Officials disregard history, jump to action
Plagued by the first of a series of economic hardships, the school that would become our own University in 1793 considered merging with the school that would become Princeton University. Though the merger must have been tempting to a cash-strapped Board of Trustees, the measure failed by one vote.
I do not bring this story up merely because I wish to show off my knowledge of University trivia. I mention this little-known historical anecdote because the University once again finds itself at the center of a contentiously debated merger, this time between our sister campus on the Banks of the Old Delaware and Rowan University, a much smaller South Jersey school. The fable of the doomed plan to merge the University and Princeton is useful here because it allows us to put this new plan in perspective: We can argue what the merger would have meant to the centuries-old legacy of the respective universities involved back in the 1790s, but it is clear that the course of the history of higher education in New Jersey would have been dramatically and irredeemably different from what we know today. When talking about combining universities, one is not simply discussing the combination of faculties, facilities or resources. One is discussing the blending of two inherently different cultures, traditions and niches within the N.J. higher educational ecosystem.
I have a stake in the outcome of this plan for a variety of different reasons. As a proud son of this University, I only want what is best for the institution I call home. As a resident of South Jersey, I want to see educational opportunity extended to as many of my neighbors as possible. As a founding member of New Jersey United Students — the statewide student association — I want to see what is best not only for the University, but for the other public colleges and universities in the state as well. And I assure you, with these many — sometimes conflicting — sets of views and experiences, I see no way that the merger as outlined by Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. President Stephen Sweeney is achievable, especially not by the pie-in-the-sky July deadline set by Christie.
It just does not add up. Very little about this deal makes sense. The claims that a merger would bring research dollars into a bleeding Camden are unsupported. The legislators I’ve spoken with about the measure express distress that Christie seems intent on pushing for his office to be in charge of the merger, preventing open debate and dialogue between the officials taxpayers put in place to discuss issues like these. The Barer report — the state document which calls for the merger — does not offer any concrete ideas as to how the plan would work or even why it would be beneficial, and Rowan’s plan to manage the merger is shorter than the average college term paper. This is a case of two very smart and savvy politicos rushing uncharacteristically into battle with guns blaring. Who can blame those New Jerseyans who speculate that there is something rotten in South Jersey — that there is some underhanded deal few of us have been shared on?
Of course, there is a larger issue at hand. There does need to be more attention in Trenton on ways to help students in South Jersey with their college education — after all, as Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and others have argued, the fact that there aren’t enough seats at universities in South Jersey certainly contributes to the state’s so-called “brain drain.” The Kean report, an earlier government report by a commission led by former governor Thomas Kean, known for the positive mark he left on our higher education system, called for more funding for Rutgers-Camden as a way to fix this problem. Whatever the solution appears to be, it’s clear that at this plan’s best, it will cost Rutgers-Camden great programs in the Departments of Law and Early Childhood Education, and at its worst will create an educational black hole in South Jersey. There are problems in the system. These problems do include waste, mismanagement and barriers to educational access. But history tells us to be wary of politicians who propose policy changes and demand no one ask them the tough questions until after the policy is in place. Had the trustees voted differently back in 1793, the home that I know and love would not exist today. I’m glad that they had all the facts to work with at the time. I wish that their heirs could get the same privilege.
John Connelly is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history and political science with a minor in social justice.