A potential compromise that would preserve Rutgers-Camden is taking shape in closed-door discussions among state political leaders and Rutgers officials, according to several people familiar with the talks.
The proposal, coming amid fierce opposition to a higher-education overhaul backed by Republican Gov. Christie, would keep the Camden campus within the Rutgers University system and give it and Rutgers-Newark greater autonomy.
Though details are still being discussed, officials are talking about terminating control of the satellite campuses by the Rutgers flagship in New Brunswick and setting up independent boards to manage the finances and operations in Newark and Camden.
The talks come three months after Christie announced sweeping plans that would turn over parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark to Rutgers and merge Rutgers' Camden campus into Rowan University in Glassboro.
Those involved in the negotiations include Rutgers board of governors members Ralph Izzo and Joseph J. Roberts Jr.; Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III; State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester); Newark Mayor Cory Booker; State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden); Rutgers president Richard McCormick; and Rutgers-Camden chancellor Wendell Pritchett.
Sweeney downplayed the significance of the potential compromise Thursday, saying it was one of many under discussion.
"There are a lot of different discussions going on with this right now," he said. "The Senate, the Assembly, and the governor have to agree. Until we have something more concrete, I can't really comment. But we're trying to craft a plan."
Others close to the negotiation, who asked not be identified, said the deal would end discussion of a merger between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan and give Newark a greater share of higher-education resources than the governor's plan, crafted by a five-member committee of businessmen and academics and presented Jan. 25.
Such a compromise would likely satisfy long-running concerns among political and academic leaders that New Brunswick's control has left Rutgers' Camden and Newark campuses underfunded and short on assets such as dormitories, laboratories, and athletic facilities.
And it would likely quiet protests in Camden, where faculty and alumni, fearful that the loss of a connection to the Rutgers system would undermine the reputation of the campus, have threatened lawsuits to block the merger.
In Newark, Booker and state legislators have argued against Christie's plan to transfer the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and other assets to Rutgers, saying doing so would weaken UMDNJ, a major employer in the city.
Booker's office did not return a phone call seeking comment. Pritchett declined to comment, and telephone calls and an e-mail to a Rutgers spokesman in New Brunswick were not returned.
Despite the objections of the last three months, Christie maintains his plan will proceed as proposed. A spokesman Thursday said the governor's position had not changed.
"I'm supporting my plan. We're going to move forward with my plan, and my plan is going to be implemented," Christie said at a news conference last week. "The people at Rutgers-Camden need to get ready for that."
Although details remain in flux, the possibility of relinquishing control of the Newark and Camden campuses already has some Rutgers trustees worried that academic standards could become secondary to local political interests.
"It will be politicized," said one Rutgers trustee who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks. Rutgers "is clearly against giving up Camden for the [Robert Wood Johnson] medical school, so the question is what kind of deal is made so we hold on to Rutgers-Camden but it doesn't become a political fiefdom."
The involvement of George Norcross, a powerful political force in New Jersey who is also the managing partner in Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of The Inquirer, has attracted considerable attention, both from protesters at Rutgers-Camden and from U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), who in a letter to the U.S. education secretary last month questioned whether a deal had been "crafted to benefit powerful political interests."
As chairman of Cooper University Hospital, which is set to open a medical school this summer in partnership with Rowan, Norcross has long pushed for a large research university in South Jersey toward one day attracting pharmaceutical and technology companies to the region.
Because of his ownership stake in The Inquirer, Norcross maintains a policy of not commenting on stories regarding his political and business interests.
His brother, Donald, wrote an opinion piece in the Courier-Post earlier this year pushing for an independent Rutgers-Camden that maintained a relationship with the larger university but that controlled its own finances.
It is unclear what would happen to Rowan, a former teachers' college that grew in stature in 1992 when industrialist Henry Rowan donated $100 million to fund an engineering school there. Since merger talks arose last year, officials and faculty at Rutgers-Camden have pushed for a consortium model that would mean greater partnerships between the two schools.
A Rowan spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The concept of creating three independent Rutgers campuses goes back a decade.
Under former Gov. Jim McGreevey, P. Roy Vagelos, a former chairman of Merck & Co., led a study recommending the state combine Rutgers, UMDNJ, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology to form integrated campuses in Newark, New Brunswick, and Camden. The estimated $1.3 billion cost proved the plan's undoing, but the idea remains popular among faculty in Newark and Camden.
"What Vagelos suggested was you have a three-university system with a central administration, and none would be beholden to the others," said Steven Diner, a professor and former chancellor of Rutgers-Newark who resigned in December.
But redrawing the structure of the almost 250-year-old Rutgers is expected to be a mammoth undertaking.
Even if a compromise were worked out with the state's political leadership, it's unclear what the reaction would be from the larger university.
Norman Samuels, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers-Newark and former provost of the campus, said he didn't think the board of trustees in New Brunswick would go for the deal.
"I'd like to see it," he said. "But it would never happen because the Rutgers boards would see it as an enormous diminishing of their power and control."