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.