The two-month-old joint board of Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden has quickly become a quasi-government entity that hopes to steer development toward Camden.
Forgoing a formal search, the board has hired a $275,000-a-year chief executive to guide expansion of an "eds and meds" corridor in Camden, using eminent domain, if needed. It's also leasing office space in the city.
Calling new CEO Kris Kolluri, a former political aide and state transportation commissioner, "very qualified," board member Robert Mortensen added, "the process . . . did not, in my opinion, include the proper preliminary work," including establishing a job description and conducting a search.
The lease decision also lacked "proper due diligence," he said last week at a public meeting of another Rutgers board.
By expanding higher education, the politically connected board is tasked with spurring development and returning jobs to Camden, historically a manufacturing powerhouse. Lawmakers, saying they wanted to equip the board with any tools it might need, handed it powers including the ability to take land from private citizens.
"I think that before we imbue entities with that type of power, it would be good to have a plan of what exactly would happen with those powers," Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), who voted for the bill, said last week.
The Rutgers-Rowan board, whose $5 million budget is funded equally by the two universities, was formed as a compromise in a 2012 restructuring of New Jersey higher education: After a firestorm over a proposal to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, lawmakers established the board to coordinate the schools' work together on health sciences in the city.
It is chaired by Jack Collins, the former Republican Assembly speaker who now works at the state's largest multiclient lobbying firm.
Most of the seven board members have ties to state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) or South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, whose interest in Camden includes a hospital he chairs and a privately run public school established by his family foundation. Norcross recently agreed to sell his stake in The Inquirer.
Some joint board members were appointed by Gov. Christie and confirmed by the Senate, and others by separate boards at Rowan and Rutgers.
Kolluri, who begins work July 1, will have 30 days to create an "initial action plan," including a strategy to fund a building to house joint programs and research, said board vice chairman Louis Bezich, who works with Norcross at Cooper Health System.
"Education and health sciences, in my view, are in 2014 to Camden what the phonograph was to Camden in 1914," Kolluri said.
Norcross, chairman of Cooper University Hospital and benefactor of KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, agreed the board "will play an important role in helping develop what I think Camden will be in the future."
Though agreeing with the board's goals, some legislators and one board member have questioned its tactics thus far.
The bill that granted the board eminent-domain power passed both Democratically controlled houses in a week. Some Republicans objected they hadn't had enough time to read it.
Gov. Christie signed the bill a week later, along with 100 others. But when asked about it on his monthly radio program in February, Christie said: "I haven't heard anything at this point about eminent domain being given to a university. I don't think that's the way it works."
Rowan and other state schools have eminent-domain power; Rutgers does not.
Lawmakers "were given the impression that that bill would put the board on an even playing field. What has become known to some of us is that is not necessarily the case," Wisniewski said. "That is one of the reasons why legislation should not be rushed through at the last minute."
Sweeney defended the process as "done in a proper fashion."
Some Rutgers activists, including faculty members and trustees, are wary of political interference with university business after the 2012 merger proposal, Sweeney's attempt last year to abolish Rutgers' board of trustees, and an ongoing fight over a move to expand the number of political appointees to Rutgers' main governing body.
Bezich rejected the idea that the board had moved quickly. Camden has long focused on building its "eds and meds" corridor, he said.
The board's actions represent "the existing working relationship that the two universities have, and, secondly, the pent-up interest to have an impact. Not that there's anything wrong with being aggressive," Bezich said.
Kolluri was considered in the fall for a Rutgers job, he said, making him a familiar face when the joint board began considering hiring a full-time director.
"He came highly recommended by Rutgers. A number of board members know Kris from his work in state government," Bezich said.
Kolluri said he first worked with Bezich almost 20 years ago as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), whose congressional district included Camden. Bezich was county administrator for Camden County at that time. Kolluri later served in former Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine's cabinet, working with Michellene Davis, Corzine's chief policy counsel who is now a member of the joint board.
During that time, Kolluri said, he also worked with board members Chad Bruner, the Gloucester County administrator, and Dana L. Redd, the mayor of Camden, who was a state lawmaker at the time.
"All these folks have seen me function . . . in a range of organizations and deploy a range of skill sets," Kolluri said.
Kolluri is also a former lawyer at Parker McCay, where Norcross' brother Philip is chief executive.
His appointment was first vetted by the board's executive committee, chaired by Bezich. Redd, one of the three committee members, did not return repeated requests for comment.
Three other board members - Collins, Davis, and TD Bank executive Fred Graziano - also could not be reached.
"The whole process was informal. There wasn't a position description prepared prior to attempting to find an appropriate candidate. The selection was based on personal experience with his performance," said Mortensen, the third executive committee member.
"Taking one more month to do some of that work and to do a broader search would have been appropriate," he said in an interview, "but I'm very comfortable with the selection."
Sally Clausen, an executive director at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in Washington, said formal searches, which often take several months, inspire confidence in the community.
"Normally there is a search process. . . . A lot of it depends on the needs and urgency of the issues at the time," said Clausen, herself a former board executive and university president.
Bezich stood by the selection process.
"We intend to be very transparent in operations, very engaged with the community. We will build a strategic agenda that all will see," he said. "We conduct as a public organization and we'll work within the accountability that that brings."
Jack Collins, chairman: Longest-serving speaker of the New Jersey Assembly (1996-2001), now a lobbyist at Princeton Public Affairs, the largest multiclient lobbying firm in the state by receipts. Appointed by Gov. Christie.
Louis Bezich: Chief of staff to the president and executive director, Cooper Health System in Camden. Appointed by Christie.
Chad Bruner: Gloucester County administrator. Appointed by Rowan board of trustees.
Fred Graziano: Head of regional commercial banking and executive vice president, TD Bank Group. Appointed by Rowan board of trustees.
Dana L. Redd: Mayor of Camden. Appointed by Rutgers-Camden board of directors.
Robert Mortensen: Member of the Rutgers University board of trustees and Rutgers- Camden board of directors. Appointed by Rutgers-Camden directors.
Michellene Davis: Lobbyist with Barnabas Health, New Jersey's largest health-care system. Chief policy counsel to former Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Appointed by Christie.
Career: Lawyer, Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf; aide to U.S. Reps. Rob Andrews and Richard Gephardt; chief of staff and commissioner, New Jersey Department of Transportation; CEO, New Jersey Schools Development Authority; lawyer, Parker McCay.
Education: Bachelor's in management and marketing, Rutgers-Camden (1991); master's in international business, Johns Hopkins (1996); J.D., Georgetown (2004).
Family: Married, two children.
Roots: Born in India, immigrated to United States at 14, raised in Gloucester Township.