Rutgers Trustees May Be Unable To Stop Merger

The memo prepared by DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole of Teaneck challenges the trustees’ contention that they continue to hold title to 1.7 acres of the 31-acre downtown Camden campus. The memo asserts that the Legislature transferred half of the disputed property to the state university in 1950 and later paid $495,000 for the rest.

“We have concluded, based on the public record and documents supplied to us by Rutgers, that the trustees have no factual or legal basis to assert anything more than an advisory role over the future of the Camden campus,” lawyer William Harla wrote.

“Between the two Rutgers governing bodies, only the Board of Governors has a formal legal position over the governance of the Camden campus.”

The trustees claim the 1956 Rutgers Act gives them authority over how the campus’ land is used and how the university is governed.

Rutgers law school professors, who teach at Camden, interpret the 1956 law that affirmed Rutgers as the state’s university as both a statute and a contract, meaning that changes would have to be agreed to by both Rutgers’ boards and the state of New Jersey.

The university’s two governing bodies—the trustees, which is mostly advisory, and the more powerful Board of Governors—are set to vote Wednesday on a statement opposing the deal being pushed jointly by Christie and South Jersey political boss George Norcross III. The resolution does not all-out reject a university restructuring, but opposes the deal that Christie and Norcross have proposed for South Jersey and the bill Senate President Steve Sweeney introduced on Monday.

The most recent proposal splits the Camden campus from the rest of the Rutgers system and establishes a joint Rutgers-Rowan governing board. Rowan, which gained a medical school in 2009 in partnership with Cooper University Hospital, would gain status as a research university. Norcross is chairman of the Cooper Health System and hospital boards.

The bill also has Rutgers absorbing all of the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark and New Brunswick, including the medical school.

The Committee to Save Rutgers-Camden, a group of South Jersey faculty who oppose a merger, said the bill violates the rights of both university boards.

“This legislation confirms that the proponents of merger have never had the best interests of Rutgers-Camden, or higher education, in mind,” said Andy Shankman, an opposition leader. “By saddling Rutgers with what promises to be a crony-packed board overseeing virtually every aspect of the campus, the legislation will only succeed in its unstated goal transferring by stealth the assets of Rutgers-Camden to the heavily indebted Rowan University and Cooper Medical School.”

The trustees voted last month, 32-4, to reject the Rowan takeover of the Camden campus. The position of the Board of Governors is less clear. Six of the 11 members are gubernatorial appointees.

Christie has imposed a June 30 deadline for having the reorganization framework in place. Some Democrats and academics have questioned the timeline as unrealistic. Consultants still are compiling cost assessments, including how to handle existing debt and the possible reissuance of bonds. Others believe that, if the deadline is missed, the proposal will lose momentum and could unravel entirely.

Two former governors expressed their support for the plan Tuesday.

Democrat Jim Florio said collaboration between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan would be positive for South Jersey, and Republican Don DiFrancesco said the bill allows New Jersey to create centers for higher education excellence in every part of the state.

He said this proposal stands the greatest likelihood of success of any higher

education proposals that had been advanced over the past 30 years.

The outcome of the restructuring is likely to affect plans for the state’s first higher education borrowing proposal for capital improvements in more than 20 years.

University administrations recently circulated a wish list of projects totaling about $6 billion. While the actual amount hasn’t been decided, Christie has said a ballot question would be tied to a restructuring deal. Voters would have to approve the borrowing.