All three of New Jersey's public research universities are now looking for new presidents amid a recommendation that at least two of the schools be reconfigured with the hope of producing more collaborative research.
While the openings at the top may put each school in a period of transition that provides an opportunity for a big merger, Gov. Chris Christie said they do not ensure that Rutgers, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey will all be combined into one super-university.
"I don't think the vacancies in the presidencies make it more or less likely to merge the institutions," Christie said last week. The governor said he would have more to say after a task force he appointed issues its final recommendations, expected this month. Newark-based NJIT, he said, is expected to remain a stand-alone school.
The idea of reorganizing the state's public research universities has been around for at least a decade. In the past, a mix of politics and practicality has halted each effort.
But this time, it seems the push is more intense and it comes with an ambitious timeline. Rutgers, UMDNJ and the governor's office have formed committees aimed at having Rutgers absorb parts of UMDNJ by July 1, even though the merger does not have any approvals and many questions remain about the details.
The stated goal of bringing together some combination of the institutions is to foster more research collaboration. Officials say it would boost Rutgers' ability to get grants and make it more attractive for trials of drugs produced by New Jersey's pharmaceutical companies.
Richard McCormick, the outgoing president of Rutgers, was previously the president of the University of Washington, where a medical school was part of the university. "The collaborations are mind-boggling, extraordinary and wondrous compared to anything we can do in New Jersey," he said.
A merger would also bring more prestige, students and funding to Rutgers, which has 58,000 students.
Rutgers says a merger with the UMDNJ schools in New Brunswick and Piscataway would catapult the university's academic research and development spending from 54th in the nation to 33rd, putting it on par with schools such as Harvard and Purdue.
UMDNJ says it supports the merger — though some intrigue surrounds that endorsement. But breaking up the medical school is not simple. In particular, leaders in Newark worry about jobs, clout and health care options disappearing from the state's largest city.
In 2002, there was a plan to reconfigure NJIT, Rutgers and UMDNJ entirely resulting in three regional universities, one each in northern, central and southern New Jersey. But the boards of the schools wouldn't agree. By 2004, the idea was dead, and P. Roy Vagelos, the former Merck CEO who was pushing the plan, resigned from his position at Rutgers.
This time, Christie has appointed a task force to make narrower recommendations aimed at medical education in the state.
The group was initially given a Sept. 1 deadline for its complete report. By then, the group called for moving three components of UMDNJ to Rutgers, a measure a previous committee suggested earlier in the year.
The three assets — Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the School of Public Health — are all in New Brunswick and Piscataway, where Rutgers' main campuses are. They share facilities, faculty and students with Rutgers, which owns the land they stand on. McCormick said the governor's office and the two universities have already formed committees to iron out legal, financial, academic and other issues surrounding the move.
But Christie's task force asked for more time to figure out the other issues: how to configure the parts of UMDNJ that remain in Newark and those in southern New Jersey. The group has remained mum about its thinking.
Circumstances have changed since last decade's merger considerations.
UMDNJ spent years mired in scandal related to no- or low-show jobs in exchange for steering patients or taxpayer money to the school, billing irregularities and employees accepting favors from contractors.
Two administrators and a state senator were convicted and sent to prison for their roles, and the school spent time under the watch of a federal monitor. As U.S. attorney, Christie oversaw the prosecutions.
Also, the landscape has shifted as a second public medical school has launched in the state. Rowan University and Cooper University Hospital are building a school in Camden. It's scheduled to open to students next year.
The governor's task force, led by Sol Barer, the CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Celgene, said in its September report that it was "open minded" about the future of UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, a suburb near Camden.
The group also said it needed more time to sort through what to do about UMDNJ in Newark.
Besides the academic programs there, UMDNJ's University Hospital is seen as vital to the life of the city.
Barer's group says that the hospital and schools should maintain a major presence in Newark. But the form is not clear. While Christie said he believes NJIT will remain a stand-alone school, his executive order setting up Barer's committee asked that it look into whether UMDNJ's Newark schools "should be merged with any of the senior public higher education institutions in Newark."
Newark leaders, including Mayor Cory Booker and the city's legislative delegation, have lobbied for any plans to keep the hospital and school in Newark.
State Sen. Ronald Rice Sr., a Democrat from Newark, said that he believes taking any parts of UMDNJ away will hurt the city in some way — and that the Christie administration is rushing change without knowing the financial or social impact it could bring.
"I don't believe any report coming forward it's going to answer those questions," Rice said.
As recommendations on their futures loom, all three universities are in transition.
UMDNJ's William Owen's announced his departure abruptly this week. It's effective at the end of the year.
He had publicly spoken in favor of having Rutgers absorb some parts of UMDNJ — a move that at least one of his school's trustees questioned. Trustee Robert Del Tufo, a former state attorney general, wrote President William Owen an email, first reported by The Star-Ledger of Newark: "The board, not yourself, is responsible to take positions on policy matters such as this."
Del Tufo said he would not comment further. Neither Owen nor trustees Chairman Kevin Barry returned calls.
NJIT's Robert Altenkirch stepped down effective Nov. 1 to become president at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. He took the job in September, just as Barer's committee recommended that NJIT halt its plan to launch a medical school in Grenada.
Rutgers' McCormick announced in May that he would step down as president at the end of June 2012 after nearly a decade in the job.
Christie said the possibility of adding a medical school to Rutgers is attracting better candidates to replace McCormick.