NJ governor signs university merger bill

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a major higher education reorganization bill on Wednesday, a hard-won political and policy victory that eluded two prior governors and is designed to create regional centers of academic excellence in South, Central and North Jersey.

Christie, a Republican, lauded the achievement with stops in Newark, New Brunswick and Camden, the three cities most affected by the legislation. The actual bill signing happened at Rutgers University's main campus, with remarks and ceremonial signings in the North and South. Christie, 49, who is slated to give the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, planned to cap the day with a town hall-style event in Salem County.

Christie said the bill "brings a new era to higher education in the state" by dissolving the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and shifting its assets to Rutgers and Rowan universities and enhancing the footprint of both schools.

"It makes a much stronger Rutgers completing for the best students in the country, a stronger Rutgers that competes for federal grant dollars with other higher education institutions across the country, a stronger Rutgers in terms of the economic engine that it will be for everyone across the state," Christie said.

The complex merger, which is slated to be in place by next July, gives Rutgers a coveted medical school in New Brunswick and elevates Rowan to a research university, putting it in line for more federal and state funding. It also gives Rowan an osteopathic school and links Rowan and Rutgers-Camden for joint life-sciences collaborations. However, it does not merge the two schools, a proposal that was dropped amid howls from Rutgers-Camden faculty and students. An outright merger of the two was seen as a deal-breaker for some legislators.

Christie promoted the university overhaul at public forums for months, and aggressively imposed a July 1 deadline for getting the bill passed. The Democrat-led Legislature eventually agreed — by his deadline. Democratic Govs. Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine failed to shepherd similar university overhaul bills through the Legislature.

Two of the primary Democratic proponents, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Camden Sen. Donald Norcross, were with Christie at the bill signing.

Norcross's brother, South Jersey Democratic Party leader George Norcross III, added his muscle to the bill.

George Norcross, chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital, partnered with Rowan on the new medical school, which has admitted its first class to start in September. He told The Associated Press the legislation presents long-overdue educational and economic opportunities for South Jersey and said Camden in particular will benefit from what he predicted would be a tripling of the Rutgers-Camden campus in the next decade.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who was the prime sponsor of the Assembly higher education bill that became law, told The Associated Press he was not invited to the signing.

Wisniewski said he's proud to have sponsored the bill, but found it odd that Christie — who he referred to as "Mr. Bipartisanship" — failed to acknowledge his sponsorship. Wisniewski, a Sayreville resident, is chairman of the Democratic State Committee and rumored to be exploring a gubernatorial challenge to Christie.

The state's university system could be aided further if voters approve a ballot question in November authorizing $750 million in borrowing for campus capital improvement projects. Christie also supports the borrowing, which he said would represent the state's first investment in university capital projects since 1988. An additional $549 million in already-approved but not yet spent bonds is also available to the schools.

Not everyone is happy about the merger.

Nurses in Newark expressed concerns about their jobs, which the legislation guarantees only for one year. And, about dozen students who were kept away from the bill signing in New Brunswick said the deal was crafted without their input. They say the costs remain unknown and fear their tuition will rise substantially when Rutgers is forced to assume $500 million in debt when it takes over UMDNJ's medical school.