Restructuring the Right Way

by Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick
As submitted; published in The Star-Ledger on December 19, 2006

Three years ago New Jersey and its public research universities considered a bold idea to restructure higher education by merging Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. That proposal and the resulting discussion envisioned exciting opportunities to set the universities on a path toward greater academic excellence and more outstanding service to the state and nation.

Despite its great potential, that effort failed. The obstacles it encountered were not intrinsic to the academic vision, but lay rather in fundamental issues of governance and financing that were never adequately resolved.

There are good reasons to reopen this discussion now. New Jersey needs first-rate educational programs to train tomorrow's professionals. It needs more bio-medical research that saves lives and helps grow the state's knowledge-based economy. And it needs a fully comprehensive research university that incorporates health science education, attracts stellar students and faculty, garners increased financial support from the public and private sectors, and elicits respect around the world.

Although both Rutgers and UMDNJ have outstanding elements, our system of higher education is not as strong as it should be. Many of our problems are structural. Having an independent health sciences university that is not part of a comprehensive research university is both unusual and limiting. Collaborative opportunities across disciplines are harder to seize than they should be. Cooperation too often is hampered by administrative disparities or institutional possessiveness. This arrangement prevents our state from winning its full share of federal research dollars and holds us back from achieving a place among the best research universities.

These are sound reasons to restructure, but the merger of universities is a complicated undertaking that requires adequate discussion and careful planning. Concern for academic excellence must be paramount, but we cannot neglect questions of governance and funding.

For 50 years, Rutgers has maintained its partnership and covenant with New Jersey. Unlike other state institutions, Rutgers is led by a Board of Governors of 11 members, six appointed in Trenton and five elected by Rutgers' historic Board of Trustees, which governed the university prior to 1956. This unique governance structure has safeguarded the mutual obligations of the state and the university, based first and foremost on protection of the academic missions and on freedom from partisanship. It has fostered internal controls that avoid abuse and promote public trust. A similarly autonomous structure, reflecting our highest educational values and requiring strict accountability for resources received, should be part of any plan to restructure higher education.

The other imperative is a state commitment to adequate and stable funding, not only for the significant costs of restructuring and for annual operating support, but also as an ongoing investment to improve quality and create a top-ranked system of higher education. We need to identify 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 support them at a competitive level. With the proper investments, we can achieve significant educational and economic benefits. Without them, any restructured university would be a hollow shell.

At Rutgers, we do not claim to know how best to restructure the research universities. But we believe that some key principles should guide the process: paramount attention to quality, institutional governance that maintains academic integrity, adequate funding, and accountability to the people of New Jersey.

Rutgers stands ready to work with elected officials, with our colleagues at the other universities, and with all stakeholders in considering the issues and opportunities. Although restructuring is not without risks, much is to be gained by grasping this opportunity and getting it right.