Some time in the fall of 2011, Rowan University made a fateful decision. After some months of discussions with Rutgers-Camden personnel about how the two institutions could best ally their resources to secure greater financial support for higher education in South Jersey, the conversations stopped. Now we know why.
Instead of working out a mutually beneficial and agreed upon plan with Rutgers, Rowan, or one of its allies, turned instead to outside help for a report—a battle plan actually—on how best to take over Rutgers-Camden’s assets. According to a column in the March 29 Star-Ledger, the plan, from The Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, was commissioned at a cost of $30,000.
That report, issued January 26th, the day after Governor Christie released and endorsed the Barer Advisory Committee report, proceeded on three premises. First, the Governor would act swiftly and decisively by using his executive powers to effect the merger. Second, he would name Rowan a research university at the same time. Finally—and this was the lynchpin—the merger would be tied to other recommendations in the report. Specifically, Rutgers University would have to divest itself of the Camden campus and all the resources attached to it in order to acquire medical facilities further north.
We know this deal was already in place in November, when the action plan was commissioned, because Rowan Interim President Houshmand met with Rowan students on November 21st to answer concerns about how a merger would affect their education. The minutes, posted on the Rowan website under the title “South Jersey Merger,” was summarized under the heading “Governor Sent Recommendation.” Among the answers to questions was the affirmation that Rowan faculties were already preparing for a merger. The Barer Committee was still meeting at the time and had not even interviewed Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett to get his input to their deliberations.
The Learning Alliance report provided considerable detail on how to seize the opportunity offered by the governor through the proposed merger, making sure, as I have reported previously, that Rowan centralize in Glassboro administrative and budgetary power over the combined institutions.
Not surprisingly, the consultants anticipated a negative reaction at Rutgers, writing, “First, we believe a significant portion of the faculty and staff at Rutgers-Camden will express their unhappiness with what the Advisory Committee has recommended.” As a response, the consultants recommended a communications strategy focused on “an optimistic discussion of the educational future the Advisory Committee has imagined.” Those managing the transition, it advised, should “spend as little time as possible explaining how and why the protests have missed the point.” Rowan has since issued a request for proposals from firms willing to execute its public relations plan.
The report also anticipated the likelihood of litigation, with the result that “the process of accrediting the New Rowan University undergraduate programs at the current Rutgers-Camden location will be substantially slowed—even put on hold—pending the outcome of possible legal challenges.” Rather than accepting delay, however, the consultants urged the Steering Committee charged with executing the merger to complete its work by July 1, 2012, the same deadline the governor has since embraced for completing his proposal for reorganization.
Re-iterating the importance of acting expeditiously, the report asserts, “We believe it will be possible to realize the Advisory Committee’s vision of having in place a major research university in South Jersey even if the full integration of Rutgers-Camden is delayed. All that is required to start the process is the designation of Rowan as a public research university, the necessary reclassification of staff, and a substantial augment in the funds available to the New Rowan University to build the infrastructure a successful major research university will require (emphasis added). If Rowan, Cooper University Hospital, and the State of new Jersey make clear their intention to establish a major research university in South Jersey, we believe that sooner or later the great majority of faculty at Rutgers Camden will ask to join….”
Not incidentally, Rowan’s consultants urged the university to address its own faculty concerns, notably teaching loads, research support, and tenure review. Noting “a lingering issue regarding the power of the Board of Trustees and the role of the faculty in the governance of the institution,” the consultants urged that the issue be addressed “to preclude the faculty’s discontent…in the enacting of the organizational and curricular changes the New Rowan University will require.”
So the situation is clear. Instead of pursuing avenues of possible cooperation with Rutgers-Camden, Rowan embraced a high-stakes strategy to assure the aggrandizement of its own status. With its unilateral action, Rowan severely compromised the possibility of partnership and mutual collaboration with Rutgers. By choosing to wait out the victims of its own hostile action, even as it tries to sell its motives as honorable and informed by good practice, it has tarnished its reputation and greatly diminished its standing.