TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday proposed turning a former teacher's college into New Jersey's second major public research university in a shake-up of the state's higher education system that's intended to raise the standing of Rutgers University and other institutions from "good to great."
The first-term Republican governor has long been concerned that top high school graduates go elsewhere for college — and often stay there — rather than staying put in New Jersey, one of the few states where the flagship public university doesn't contain the state name.
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.
Under the governor's plan, fast-growing Rowan University, which 20 years ago was largely a teacher's college known as Glassboro State College, would take over the Rutgers-Camden campus, including its law school, in suburban Philadelphia.
Rutgers, whose main campuses are 30 miles from New York City, would absorb parts of the scandal-stained University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, gaining a medical school. The remaining parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry would be renamed the New Jersey Health Sciences University.
"We cannot compete economically in this state with good but not great institutions at any level," Christie said at a news conference. "We need to make the steps happen to allow us to go from good to great."
Officials at Rowan are excited about the idea, but it's causing consternation at Rutgers-Camden. Rutgers officials at other campuses say they need more time to study the plan.
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 the University of Medicine and Dentistry, which spent years mired in scandal related to no- or low-show jobs being given 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 strong-willed 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.
At Rutgers-Camden, third-year law student Wali Rushdan said many students 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.
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