TRENTON — The Legislature approved a bill overhauling the public university system Thursday, capping weeks of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations and making numerous changes to the legislation to bring aboard hesitant lawmakers, labor leaders and academics by the governor’s June 30 deadline.
The bill disbands the University of Medicine and Dentistry and redistributes it to Rutgers and Rowan universities. Rowan, which was already preparing to open a medical school this year, would be given research-university status by the state and expected to start more intense health/science collaborations with Rutgers-Camden.
The measure heads to Gov. Chris Christie, who proposed a version of the reorganization in January. Christie said he still supports the bill through its many revisions.
“I absolutely believe it should be done,” he said on Townsquare Media’s “Ask the Governor” radio program Thursday night. “It will be an enormous step forward for the state and the potential for Rutgers to get from good to great.”
Rutgers’ main governing body conditionally backed the revised plan earlier Thursday, after receiving assurances that it would retain authority over all of its campuses. Earlier versions of the bill diluted the board’s academic and financial authority over its campuses in Camden and Newark; the new bill has only health sciences curriculum and projects at Camden and Rowan falling under oversight of a new board.
The board’s backing helped ease passage of the consolidation bill.
The university’s trustee board, which is mainly advisory, remains divided and did not take action Thursday. It has retained a lawyer and is threatening to sue.
Sen. Donald Norcross, a Democrat from Camden and one of the architects of the compromise plan, said he expects the trustees to agree once they know the details.
He said Rutgers will now stop treating its campuses in Newark and Camden as money-making operations and start funding them more fully. He said the Camden campus could take up three times as much space in a decade as a result of more state funding and better access to outside grants.
His brother — Democratic powerbroker George Norcross III — is also a supporter. George Norcross is chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital, which has partnered with Rowan on the new medical school. The bill gives UMDNJ’s osteopathic school to Rowan.
Some lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to slow down the deal, including a faction of Assembly Democrats who threatened to withhold their budget votes unless the university restructuring bill was held up until November. The faction fell apart within 24 hours.
The plan sped through the Legislature in about a week, skipping a hearing in the Assembly Higher Education panel although it’s a far-reaching higher ed reshuffling. The actual plan will not be implemented until next year. It passed 59-19 in the Assembly and 29-9 in the Senate.
No one knows how much it will cost.
“This is going to really catapult New Jersey on a national stage,” Sen. Joseph Vitale, a Democrat from Woodbridge who co-sponsored the legislation. Vitale said he expects the upfront cost to be about $40 million, but he said the universities would have more revenue opportunities through obtaining grants.
The Board of Governors said getting a medical school would elevate Rutgers to the ranks of the nation’s top 25 research institutions. But it held off giving final approval until it gets more information on costs and other aspects of the legislation.
Though the board called the emergency meeting to consider the resolution hours before the Legislature was to vote on the bill, Gerald Harvey, vice chairman of the Board of Governors, said the governors’ affirmative vote shouldn’t be construed as “endorsing legislation we have not read.”
Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat who represents Piscataway and New Brunswick, where Rutgers’ main campus is located, said none of the 200 to 300 Rutgers alumni he’d heard from supported the bill; he said many expressed concern that the changes would “devalue their degree.”
Smith was also critical of moving a bill of such magnitude through the Legislature so quickly, saying it was one of the worst examples of legislative process he’d ever witnessed.
The deal calls for the state to continue to fund University Hospital, UMDNJ’s money-losing teaching hospital in Newark and the state’s largest provider of care for the uninsured poor, satisfying a major concern of lawmakers from Essex County. The revised bill also shields Rutgers and Rowan from liabilities arising from medical malpractice claims that haven’t been filed.
The Legislature approved a separate measure asking voters to approve $750 million in higher education borrowing in November. The money would go toward buildings and upgrades at all New Jersey colleges and universities.
Rutgers will take on $500 million in debt when it absorbs the medical school. Candice Straight, a member of the Board of Governors, told lawmakers during a recent hearing on the bill that tuition would rise by 15 percent for every $100 million in debt Rutgers assumes. However, the board could spread out the debt over many years.
Associated Press Writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this report.