TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday proposed turning a former teacher's college into New Jersey's second major public research university under a planned major realignment of the state's higher education system intended to raise the standing of the flagship Rutgers University and other institutions from "good to great."
Fast-growing Rowan University in southern New Jersey, which 20 years ago was largely a teacher's college known as Glassboro State College, would take over the Camden campus of Rutgers University, including its law school.
Rutgers, whose main campuses are 30 miles from New York, would absorb parts of the scandal-stained University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, gaining a medical school. The remaining parts of UMDNJ would get a new name: the New Jersey Health Sciences University.
"We cannot compete economically in this state with good but not great institutions at any level," Christie told a news conference. "We need to make the steps happen to allow us to go from good to great."
New Jersey is unique in that it is one of the few states where the top public university is not named after the state. Christie has long been concerned that top high-school graduates go elsewhere for college — and often stay there.
Part of the problem is a shortage of slots for students and part is the reputation of Rutgers, a school of 58,000 students spread across three campuses, a system he said was "good but not great."
Officials at Rowan are excited about the idea, but it's causing consternation at Rutgers-Camden. Officials at Rutgers' main campus and officials in Newark say they need to study it more before committing.
Christie said the moves would strengthen New Jersey's entire higher education system, giving southern New Jersey a major research university, improving the links between research and patient treatment, and strengthening ties to the state's pharmaceutical industry at Rutgers' main campus in New Brunswick and Piscataway.
He said they would also give a new start and more focused mission to UMDNJ, which spent years mired in scandal related to no- or low-show jobs provided in exchange for steering patients or taxpayer money to the school, billing irregularities and employees accepting favors from contractors.
The idea of major university reconfiguration has been around for a decade, but university officials and politicians have never mustered the will to make it happen.
The tough-talking Republican governor cited one major difference this time around that he said will result in real change: "It's me."
Christie said that the cost has not yet been calculated but that most of it would be absorbed by the current university budgets. He said there would not need to be deep layoffs anywhere, as long as the universities as constituted now aren't overstaffed — but he said there might be.
Christie said there are a variety of ways to make the transition happen. It's not clear whether it would require legislative approval.
It's not going to be an easy sell everywhere. But it is at Rowan.
The school, which opened in 1923 as Glassboro Normal School, would become the main southern New Jersey public university, taking control of the Camden campus that now houses a business school and law school and has more than 6,000 students, and would join Rutgers as a second major research university.
Rowan rose to relative prominence quickly and unexpectedly two decades ago when it accepted a $100 million gift from the industrialist Henry M. Rowan and renamed the school in his honor. Since then, an institution that was largely a commuter school, started an engineering school, embarked on a major expansion in Glassboro and expanded its campus in Camden, where there was something of a rivalry with the Rutgers campus located in the city.
Christie said he wants to fold Rutgers-Camden into Rowan partly because of Rowan's fundraising prowess and because Rowan and Cooper University Hospital are launching a new medical school in Camden. It's scheduled to open to students later this year.
Dr. Ali A. Houshmand, the interim president, is enthusiastic about the prospect of a merger, though he said many key issues need to be resolved. Among them: Would Camden or Glassboro be the main campus? Would a combined athletic program move from the NCAA's Division III to Division I?
"If we have sufficient resources, there are going to be potential for us to great things," he said. "We want to be a major economic engine."
There's not the same enthusiasm at Rutgers-Camden, a campus that's been an arm of Rutgers for six decades.
Officials, students, staff and alumni have opposed the prospect of a divorce from Rutgers, which has had a campus in the city for six decades.
Wali Rushdan, a third-year law student at Rutgers-Camden, said that it 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 make it 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.
Chancellor Wendell Pritchett, who for months fought against the prospect of moving the campus from Rutgers to Rowan, said he welcomes an examination of higher education in New Jersey. But he said: "There are a million questions that have not been resolved."
He said that as a Rutgers employee, he would have to wait for his bosses to weigh in on the reorganization plan.
And word from New Brunswick has been ambivalent.
In a letter to staff and students on Wednesday, University President Richard McCormick said he welcomed getting parts of UMDNJ — something he'd 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 past five years.
"Needless to say, the proposed restructuring involving Rutgers-Camden will require a thorough discussion and an important decision," McCormick wrote.
In Newark, too, political leaders were cautious — glad that a rebranded UMDNJ and its University Hospital would remain in the city, but with some worries about what might happen to the hospital if, as recommended, a private operator runs it for the state.
The scandal at UMDNJ resulted in two administrators and a state senator being sent to prison; the school also spent time under the watch of a federal monitor. As U.S. attorney, Christie oversaw the prosecutions, giving him detailed knowledge of the medical school.
He said that he doesn't believe the school of nearly 7,000 students can be successful without a reboot.
Officials at the school say they welcome a name change but object to one part of the plan: giving three of the schools increased autonomy.
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