Today, I have a column in the Courier Post.  In it I urge Senator Don Norcross to remove the provision for a joint governing board, which would have fiscal and operational authority over both Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, from the bill that he and Senator Steve Sweeney introduced last Monday.

A joint board that can veto the decisions of two independent institutions doesn’t advance the interests of higher education in the region or the state. All it does is take authority away from both Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, forcing them to compete for resources from yet another level of governance without a history of ties to either institution.

It also injects the opportunity for politics to play too great a role in internal university governance. Surely we have not forgotten so soon the lessons of UMDNJ. Several years ago, political interference helped put that institution in a difficult, indeed precarious, position.

Why go through a disruptive and costly dismantling process when the Rutgers Boards of Governors and Trustees have now, in a joint statement of principles, committed to making the internal changes that South Jersey political leaders have said they wanted, changes that will make it possible to bring about dramatic improvements in higher education in southern New Jersey?

At a packed meeting in New Brunswick last Wednesday, the two governing boards issued what they called a statement of principles, which reminded everyone that according to the law, they and they alone call the shots at Rutgers.   But even as they made it clear that the only entities with the power to decide what Rutgers will do are the  Rutgers boards, they also offered to make changes to the internal governance of the university that would allow Rutgers-Camden the autonomy – both fiscal and operational – that the campus needs in order to reach its potential.  With equitable resources and more decision-making authority over those resources, the campus should be able to grow to perhaps 12,000 students over the next several years, have significantly more students living on campus, and develop the additional Ph.D. programs that will complete the campus’s transition to a full-fledged Carnegie Research Institution. The boards also agreed to beef up the authority of the Chancellor, which, as a former occupant of that office, I agree is essential. (Although I’m not going to discuss it here, what they are willing to do for Camden, they pledged to do for Newark, too.)

The boards also agreed to consider ways for the Camden campus to develop partnerships with Rowan, as long as each institution retains its independence and autonomy, and the partnerships are approved by Rutgers.

The adoption of these principles is welcome news to all of us who have opposed severing Rutgers-Camden from the university and uniting it with Rowan. The Board of Trustees had already acted, independently. In early May, they rejected  overwhelmingly any plan that would sever the Camden campus from the university. But the Board of Governors, as it had been since January, was silent. Until last week. Now they have spoken out, loud and clear.

Does this mean that proposals for the break-up of Rutgers and Rutgers-Camden’s merger into Rowan will be abandoned? My hope is that the boards’ action will spur our lawmakers to adopt the statement of principles as a basis for amending the bill as it applies to Rutgers. The principles speak to most of the critical issues:

1. Providing increased higher education opportunities in the region and more resources to South Jersey to provide them. Now, Rutgers has committed to providing Rutgers-Camden with an equitable share of resources and the operational authority to use them. 

2. Reducing the outmigration of college students from New Jersey.  Research has shown that one of the top reasons given by students for leaving New Jersey to attend college is that the state does not offer enough choice in higher education. If we don’t want even more students to leave, we have to preserve and enhance the choices they have, including their ability to choose Rutgers-Camden, Rowan, or Stockton for higher education in the southern part of the state.

3. Leveraging the intellectual resources in the region for research. There are tremendous opportunities to maximize existing and emerging strengths. I’ve already noted the need for additional Ph.D. programs. Some of them should be joint programs with the Cooper Medical School of Rowan, including MD/Ph.D. programs that could be part of a new Center for Integrative Biology and Genomic Medicine. Health Law, Health Policy, and Bio-ethics offer other opportunities for partnership. Collaborative research centers and new areas of study should be a priority. Without sacrificing the independence of either university, we can create a research and educational powerhouse.

4. Revitalizing the city of Camden. Rutgers-Camden has made its home in this city since becoming part of Rutgers six decades ago. It anchors the northern part of the city’s downtown, just as Cooper Hospital anchors the Broadway corridor. As both institutions grow, independently and together, they have to opportunity not just to remake the downtown but to have a major impact on the city’s revitalization, which could help transform the region. And let me remind everyone that without a genuine Rutgers in Camden, this will not happen. With less choice, there will be fewer students, and the campus’s world-class faculty will go elsewhere. That’s been said before, but it bears repeating.

The devil, as always, will be in the details. The Boards have now committed to the outlines of a structure in which there would be a chancellor for each campus, reporting to the president; board committees or subcommittees for each campus; and advisory councils for each campus that could include public members. The next task will be to work with all the campuses and their stakeholders to develop a structure that provides for the autonomy and equity, within the framework of the Rutgers University governance system, laid out in the principles.

All of us, lawmakers and citizens alike, want outstanding higher education in southern New Jersey. We want to make the region a hub for innovative research. We want to revitalize Camden. And we want to dramatically increase opportunities for New Jersey’s students to stay in the state. (Not to mention that it is also important for us to be attracting high quality students to the state.) The Rutgers boards have listened. So, as long as the Rutgers boards agree to implement the principles, will that reassure political leaders in South Jersey?

That remains to be seen. I hope so. It would be a shame to destroy what we already have, and waste time and money on an expensive and unnecessary merger, when we’d be better off getting to work developing the degree programs, centers, and research institutes that are at the heart of academic excellence. Other states have done it without costly mergers, through partnerships and structured alliances. We can too.