NEWARK, N.J. - Rutgers University is exploring a plan to merge its two law schools by 2014, president Robert L. Barchi announced Thursday at a board of governors meeting.
The separately accredited schools in Newark and Camden would combine under one Rutgers banner, with a single faculty, student body, and admissions process. Faculties at both schools voted unanimously in late January to support the idea.
"I strongly and heartily support to move forward with a concept that would bring the law schools at Rutgers together," Barchi told the board Thursday.
At a time when legal education is in a national spotlight because of rising costs and tightening job opportunities, deans of the schools said the move could help Rutgers strengthen its brand and expand its reach.
A merger could become "a solution that can really enable us to make law school more affordable, more accessible, and will enhance the job opportunities for our graduates to have both the New York and Philadelphia markets and together with the whole East Coast," said Rayman Solomon, dean of the School of Law in Camden.
Pooled resources could lower tuitions or increase scholarship funding, said John J. Farmer Jr., dean of the School of Law in Newark.
The deans could not say how the administrative structures would work - Solomon joked about playing musical chairs to determine whom the dean would be - or what the potential merger would cost.
"Everyone has lots of questions, some of which can't be answered yet," Solomon noted before the meeting.
One thing was clear, Farmer said. "Do we remain committed to Camden and Newark?" he asked. "Absolutely, yes."
There are no plans to close or move the campuses, the president and deans said, or are there plans to expand to New Brunswick, Rutgers' main campus.
Eventually, Barchi said, a merger would be part of a larger vision of a more unified university.
Much would remain the same at the campuses, the deans said, because, for example, their legal clinics have different focuses and they draw from different geographic areas.
One major effect would be expanded class options. Some classes could be taught through live online classes in whole or in part, the deans said, and some students and faculty would travel between the cities.
One option under consideration is a "study bus" to link the campuses, said Adam Scales, associate dean for academic affairs at the Rutgers School of Law-Camden.
Scales, who led the dozen or so members on the committee exploring the idea, said confusion over branding and identity is common, and he himself was unclear on the schools' relationship before joining the faculty.
Under the current setup, both schools are part of Rutgers, with faculty having the same tenure requirements as the rest of the university and recently jointly hiring a faculty member.
While the faculties may collaborate on research and legal clinics, the schools are separately accredited and faculty members do not ordinarily hold joint appointments.
The system is a historical artifact. The New Jersey Law School was founded in Newark in 1908 and the South Jersey Law School was established in Camden in 1926.
Rutgers absorbed the Newark school in 1946 and the Camden school in 1950. In 1967, the board of governors passed a resolution to keep both schools autonomous and within the university. The two have been roughly the same size since, the deans said, with funding evenly balanced.
Each school today has more than 700 students, and Farmer said after Wednesday's meeting that he expected the new school to have about 1,400 students, making it among the nation's largest public law schools.
Also at Thursday's meeting, the board approved $410 million in construction and renovation of academic facilities at various Rutgers campuses. Funding would come in part from a higher education bond referendum approved by voters last year.
Among the proposed projects is a 120,000-square-foot building in Camden for science programs and the School of Nursing. It would cost $65 million.