There is still a long way to go—but, finally, there is no question a new, solid start has been made to merge Rutgers University and two parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). The move has the potential to combine the two universities and transform them into a great comprehensive, first-class public institution of higher education that the state needs and has wanted for a long time.
The Rutgers-UMDNJ proposal was one of the major recommendations as the New Jersey Higher Education Task Force, headed by former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, unveiled its 133-page report in January calling also for significant changes in the structure and financing of New Jersey’s higher education system. It is a visionary document that already is getting urgent attention.The report rightly calls for increased aid for the state’s funding -starved colleges and universities.
Among the other recommendations: A secretary of higher education position would be created replacing the commissioner of education. The state commission on higher education would be scrapped and a higher education council put in place to advise the governor.
There will be a second task force formed to further explore the Rutgers-UMDNJ merger that would bring two of UMDNJ’s eight schools—Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the School of Public Health—under the Rutgers University banner. That’s wise. UMDNJ and the legislators and lobbyists who strongly support the place probably won’t go down without a struggle until all questions are answered about how the school’s University Hospital and other Newark facilities would fare in the merger.
Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick likes what he sees in the task force report. . He has written that “virtually all of the best medical schools in the nation are affiliated with top research universities, attracting the highest levels of funding for research that benefits society and bolsters the local economy.”
He adds: “As the Kean task force argues in its report, ‘ For a state to be great, it must have a great state university.’” McCormick, a renown scholar in his own right, should know. He came to Rutgers after serving as president of the University of Washington with its first-tier medical school that ranks high in research and primary care.
Credit Gov. Chris Christie with appointing the task force and giving it instant credibility by naming Kean, a former Drew University president, as its chairman. Kean was known as the education governor and the higher education governor during his tenure as the state’s chief executive. He is a respected, intellectual gem who can relate to what goes on at a university and what it takes to lead a higher education institution.
Bringing Rutgers and UMDNJ together may not be as difficult as it sounds. McComick reminds us that “nine medical school buildings in Piscataway sit on 66 acres of Rutgers-owned property that we lease to UMDNJ.” Two research institutes already are jointly managed and the medical school offers 12 joint programs with Rutgers.
And McCormick makes a convincing argument in support of the merger recommndation when he says: “ Fully unifying the medical school’s resources in clinical studies and public health with Rutgers’ engineering and pharmaceutical programs would unleash an economic engine that would benefit many core state industries, including drug development and medical device manufacturing.” That’s powerful talk in a state with a down economy.
Still, UMDNJ does not enthusiastically support the merger and William F. Owen, Jr., university president , sees the school being “adversely affected” mainly because of the revenue loss from Robert Wood Johnson as well as a loss in research grants.
However, if many of the report’s more than 70 recommendations are followed, higher education reform could be one of the crowning achievements and an enduring legacy of the Christie administration. The governor should continue to direct his efforts to make this happen. It is vital to New Jersey today and in the future.
Now, with Kean at his side as the conscience of the task force and the report it issued, Christie also must work to insure that New Jersey-style partisan politics and special interest groups do not interfere with these far-reaching proposals.
Merger plans on three previous occasions in the last decade. have been derailed because of politics and a nasty corruption scandal and poor past crony leadership involving UMDNJ.
And remember-- political interference in medical school education goes back to 1970 when the late Gov. William T. Cahill, in a political maneuver, took over the fledgling quality Rutgers Medical School and created what eventually became UMDNJ. It was not New Jersey’s finest academic hour. Now it’s time to bring medical education in New Jersey back to Rutgers where it belongs.
Arthur Z. Kamin, Fair Haven, is an independent journalist. He is a former newspaper president and editor and a former Rutgers University Board of Trustees chairman.