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Rutgers Trustees Oppose Timeline for Merger Plan

The Rutgers University trustees on Thursday balked at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s July 1 deadline for a sweeping merger plan under which the school would gain a respected but debt-ridden medical school in New Brunswick and lose an entire campus in South Jersey.

The group’s approval may be needed for the plan to proceed, according to some legal opinions and the Office of Legislative Services.

Rutgers President Richard McCormick said he anticipated that legislation involving the reorganization could be voted upon before the Legislature adjourns this summer. Christie has said that much of the reorganization could be accomplished through an executive order.

It remains unclear which route will be taken, but either way the Rutgers trustees may have a say since they were vested with oversight and authority over university property by a 1956 statute.

At its regular meeting on Thursday, the group, which numbers nearly 60, expressed frustration with the lack of financial details in the reorganization plan and the governor’s insistence on forging ahead despite this.

“I feel like I’m doing this with a gun to my head,” said Dorothy Cantor, a trustee.

Meanwhile, Rutgers officials said applications and donations are down because of uncertainty at the Camden campus, which the realignment plan would give to Rowan University, based in Glassboro.

The plan also would break up the Newark based University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, giving Rutgers three of its most successful branches: the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the School of Public Health. McCormick pegged the onetime cost of absorbing those entities at $40 million, and Bruce Fehn, Rutgers’ vice president for finance, said critical questions remain about what to do with the debt that the university would incur as a result.

Rutgers officials are generally enthusiastic about getting the medical school an affiliation that would enhance the state’s ability to get medical research dollars. But they oppose ceding the Camden campus, which has 7,000 students and respected law and business schools. Earlier this week, Christie said one part of the plan cannot happen without the other, and vowed that his plan would come to  fruition.

Groups in Newark and Camden have indicated they may file suit to block the plan, and some legislators said they might withhold their approval, which would be needed even if it is done by executive order. On Thursday, trustees indicated that they may resist as well.

“Suspend the politics, suspend the emotion. We at Rutgers will determine our own destiny,” said Trustee Greg Brown, the chairman of Motorola Solutions.

Another trustee, Richard Shindell, called the governor’s July 1 deadline “ludicrous” and said dealing with Trenton on the issue was akin to “trying to grapple with fourth graders.”

The Christie administration officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

McCormick, the Rutgers president, said the plan is consuming most of the work of his administration. Consultants have been hired at Rutgers’ expense to figure out the complex financial and legal details of the reorganization, said Fehn.

“All I can say is that this is very complicated,” Fehn said. “The state should have taken care of that before they put forth the proposal.”

Fehn said there has been no real financial analysis of the costs of divesting the Camden campus, where the university has invested nearly $100 million over the past five years.

Rowan, a fast-growing state college, has welcomed the merger, which would help establish it as a regional research university. Faculty, staff and students at Rutgers Camden have said they weren’t consulted on the merger, which they describe as a “hostile takeover.” They have presented Christie with a petition with more than 11,000 signatures opposing it.