TRENTON — A proposal to change higher education in New Jersey has cleared another legislative hurdle, paving the way for final passage Thursday.
The far-reaching plan combines Rowan University and Rutgers’ Camden campus in a quasi-merger and breaks up the University of Medicine and Dentistry, allocating its medical/dental school to Rutgers and its South Jersey osteopathic school to Rowan. The bill makes Rowan a research university, a designation that allows for more funding and greater autonomy in awarding contracts and soliciting bids. UMDNJ’s money-losing teaching hospital, University Hospital, would continue to operate as a nonprofit. University Hospital in Newark is the state’s largest charity care provider.
The proposal has rocketed through the Legislature this month despite objections from the academic community, ongoing concerns about University Hospital’s viability and unanswered questions about its costs. It was advanced unanimously Monday, though several of the legislators who approved it expressed reservations about the bill as it’s currently drafted.
Gov. Chris Christie proposed a version of the higher ed restructuring in January, and it has the backing of powerful South Jersey Democrat George Norcross III. Christie imposed a June 30 deadline for the framework for the overhaul to be in place, but it’s unclear whether the governor supports all the changes the bill has undergone.
The 100-page proposal morphed again Monday, as 50 pages of amendments were distributed. One allows the deal to be killed if it jeopardizes the osteopathic school’s accreditation. Another requires the state to adequately fund University Hospital so it continues to provide safety-net health care. An amendment added Thursday requires Rutgers to accept all of the deal or none of it. A change added Monday shields the university from medical malpractice claims initiated before the merger.
However, no one knows how much it will cost.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski described the costs as “one of the imponderables of this legislation.” He said the figures would come within the year as groundwork for the merger is being laid.
The Assembly Budget Committee heard more than two hours of testimony — mostly from opponents — before recessing for six hours while the latest changes were drafted. The panel returned to session about 9:30 p.m. and voted a half hour later to forward the bill to the full Assembly. Both houses are set to take final tallies on the legislation Thursday.
Dudley Rivers, vice chairman of the Rutgers Board of Trustees, said the bill poses enormous opportunity and equally onerous risks, many of which could be mitigated if the bill were tweaked further.
For example, he said a provision transferring Rutgers-Camden’s property to a new joint governing board would force Rutgers to refinance $950 million in debt at a cost of $155 million. That one-time cost could be eliminated, he said, if the clause transferring Rutgers-Camden’s assets is removed from the bill.
The research arm of the Legislature said in a fiscal note that it did not have enough information to determine the costs of the realignment.
About two dozen osteopathy students also testified, raising concerns about retaining the accreditation of their school if it merges with Rowan and about the potential for tuition to rise to help pay off the additional debt Rowan would take on.
Second-year students Andrew Vasta and Devangi Patel said they are also worried that Rowan, which acquired a medical school in 2009 in partnership with Cooper University Hospital and will admit its first class this fall, isn’t ready to accept an established medical program like the School of Osteopathy’s.
The most biting criticism of the proposal came from Katie Epstein, a first-year tenure-track assistant history professor at Rutgers-Camden, who told lawmakers they are selling out the South Jersey campus “to bail out George Norcross’ hospital.”
Norcross is Cooper’s chairman of the board. His brother, Donald, is a sponsor of the bill.
Rutgers’ governing boards, Rutgers-Camden faculty and Rowan’s trustees all object to a provision in the legislation establishing a new joint governing board with authority over both campuses. The trustees have threatened to sue to retain authority over all three campuses.
The Assembly panel advanced a companion measure asking voters to approve $750 million in borrowing for higher education in November. The money would be used for buildings and repairs on college campuses. It would be the first higher ed bond act in 20 years.
That’s also scheduled for final votes Thursday.