The third time could be the charm for the long-debated realignment of New Jersey’s major university, with the added bonus that this time South Jersey will get a chance to compete for top academic honors.
Gov. Christie’s ringing endorsement Wednesday of a plan to have Rowan University take over the Camden campus of Rutgers University — while the University of Medicine and Dentistry merges with Rutgers — could jump-start hopes of making better sense of the state’s sprawling higher-education network.
The governor’s two Democratic predecessors promoted similar overhauls that foundered over both cost and turf. So it’s encouraging to hear Christie vow “this change is going to happen,” and pledge to back recommendations by a gubernatorial task force that examined a university system seen as fragmented and lagging in research.
Nearly a decade into such discussions, the financial pressure on universities to run more efficiently has only grown. That makes the case for consolidation even stronger, even if it threatens jobs due to consolidation. In the case of the scandal-scarred UMDNJ — described several years ago as “hemorrhaging from mismanagement” — a merger with Rutgers could only help.
For Rowan, the addition of the Rutgers-Camden campus along with the planned medical school affiliated with Cooper University Hospital in Camden would put the Glassboro-based university in an elite group of universities with both medical and law schools. Rowan’s president, Ali A. Houshmand, described the prospect of “an exciting time” for a university that would see its student body increase by more than half, to 17,000 students.
For the region, the merger could produce the research university that political and business chiefs, led by Democratic leader and Cooper chairman George E. Norcross III, rightly see as an important economic catalyst. With added heft, Rowan likely would attract more federal research grants and investment from private-industry partners. Its academic offerings would grow to include graduate professional-degree programs and, it is hoped, give the university a greater share of state higher-ed funding.
There are understandable concerns about the impact of the mergers on staffing, the loss of Rutgers’ ties to Camden, and alumni of the merged campuses who may feel snubbed. With the highly regarded Rutgers-Camden Law School, Rowan officials will want to assure that steps are taken to maintain and enhance its reputation through faculty recruitment and coursework.
Yet, the fact that a university realignment along the lines of the Christie plan has been debated so often shows the need for something to be done — with now being the time for Jersey officials to do the homework to get it right.