Back in 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie presented a statewide reorganization plan for its colleges. Much of that plan has since been implemented, but one particular aspect has not: merging the Camden campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, with Rowan University, formerly Glassboro State College, into a single University of South Jersey system. That aspect of the plan was met with an uproar from my alma mater, Rutgers-Camden.
Tempers ran high. Neither side did themselves any favors in the weeks to come. Chris Christie pretty much presented the plan as a done deal, and then took on naysayers in his signature blustery tone, even calling one an “idiot.” For their part, the anti-merger folks ignored Rutgers-Camden’s systemic and very real identity problem of being an outpost campus dependent on a governing body in New Brunswick. They also adopted rallying calls like Rutgers Leaves Camden Bleeds, which at best reflected a noblesse oblige toward the city that would surprise anyone who has actually lived in Camden, myself included.
It was in the middle of this that I wrote an op-ed in favor of the merger–or, to be more specific, the idea of a merger–and sent it along to my hometown’s local daily newspaper, The Courier-Post. It was all set to run that summer. Then I chickened out: in the weeks that followed, on Facebook and Twitter and even email, I was flamed to no end when I expressed even a pro-merger peep. “You’re just a Norcross hack,” someone wrote, referring to South Jersey powerbroker Donald Norcross, a proponent of the plan (who would also benefit from it). Other messages had, you know, bad words in them. If anything, the whole debacle proved to me I don’t have thick enough skin to be Maureen Dowd.
Two years later, the plan pretty much scrapped, I still think I had a point. Rutgers-Camden remains Rutgers, with some changes on the governance level. It remains very much as a satellite of the larger main campus just one hour up the New Jersey Turnpike. And many grads still leave “Camden” off their resumes entirely, which saddens me to no end.
At any rate, here’s the op-ed, bio intact.
ALBANY, NY—In 1949, Arthur Armitage, president of the College of South Jersey, offered to rename his college.
His price? A million dollars.
“We are not so enamored with the name,” Armitage told the New York Times, “that we wouldn’t be very glad to change it if some wealthy person wants to make a generous endowment.”
Armitage got his wish, in a manner of speaking, when the next year the college absorbed into Rutgers.
Like many South Jersey natives, I’m a Rutgers graduate. A Rutgers-Camden graduate. That distinction doesn’t mean much up here in Albany, where I now live. But it does for me, just as saying I’m from South Jersey, not North, and I’m a Phillies fan, not part of Yankees Nation.
South Jersey pride is partly why I’m excited at the prospect of a Rutgers-Rowan merger, proposed last month by Gov. Chris Christie.
The prospect of a single institution with its own law, business, engineering and medical schools has been met with universal scorn from current Rutgers-Camden students and alumni. The Internet overflows with petitions, Facebook pages, and handwringing over the prestige of their degrees.
My reaction is different. I see the prospect of a university, preferably with a new name, as a chance for South Jersey to make its mark.
Business-wise, this is a no-brainer. A large, integrated research university south of Exit 9 can get more grants, create biomedical and technology jobs, and train much needed medical specialists in what is already one of the centers for healthcare in the U.S. If what happened at Penn is any indication, those dollars eventually spill over into other areas and programs.
We’re also talking about logical partnerships as opposed to ones in name only. Alongside Newark, Camden depends on New Brunswick for its existence. The needs of the main campus “always takes precedence,” Stephen J. Diner, Rutgers-Newark’s former Chancellor, writes in the Star-Ledger. Construction, academics, tenure decisions, all come to Piscataway for sign-offs. Rutgers is the only doctoral-granting institution that doesn’t have one president per college. This mothership model is no way to run a university, let alone a mid-sized college.
The formation of a South Jersey college consortium, the alternative put forth by Rutgers faculty, is a fine idea, but promises nowhere near the same transformative power. Cross-listed classes and shared technology does not add up to a great university.
It’s no secret Camdenites feel disconnected from Raritan’s banks. “[W]e’re not really affiliated with New Brunswick to begin with,” one student said in a Rutgers-Camden’s Gleaner story on Charter Day celebrations. “[P]eople say that if you’re from New Brunswick, you’re part of Rutgers,” said another, and “if not, then you’re not from Rutgers.” To celebrate New Brunswick’s birthday in Camden is like holding a royal wedding party on the Falkland Islands.
And then there’s Camden. As one of the first to live in the dorms that debuted in 1986, I was part of an experiment to see if students would actually live in the city. We did, and prospered there. We shopped at the Campbell’s store, visited Walt Whitman’s house, and skateboarded under the Ben Franklin Bridge. We got a world-class education, but Camden’s appeal goes well beyond classrooms.
Some see Camden ‘crumbling into non-existence,’ post-Rutgers, as one anti-merger quips on Facebook. (“Rutgers Leaves, Camden Bleeds” reads another sign.) Evidence on the ground tells a different story. Cooper University Hospital’s enhanced status and Rowan’s expansion already has tangible effects, all blocks away from Rutgers. A University of South Jersey could play a greater role revitalizing Camden.
What’s in a name? Go outside the Garden State and mention you’re a Rutgers alum, and chances are you will experience campus confusion. “So, how did you like living in New Brunswick?” someone inevitably asks. Or talk about one of the many colleges clustered around the Raritan River. Perhaps we should follow in Armitage’s footsteps and see where it leads us, whichever the name. One thing is for sure: this Norcross guy should pay for a food court and a really big student center.
Daniel Nester (Rutgers-Camden 1991), is an associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.