GLOUCESTER COUNTY TIMES- April 15, 2012
By Donald Norcross
Special to South Jersey Sunday
The ongoing debate over the future of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University has generated intense concerns and a tremendous amount of speculation, so let me be clear: My focus from the start has been to ensure that the Rutgers University Camden campus remains an integral part of the fabric of South Jersey.
But more broadly, I view the stateâ€™s plans to restructure New Jerseyâ€™s higher education system as a critical opportunity to address long-standing regional imbalances. Universities produce an educated workforce, spur innovation and drive economic growth, so we must seize this moment to position our region for long-term, sustained prosperity.
Our state launched its review of our higher education system with the goal of maximizing New Jerseyâ€™s ability to attract resources, propelling us out of a dismal 47th place nationally and into the top ranks of education. In doing so, Gov. Chris Christie has sought to do what two previous governors have attempted and failed. I applaud the administration and other educational advocates for recognizing the importance of focusing attention on higher education in our state.
This attention has heightened awareness of the historic regional resource disparity, a disparity that must end. Our region is growing, but our higher education resources have not matched that growth. Last year, colleges and universities here in South Jersey received only $69 million in state aid compared to the $648 million for institutions in the northern part of the state. This is a mere 9.5 percent funding for an area that represents nearly 30 percent of the stateâ€™s population. There are three institutions with only 26,000 seats in South Jersey to fulfill the needs of our four-year students. Conversely, there are 27 such colleges in the north, holding over 220,000 seats.
Without options, without support from the state, our students are forced to leave the region to meet their education demands. This can mean leaving the state altogether, taking their tuition dollars with them, and for many, never returning to put their advanced education to use in New Jersey. Now is the time to correct this injustice before it drains all of our regionâ€™s valuable human capital.
To achieve this, Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University must be given the tools to thrive as individual institutions connected by their shared interest in the growth and vitality of our region.
First, Rutgers-Camden must remain in South Jersey. Rutgers-Camden is a key institution in Camden City, home to thousands of alumni and current students. Future students from South Jersey deserve the same opportunity to take advantage of all that Rutgers-Camden University has to offer.
Second, the Camden campus must have autonomy from New Brunswick. Unfortunately, the central administration in New Brunswick has never made the investment in Rutgers-Camden that would allow the campus to realize its full potential. To correct this, Rutgers-Camden must be granted the autonomy to finally take control of its own destiny while retaining the linkages and the high standards that Rutgers University has developed for students and faculty.
Third, it must develop strategic partnerships and connections with Rowan University that open both to national research capabilities.
These two great South Jersey institutions should collaborate in ways that complement their strengths and benefit their students, the region and New Jersey as a whole.
Plans are progressing to expand the RiverLine, South Jerseyâ€™s light-rail transit system, to connect the Rowan campus at Glassboro to Camden, creating a research corridor that can transform our economy around the anchors of two thriving academic institutions. We cannot afford to let this moment pass, to let the goal of creating a stronger higher education system in New Jersey fail for a third time.
I have met with students, alumni, faculty, residents, business-owners, and fellow legislators repeatedly in public hearings and events to discuss their concerns and to advocate for a plan that fully respects and responds to the needs of our region. Let us come together and use this opportunity to bridge the regional gap and to strengthen higher education in the State of New Jersey.
State Sen. Donald Norcross, a Democrat, represents the 5th Legislative District in Camden and Gloucester counties.