In Camden, it’s takeover all over again

 

The same forces that orchestrated the state takeover of Camden in 2002 are behind the current plan to create a major research university  through the merger of Rutgers-Camden into Rowan: South Jersey Democrats headed by George E. Norcross.  Just as the municipal recovery legislation garnered grand promises of Camden’s revitalization, so too this latest effort to assemble assets has been cited as the key to Camden’s recovery.  And the same public narrative can be expected to ensue: first protest, then litigation, and finally Camden still struggling to survive on an uneven playing field.

The connection between the current controversy and the state takeover has been brought to mind in recent days with the passing of Randy Primas, Camden’s first African-American mayor and the state-appointed chief operating officer from 2002 until 2005.  As mayor, Primas had to accept a number of devil’s bargains in order to balance his budget: first a prison on prime waterfront property in the heart of the North Camden neighborhood, then a trash-to-steam plant that fouled the environment for residents of the Waterfront South and Fairview neighborhoods.  He also supported another state prison slated for North Camden and would have seen it in place had he not been appointed state commissioner of community affairs. Without his support, the plan withered before intense neighborhood opposition.

Years later, when he returned to Camden as chief operating officer, the shoe was on the other foot.  Now he was proposing externally-devised plans for Camden neighborhoods, most notably Cramer Hill, that generated their own intense opposition.  The effort to remake much of Cramer Hill in favor of  upscale commercial and residential structures shielded by a golf course slated to replace an abandoned landfill failed when the courts ruled the plan invalid for technical reasons. Although a new, community-based plan followed, it is yet to be acted upon.  Even with substantial funds made available under the municipal recovery legislation,  the takeover did little to improve living conditions in the city.

Instead, the takeover boosted the city’s anchor institutions, its “eds” and “meds”  as well as Adventure Aquarium, which not only privatized but also used a $25 million state investment to expand.  Market-rate housing on the waterfront that was promised as part of the return for privatization has yet to materialize. Clearly the municipal recovery intended for Camden was incomplete at best.

Now, we hear a similar story claiming grand returns for Camden should Rutgers-Camden be folded into Rowan.  In essays under his name in  the Courier-Post and the Inquirer, Norcross described the latest takeover as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”  State Senate President Steve Sweeney, working from the same playbook, used similar language in a subsequent essay.  A two and a half page, front page article describing Norcross’ vision for the city appeared in the Courier-PostFebruary 12th and was subsequently reprinted by at least one other Gannett outlet in the state.

It’s a seductive image, but an illusionary one.  Like Primas when he was mayor, Rutgers is being offered a devil’s bargain:  give up the Camden campus in order to acquire a medical school in New Brunswick.  If the governor manages to execute the plan by executive order, as he has signaled, there is nothing he or a future governor can’t do to compromise Rutgers’ integrity.   In the meantime, what will be the effect in Camden?

Proponents of the merger are quite right about higher education being underfunded in South Jersey.  So they have a case to make for greater equity for South Jersey. Where that money would be directed, however, is critical.   Sweeney asks that the public be patient and await details that were not provided in the Barer report.  But enough information has already come out to make clear what is intended.  Just as in the state takeover, the primary beneficiaries are to be those behind the effort, in this case Cooper Hospital and Rowan University.  Rowan’s own website indicates that a primary source of revenue will be tuition earned in Camden.  In their words, “administrators anticipate that a portion of the cost [for new programs] will come from funds that are no longer sent from the Rutgers-Camden campus to support Rutgers-New Brunswick operations.”   Just as significantly, Rutgers-Camden business professor Gene Pilotte demonstrates how important the acquisition of the Rutgers-Camden campus is to improving Rowan’s bond rating.  Cooper Hospital’s John Sheridan  dismisses Pilotte’s analysis as “off the mark,” without offering any evidence to the contrary. Instead, he seems to have inside knowledge that Governor Christie is  prepared to discard Rutgers’ legislative history as an autonomous institution  and seal the merger by executive action as though Rutgers were, in Sheridan’s words, a state agency.

So this is how politics plays out in New Jersey. Raw power masquerades as benevolence. Desirable ends are stated without acknowledging behind-the-scenes deals that lack accountability.  If there’s any doubt what will happen if current plans are executed, one need look only at the presumed object of reform in the Barer report itself: UMDNJ. Once that university was opened up to political influence through its governing board, the institution nearly sank in a patronage scandal.  One shouldn’t forget that one of the chief victims of that fallout was State Senator Wayne Bryant, the chief architect of the municipal recovery legislation who subsequently was convicted for taking a non-show position at UMDNJ’s facility in Stratford.

Primas, Bryant, and Norcross: they played the key roles in the state takeover of Camden.  Primas and Bryant are no longer factors, but there’s no doubt who remains out front on the Rutgers takeover.  George Norcross has a case to make for his hospital and for South Jersey, but not at the expense of Rutgers-Camden.   The city needs a vibrant Rutgers campus, not the shell of an institution whose assets are being appropriated for another institution’s benefit.  As in so many instances, behind  the rhetoric, there’s a lot of money at stake, and nothing about the Barer report or the process that created it has spelled out who is to pay and who is to benefit. As those details come out, you can be assured that behind the mask of “equity,” lies another, much darker story.

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