TRENTON - The Legislature approved a historic restructuring of the state higher education system Thursday that merges the troubled University of Medicine and Dentistry into Rutgers University and makes Rowan University part of a sprawling new collegiate complex in South Jersey.

Backers said the measure would retain Rutgers' control over its Camden campus - a key demand of the university's faculty, students, and governing boards.

The vote followed days of contentious, behind-the-scenes negotiations between lawmakers and Rutgers' two boards.

Sens. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and Joe Vitale (D., Middlesex), two of the legislation's sponsors, announced Thursday afternoon that a deal had been struck with Rutgers' board of governors that would retain the university's control over the Camden campus.

Gov. Christie, who has been furiously championing a higher education overhaul as a means to elevate Rutgers and make New Jersey more attractive to pharmaceutical and technology companies, said in a radio interview Thursday evening that he supported the legislation.

"It's going to be an enormous step forward in terms of economic development, and turn Rutgers from good to great," he said. "This is accomplishing exactly what I wanted to accomplish."

The Rutgers board of governors offered portions of the legislation tentative support in a resolution passed Thursday, but held off on fully endorsing the measure until members had an opportunity to review the bill's final version.

"I'm very pleased that the Senate and the Assembly made the changes that were recommended by the boards of governors and trustees," said Candace Straight, a member of the board of governors. "Obviously, we have to cross our T's and dot our I's."

Late Thursday, a Rutgers trustee, Jeanne Fox, said her board would review the legislation and expected to vote its position soon. The board of trustees had threatened to sue if Christie and the Legislature moved ahead without its approval.

The bipartisan agreement on a higher-education overhaul comes as competition among state universities around the country ramps up for federal research dollars. Similar overhauls are in the works in other states.

The last two New Jersey governors tried and failed to get similar legislation passed.

Under the state's new university structure, Rutgers would absorb UMDNJ's medical schools in Newark and New Brunswick, as well as its nursing and dental schools and other graduate biomedical institutions.

In the south, Rowan would be designated a research university, which would allow it to launch long-sought doctoral programs in biomedical engineering and pharmacology. It would also absorb UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford and - under a joint board - work in greater collaboration with Rutgers-Camden on health-sciences programs.

The Legislature on Thursday also approved a $750 million bond issue to go before voters in the fall that would finance construction projects across the state's college campuses, the first since the late 1980s. That amount would be combined with $500 million in unspent funds from a previous higher-education bond issue.

The legislation passed Thursday differed in significant respects from what Christie proposed in January when he proclaimed that the decadelong logjam over reforming higher education needed to end.

Besides keeping Rutgers-Camden within Rutgers, UMDNJ will disappear altogether rather than being shrunk and renamed.

In the months leading up to Thursday's vote, there were widespread protests from Rutgers-Camden faculty and students who argued that their campus was being used as a political football. They said there would be an exodus of faculty if the school was moved to Rowan, which was Glassboro State until industrialist Henry Rowan donated $100 million to it two decades ago to start an engineering school.

Control over Rutgers-Camden had been a sticking point until legislators agreed in the final hours to allow the larger university to retain control of the campus.

Under the legislation, Rutgers-Camden will be run by a nine-member board of directors, with five members appointed by the Rutgers boards and four by the governor's office. The joint Rowan/Rutgers-Camden board would have limited authority, restricted to collaborative health-sciences ventures between the universities.

At Rowan, which faced a barrage of disparaging remarks regarding its academic standing during the protests at Rutgers, news of the legislation's passage was applauded by a university spokesman.

"Details still need to be worked out," said Joe Cardona. "Now, the two schools will be working together on health sciences. It's going to be a big push forward."

South Jersey Democrats have argued for months that Rutgers has historically underfunded its satellite campuses in Newark and Camden while siphoning resources to its main campus in New Brunswick.

Norcross said he was confident the new structure would ensure that the Newark and Camden campuses would get a greater share of construction projects.

"What has come out of this process is, it has been universally accepted that Rutgers has underserved its two satellite campuses," he said. "Over the next decade, I imagine Rutgers-Camden will triple in size."

But Thursday's vote, while ending months of wrangling over what shape the restructured state-university system should take, begins another debate - on the costs of implementing the plan.

So far, proponents have offered no overall price tag for the plan, which will involve integrating multiple campuses spread across the state with more than 30,000 employees.

Ten years ago, a similar proposal put forward by Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey was estimated to cost $1.3 billion.

But legislators and Christie said the costs this time around would be minimal.

Vitale estimated the short-term integration costs at $40 million, and Christie said it would actually save taxpayers money because the high interest rates borne by UMDNJ on its debt would be halved once Rutgers, which has a superior credit rating, takes over.

A number of Democrats in the Assembly took issue with what they described as a roughshod process by which the state assessed the costs of entering into the university restructuring.

"Nobody can vote for this in good conscience with the facts we have," said former Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D., Union). "You do your due diligence first."

But dissent was relatively minimal. The bill passed by 66-9 in the Assembly and 29-10 in the Senate, with strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.

After the vote, legislators said they expected to begin working with university officials shortly in preparation of the schools' formal integration beginning July 2013.

But after months of tense negotiations and threats of litigation, the mood in the two houses was largely celebratory Thursday night.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who a month ago said he saw a Rutgers lawsuit as all but inevitable, said legislators' decision to compromise was made to ensure the decadelong effort to restructure New Jersey's state schools did not fail again.

"We listened to people and the issues they had," said Sweeney. "We accomplished the goal we set ourselves of strengthening the university structure throughout the state."

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or