Even before its botched unveiling, the proposed shotgun wedding of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University left many South Jerseyans cold.
But we found the notion to radically remake higher education in our part of the world even less compelling after Gov. Christie made it public Jan. 25 as a virtual fait accompli. Citing a handful of pages in a state commission report otherwise focused on the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the Republican governor cavalierly decreed that the lives of tens of thousands of students, professors, employees, alumni, and residents would change forever.
Not because any of us asked (much less voted) for this, mind you, but because it would be "best" for New Jersey.
Talk about big government!
But Christie and his equally overambitious Democratic allies unintentionally inspired a grassroots rebellion. And Wednesday, busloads of law school professors and others sporting scarlet "Save Rutgers-Camden" regalia converged on a joint meeting of the Rutgers board of trustees and board of governors in New Brunswick.
The boards asserted the university's rights by demanding a role in the merger's latest incarnation: A state Senate bill calling for what would technically remain separate institutions under a single research-university structure with guaranteed state funding and significant local control.
The boards want any such restructuring arrangement to be negotiated between the university and the lawmakers.
"This is a victory for Rutgers-Camden," an elated Adam Scales said en route to a celebration at a local watering hole. The law professor said the boards' action "establishes the principles Rutgers will use to evaluate any legislation. We have always been open to genuine, good faith negotiations ... but we know there will be battles ahead."
Starting immediately: Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D., Camden) wasted no time in announcing that he would introduce legislation "identical" to the Senate proposal Thursday.
"We are encouraged that the Rutgers governing bodies have established a joint committee and are ready to engage in this reorganization of higher education in New Jersey," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon. "We look forward to bringing these discussions to a successful conclusion by June 30."
The fast track reflects the fact that Christie, clearly mindful that similar proposals by previous governors failed, doesn't want his higher education reform stalled by partisan politics or regional rivalries, much less litigation.
But the pushback from, among others, the high-octane attorneys in that Rutgers-Camden building called the School of Law was apparently as unanticipated as the deep public anger displayed in all those "Keep Rutgers in South Jersey" yard signs and bumper stickers.
Websites, demonstrations, YouTube videos and online petitions (13,000 and counting) nevertheless don't seem to faze merger supporters. They view the amalgamation of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan into a single South Jersey research university as a way to redress historical inequities in higher education funding.
In an interview before Wednesday's meeting, merger champion George E. Norcross III predicted that Christie's deadline will be met.
"The governor is as determined as I am, and I applaud him for it," said Norcross, the board chairman of Cooper Hospital and a managing partner in the company that owns this newspaper.
He dismissed suggestions by some merger opponents that he has masterminded the proposal solely to bolster the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, set to open soon in downtown Camden.
"That's ridiculous," Norcross said. "I've been a proponent principally because of what the merger could do for the city and for South Jersey, and what reorganizing higher education can do for the state. ... It's an unbelievable opportunity, and we're lifting heaven and earth to get it done."
They certainly are. But the rest of us ought to be involved in the job.