“I feel like I am doing this with a gun pointed to my head,” so reported the Star-Ledger’s Bob Braun March 24th, quoting Rutgers University Trustee Dorothy Cantor on the on the prospect of being forced to trade off the Camden campus in return for the transfer of Robert Wood Johnson medical school to the university.   Until yesterday, that Devil’s bargain was mostly talk. Now a severability clause has been added to the legislation to reorganize higher education that literally puts the gun to Rutgers’ head:  if any part of the proposal is not carried out, none of it will be.

          From the moment the Barer proposal was altered to add UMDNJ-Newark, along with its more than $600 million in debt, as part of the merger with Rutgers, one of the university’s prime negotiating goals had to be getting the state to pick up a good portion of that obligation. But as reports of the current scramble to put together a budget with a tax cut included make clear, any commitment to take on that burden  would foul up other goals.  Hence the dishonest claim that reorganization costs are not a factor in current budget deliberations.

          Could the Rutgers negotiating team accept a reduction in costs and still sacrifice its Camden campus to the machinations of a governing board whose powers keep being increased as the legislation undergoes further amendment? It’s possible, but the sacrifice would be huge.  Whatever financial compensation the university might get, it would have knuckled under to political extortion. 

          And what would the university get in return?  Robert Wood Johnson is currently listed 80th, six from the bottom,  among publicly ranked medical schools in the United States in research. UMDNJ-Newark is unranked.

         Even as Governor Christie makes outrageous claims about all the money these schools will bring into the university, the truth is quite the opposite. It will take considerable Rutgers investment to bring medical research in New Jersey up to respectable levels. Without major increases in state investment–now 47th among the 50 states– the only alternative to keep the university competitive will be higher tuition.  Without state investment, this reorganization proposal is a lose-lose plan.

         Would the governor and the legislature give up a tax break to fund a reorganization plan that makes sense? Don’t count on it. The only hope for higher education now is that the Rutgers negotiating team stand by the principles the boards of governors and trustees adopted June 6th.  Sooner or later medical education will come to Rutgers, but it is not in the interest of the university or its current and future students to bear the full financial burden of that transition.  Until the necessary funds are appropriated and the integrity of the university is protected from dismemberment, it’s time to stand up to the threat and just say no.