal. The cost of a similar restructuring proposed under former Gov. Jim McGreevey was estimated at $1.3 billion.

The legislation follows months of behind-the-scenes negotiations involving members of Rutgers' board of governors and some of the state's top political figures, including Sweeney, George Norcross, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

The bill also would grant Rutgers-Newark its own board of governors, with authority to "propose" capital projects and budgets to the larger university.

In an interview, George Norcross, a managing partner in The Inquirer's parent company and a supporter of Christie's plan, said the legislation would "create a new research university of over 20,000 students with a medical school, a law school, an engineering school, and two great universities in Rowan and Rutgers-Camden."

The question now is whether Rutgers' boards of trustees and governors will support the legislation when they meet Wednesday. According to the university, Rutgers, unlike other state universities, has the power to block legislative decisions in regard to its campuses.

Rutgers president Richard McCormick said in a statement that "overall the bill appears to advance the goals of enhancing medical education across the state, boosting Rutgers' standing among its peer institutions."

Whether the university's boards will go along was unclear. Last month, the trustees issued a statement opposing any deal that gave up Rutgers-Camden.

Jeanne Fox, a Rutgers trustee and vocal opponent of the Rowan merger, said the legislation was a setback.

"It seems clear that we need to work out a compromise, and this isn't a compromise," said Fox, chairwoman of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. "I'm hopeful we'll be able to work one out, but I thought it would be sooner rather than later."

Spokesmen for UMDNJ and Rowan declined to comment, saying officials were still reviewing the bill.