Kevin Riordan: Rutgers-Camden, Rowan may marry, but they should keep their names

Gov. Christie's proposal to "merge" Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University under the Rowan name looks less like a collegial partnership and more like a hostile takeover. Or perhaps a shotgun wedding.

Whatever you call it, the plan - part of an effort to reorganize, if not revolutionize, higher education statewide - feels like a foregone conclusion.

It arrived last week, floating on promises of more money, more jobs, more . . . more. And like so many decisions with enormous consequences for Camden, it appears to have been made with little input from people who live or work there.

Is it possible Camden and South Jersey would be better served by linking Rutgers and Rowan in a way that retains their identities? Could the schools gain academic and economic clout in a merger that more resembled a collaboration?

A "consortium," such as that proposed by the Rutgers-Camden faculty, could combine some programs at the universities, leveraging strengths but maintaining separate operations.

"There's nothing to stop a cooperative arrangement from happening," says Howard Gillette, history professor emeritus at Rutgers-Camden.

Others suggest creating an umbrella institution with a name such as University of Southern New Jersey. It would maintain key elements of Rutgers and Rowan, which would retain their names. The parent institution would have the scale and grant-attracting cachet of a large research university.

Some alternative seems preferable to Christie's bold proposal, which has not been well received at Rutgers-Camden.

"I don't trust [Christie]," third-year Rutgers law student Jessica Starkman said Monday, as applause rose in the Camden campus' Walter Gordon Theatre.

Starkman, 25, of Cherry Hill, was one of nearly 200 law students who attended an afternoon question-and-answer session. No one who spoke, including Dean Rayman Solomon, applauded the merger.

Several antitakeover events are scheduled on campus this week, and more than 3,000 people have signed an online petition against the merger.

"I've never seen Rutgers-Camden so united," Janet Golden, a professor of history and a leader of the union that represents the teaching staff, told me Monday.

Christie's proposal is largely driven by his desire to dismantle the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and distribute its components to higher-education institutions, mostly in Newark and New Brunswick. New Jersey would end up with a large research university in each of its three major regions.

In merging with Rutgers-Camden, Rowan - a former teachers college in Glassboro - would gain 7,000 students, a bustling urban campus, and graduate programs including a top-tier law school.

Rutgers-Camden would be absorbed into a thriving, 11,000-student institution in Gloucester County, but would lose its name. Also gone would be its link to Rutgers-New Brunswick's more than two centuries of academic tradition, and - most likely - more than a few marquee faculty members and students.

The city of Camden would lose one of its few remaining name-brand institutions.

"Let there be no mistake, this is going to happen," Christie said last week, as he endorsed the 57-page report from a five-member advisory committee he charged with reorganizing higher education in the state.

Anthony Perno 2d, chief executive officer of the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, a Camden waterfront and neighborhood redevelopment agency, served on the committee.

He acknowledged the value of the Rutgers brand to the city and region. But he noted that the merged institution would be based in South Jersey - not in New Brunswick, to which Rutgers-Camden has long been a stepchild.

True enough.

But that child has carried its parent's name for a half-century.

It's on the banners that fly over a leafy campus that has at last begun to revive the neighborhood that surrounds it.

Rowan is a fine institution, and the medical school it is opening with Cooper University Hospital is a terrific addition to Camden and the region.

If very different institutions such as Cooper and Rowan can create something new without losing their identities, there ought to be a way for Rowan and Rutgers-Camden to do the same.

 


Kevin Riordan:

Rutgers-Camden professors react to a plan to merge with Rowan.

www.philly.com/rutgerscamden


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq