Addition by Contraction

For the past year I’d heard rumblings that it might happen, but earlier this week the state's plans were revealed—Rutgers-Camden is going to become part of Rowan University.

On Wednesday, Gov. Christie set forth a breathtaking initiative to restructure the state’s university system, and it’s going to have a significant impact on the structure and character of South Jersey’s higher education landscape. Under the proposed plan, which was recommended by a special governor’s task force, Rowan University in Gloucester County would take over Rutgers’ Camden campus, including its law school. The newly combined institution would be called Rowan University and would be based in both Glassboro (Rowan’s hometown) and Camden.

Christie and his supporters said the merger is going to drastically improve the state’s university system by attracting more research funding as well as regional industries to the southern half of the state. “Rutgers is good but not great,” the governor said in a recent Trenton press conference. “And we can’t compete with good and not great.”

The merger is also being touted as a boon for the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, which is currently being built in downtown Camden. In a statement released earlier this week, Sol J. Barer, chairman of the governor’s special task force, said the merger “will help propel the medical school toward excellence.”

Among the plan’s most vocal champions is George E. Norcross III, a very powerful and influential Democrat who chairs Cooper University Hospital in Camden. In a recent article from the Courier Post, Norcross said he’s pleased with the governor’s recommendations and that the plan would “ignite the economy by attracting private investment opportunities” and would draw in students “who currently leave the state to pursue higher education degrees.”

The combined school would be the state’s second research university, and Rowan’s interim president, Ali A. Houshmand, said the merger is going to open up more opportunities to compete for state and federal grants. To drive home the point, Houshmand pointed out that the Garden State’s eight southern counties make up 30 percent of the population but provide less than 30 percent of private and public university seats.

Houshmand also said the merger would allow Rowan to expand its educational opportunities to previously unavailable disciplines, such as medicine, public health, and biomedical engineering. Furthermore, Rowan’s Glassboro surroundings are apparently primed for 600 acres of university expansion.

To fully appreciate the significance of this merger one has to understand the recent history of Rowan University, which had its humble beginnings as a training school for teachers in 1923. Well into the late 1980s, Rowan, which was called Glassboro State College at the time, was considered a respected but relatively minor player in the state’s higher education system.

That all changed in 1992 when Henry Rowan donated $100 million dollars to the school and Glassboro State went on to gain university status five years later. This merger would further skyrocket Rowan’s reputation and attendance with unprecedented swiftness, potentially growing the student population from about 11,000 to nearly 17,000.

Rutgers-Camden, by comparison, was founded in the 1920s as the South Jersey Law School and has been a prominent educational fixture in South Jersey since it merged with Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in 1950. According to news reports, this clash of histories and reputations has left many Rutgers-Camden alumni and students skeptical of the merger.

In a recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, third-year Rutgers law student Wali Rushdan said he and his peers are concerned that merging with Rowan is going to hurt the university’s reputation and its ability to attract top-notch faculty.

“The general mood is that people are completely against it,” Rushdan, 29, told the Inquirer. “And we wonder where the authority for it even comes from.”

Rowan students also have their doubts. In a recent Courier Post article, Rowan freshman Matt O’Brien said he’s concerned about the school’s rapid expansion, explaining that many of the university’s students came there “for a small student population and close interaction with teachers. I don’t think students would appreciate having the school double in size.”

Christie gave no indication of a timeline for the bold move—which also includes breaking up the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey—but said that he’s going to be speaking with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver of Essex County and Senate President Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County about how they can speed up the process. Moreover, the plan can only proceed with the approval of Rutgers’s 59-member Board of Trustees and 12-member Board of Governors.

“Let there be no doubt about it, this change is going to happen,” Christie said at the news conference. “I’m going to put the full force of the governor’s office behind these recommendations.”

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