New Jersey plans merger of universities

Emphasis placed on medical education and research

October 20, 2002|By Laura Mansnerus | Laura Mansnerus,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TRENTON, N.J. - Gov. James E. McGreevey has endorsed a sweeping reorganization of the state university system that would consolidate its research universities, including Rutgers, and establish three largely independent campuses.

The plan, unveiled recently by a commission appointed by McGreevey, emphasizes medical education and research, which are now splintered into eight schools and associated hospitals under the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. But the reorganization would also include all the schools of Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

While Rutgers is widely respected among state universities, New Jersey's health-professions schools lag in prestige and performance, and McGreevey is eager to establish a system that would have the heft of university and hospital centers in New York and Philadelphia.

Name uncertain

The name of the new system, however, remains uncertain. The working title is the University of New Jersey, which is likely to displease the Rutgers alumni - and donors - who are a loyal and influential group in the state.

"We're ducking possible names because that's emotional," said Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, the chairman of the commission that wrote the 114-page report and proposal.

But McGreevey said the name given Rutgers in 1825 in honor of Col. Henry Rutgers, a former trustee and Revolutionary War veteran, was "significant, if not sacred," and would be retained in at least some fashion.

The plan would establish the three campuses in Newark, New Brunswick and Camden, each with its own president reporting to a single chancellor and a Board of Regents in Trenton. Currently, the system has no central leadership.

The reorganization plan has been the subject of much speculation and suspicion since the governor appointed the commission seven months ago. At three public hearings before the panel, many testified against a merger, and elected officials in Essex County were angered by news reports that the state's several schools in Newark would be placed under a central administration in New Brunswick.

Any reorganization would be years in the making and would require the Legislature's approval. And it will be preceded by McGreevey's appointment of a task force that will put together a blueprint for merging the schools, which have a combined student population of 64,000.

When asked who might fill the chancellor's post, McGreevey said his "overwhelming preference" was former Gov. Tom Kean, now the president of Drew University in Madison. Kean, who has long supported a reorganization, has not accepted the offer, McGreevey said, but "the torture will continue until the proper answer is in hand."

`Audacious initiative'

"I can't remember such an audacious initiative introduced in education anywhere in the last 20 or 30 years," said Harold Shapiro, a former president of Princeton University and a member of the commission.

Several state legislators, including Assembly Speaker Albio Sires and the Assembly majority leader, Joseph J. Roberts Jr., also spoke glowingly of the proposal. Roberts, a Democrat from Camden, said medical education was "central to the governor's vision" for revitalizing his troubled city, which depends heavily on Rutgers as an employer and stabilizing presence.

But in Newark, state Sen. Ronald L. Rice said he was unmoved by Vagelos' pitch to Essex County lawmakers in a recent breakfast meeting and that "even three independent campuses might not be in our best interests."

Rice said the governor and the commission had never consulted them and did not provide them with the report. "We don't have any documents," he said. "They're giving us what they say deans and faculty members want. Deans and faculty members don't run the institutions. We do."

Officials at the schools affected have been largely silent, although the New Jersey Institute of Technology has opposed a merger. The interim president of Rutgers, Norman Samuels, said in a recent statement, "We, too, need time to read and digest the report's recommendations."

The commission's report laments the reputation of the University of Medicine and Dentistry schools, saying that "the goal of excellence has not been achieved." It says the academic quality of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick and the New Jersey Medical School in Newark is "at or somewhat below the national average."

The commission was also critical of University Hospital in Newark, although it recommended that any new university retain ownership of the hospital.

"Many of our best students leave the state to go to medical schools and to take residencies," said Vagelos, the retired chairman of Merck & Co., and a former faculty member at several medical schools. "We're losing the cream of the crop, medically speaking."

As a model for a new system, California is most often mentioned. Its medical schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego are among the top 10 state university medical schools in the country, according to the ranking used by the commission.

The reorganization is intended in part to attract research money and top faculty to New Jersey. Although outside research funds at Rutgers have doubled in the last 10 years, the report says that New Jersey state schools still lag behind others in funding and that recruiting faculty for Rutgers' science programs is difficult in the absence of a medical school.

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