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Christie backs overhaul of New Jersey's university system

Gov. Christie offered a proposal Wednesday to overhaul the state's university system, merging schools from Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry, and creating a research university in South Jersey.

Gov. Christie offered a proposal Wednesday to overhaul the state's university system, merging schools from Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry, and creating a research university in South Jersey.

Rowan University - just 20 years ago a former teachers' college known as Glassboro State - would take over Rutgers-Camden. The combined campus would include a soon-to-open medical school affiliated with Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

The mergers would represent a historic change to the structure of higher education in New Jersey. Whole institutions would shift between universities, and schools with decades of history and extensive alumni networks would disappear in name.

And staff at the universities, hospitals, and affiliated institutions - which numbers in the thousands - could face layoffs as programs are reconfigured.

"Let there be no doubt about it, this change is going to happen," Christie said at a news conference in Trenton. "I'm going to put the full force of the governor's office behind these recommendations."

UMDNJ would cease to exist in name; University Hospital in Newark, the osteopathic school in Stratford, and other institutions would operate under the banner of a New Jersey Health Sciences University, to be based in Newark.

The school, plagued by scandal over the last decade, would lose the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey to the Rutgers system.

Christie painted the mergers as a means to improve a mediocre state university system that has failed to attract research dollars to the degree of other institutions.

"Rutgers is good but not great, and we can't compete with good and not great," he said.

Led by Democratic leader and Cooper chairman George E. Norcross III, South Jersey political and business leaders have pushed for a southern research university as a means to grow regional industry.

"This is a once-in-a-generation thing," said Cooper chief executive officer John Sheridan. "This part of the state has been underfunded for years in terms of higher education."

In Glassboro, news that Rowan's student body could soon grow from around 11,000 to almost 17,000 stirred the imaginations of university officials.

"It will enable us to do the many, many things we couldn't do before: graduate professional degree programs like medicine, public health, biomedical engineering," interim President Ali A. Houshmand said. "It's an exciting time."

The reaction on other New Jersey campuses was less enthusiastic.

At Rutgers-Camden, chancellor Wendell Pritchett said his office had been inundated with messages from alumni concerned that leaving the Rutgers system to join Rowan - a university that has come to prominence only since 1992, when industrialist Henry Rowan donated $100 million - would hurt the school's reputation.

"In any educational institution, there's not going to be complete agreement," he said. "It's going to be an interesting spring."

Wali Rushdan, a third-year law student, said that the merger was the talk of his friends and that most were concerned about whether losing the Rutgers brand would make it harder to attract top faculty or more difficult for graduates to get jobs.

"The general mood is that people are completely against it, and we wonder where the authority for it even comes from," said Rushdan, 29.

Tension also was high in Newark, where UMDNJ is a major employer and health-care provider.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex) said questions regarding the institution's future had not been adequately answered.

"I don't understand how this can be so fast-tracked," he said.

Christie gave no timeline for the reconfiguration, saying only that he would be speaking with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) to try to expedite the process. He did say he was open to using his executive powers to push the plan.

Christie hammered UMDNJ on Wednesday, calling it a "patronage pit" and citing his own investigation into the university when he was U.S. attorney.

Former State Sen. Wayne Bryant (D., Camden) was convicted of fraud in 2008 in a case involving a low-show job at UMDNJ. And the university was placed under a federal monitor as part of a deal to avoid federal prosecution on charges of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

The prospect of reconfiguring New Jersey's universities has been around for a decade, including a $1.3 billion plan under Gov. Jim McGreevey. Asked what was different this time around, Christie replied, "It's me."

Many, however, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Rutgers and UMDNJ both put out statements that praised the UMDNJ Advisory Committee's overall findings while quibbling with particular recommendations.

In a letter to staff and students Wednesday, Rutgers president Richard McCormick said he would welcome getting parts of UMDNJ - something he has pushed for. But he was noncommittal about the trade-off of losing the Camden campus, where the university has spent $100 million in facility upgrades over the last five years.

"Needless to say, the proposed restructuring involving Rutgers-Camden will require a thorough discussion and an important decision," McCormick wrote.

An official with the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 1,000 doctors at UMDNJ and Rutgers, said it would hold off judgment until the implementation of the mergers became clearer.

"It really depends on what the details are," said Cliff Freid, a union official.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.