An Important Discussion

Merging New Jersey's Research Universities

Richard L. McCormick, President
As published in the Winter ’07 issue of Rutgers Magazine

New Jersey policymakers are talking again about the possibility of merging the state's senior public research universities, particularly Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). I welcome the discussion. The current structure doesn't serve our state particularly well, especially in the health sciences. Having an independent health sciences university that is not part of a comprehensive research university is unusual and limiting. This arrangement prevents our state from winning its full share of federal research dollars. It separates areas of education (e.g., medical and pharmacy) that could and should overlap and complement each other. And it holds New Jersey back from achieving a place among the best and most respected public research universities in the world.

We continue to foster collaborations between Rutgers' and UMDNJ's faculties. These efforts have yielded excellent programs such as the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. But these opportunities are less numerous and harder to seize than they should be. Institutional barriers make each collaboration a struggle, putting New Jersey at a disadvantage relative to other states. The resulting deficit of research funding hurts our economy, our research, and the quality of our education.

I know that restructuring would not be easy, no matter which model were to be adopted. Any merger would be complicated and costly to implement. Questions about governance, funding, university endowments, existing debt, union contracts, computer systems, libraries, and many more issues would have to be answered thoughtfully and thoroughly. Of course, if the collective will is there, none of these issues should render the idea unworkable.

But here is the key point: restructuring alone will not be enough. Merely tinkering with the structure would not enable our research universities to achieve their potential or bring rapid and tangible benefits to the people of the state. If we are to become the equal of the Michigans and Californias and North Carolinas, we have to invest in the programs that will make us among the best. We need to choose the areas in which New Jersey's universities can truly excel-biotechnology, pharmaceutical chemistry and engineering, nanotechnology, new materials and devices, nutrition, microbiology and infectious disease, homeland security, and so on-and fund them at a competitive level. With the proper investment, we can compete in these areas and achieve significant economic benefits for New Jersey. Without it, any restructured university would be a hollow shell.

Rutgers stands ready to continue to expand our collaborations with UMDNJ and, when the time comes to take the next steps, to be an active, constructive, and unselfish participant in figuring out what to do. Our goal is to achieve what is best for the people of New Jersey and to make at least our share of contributions to the improvement of human health around the world.