Assembly lawmakers want to keep the ball rolling on merger

TRENTON – Assembly lawmakers say amendments to the hotly-debated higher education merger are expected to keep the ball rolling on the restructuring plan.

The Assembly Budget Committee is taking testimony on the merger after meeting behind closed doors to amend the Rutgers and Rowan universities restructuring bill. The hearing was delayed several hours.

“We wanted to make sure that the ball kept rolling,” said Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, (D-32), the committee’s chairman. “The more we push it off, the further it gets away.”

Prieto announced committee members would take testimony from stakeholders before introducing the amendments, which he said were still being worked on by the Office of Legislative Services.

Dudley Rivers, vice chairman of the Rutgers Board of Trustees, told Assembly lawmakers some issues surrounding governance and university finances still need to be hashed out.

“Simply put, Rutgers must control its own debt (and) preserve its autonomy,” said Rivers, adding the merger could “be a once in a lifetime opportunity we should not let slip away.”

Rivers’ testimony came after comments from Dr. Denise Rodgers, president of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, who asked the committee to send the School of Osteopathic Medicine to Rutgers along with other medical programs.

Both Rivers and Rodgers expressed a willingness to support the merger proposal pending approval of the amendments, though Rivers still expressed some concerns over “substantial and significant cost” of the merger, and uncertainty over a final dollar amount.

More than 30 UMDNJ students also attended the committee hearing to oppose the legislation.

The students expressed additional concerns over the uncertainty of the cost and lobbied lawmakers to merge the School of Osteopathic Medicine with Rutgers, not Rowan.

However, they voiced serious reservations that the proposal could affect the school’s accreditation, which Assembly lawmakers assured them would be specifically addressed in the amendments.

“This is not undoable,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, (D-3), adding, “And if it is undoable, it’s not going to happen.”

Prieto said the committee will likely take another recess before introducing the amendments.

Assembly lawmakers want to keep the ball rolling on merger