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Time To Revisit Plan To Merge Universities

Now that the era of scandal and corruption is on its way out at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, it’s time to think again about the benefits that a merger of UMDNJ and Rutgers University could bring to our state.

The playing field has changed substantially since 2002, when a commission led by former Merck CEO P. Roy Vagelos first recommended the consolidation of UMDNJ, Rutgers and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

No one today, for instance, would be able to keep a straight face if they heard a UMDNJ vice president had dismissed the merger suggestion on grounds that “nothing needs to be fixed” at the medical center.

With a federal monitor keeping criminal charges from the U.S. Attorney’s office at bay, the status quo at UMDNJ, exposed over the past year as a culture of extravagance, hardly seems acceptable.

In fact, the status quo prevented us from seeing rampant mismanagement and corruption at what should be an institution leading the nation in healthcare research and education.

With new leadership coming on board at UMDNJ and a rising sense of pride in Rutgers, it’s time to dust off the Vagelos report and create a single, statewide research university.

I believe political leaders throughout New Jersey will back Gov. Jon Corzine’s reform efforts in many areas if he leads boldly, seizing the moment to stop the bleeding at UMDNJ and to make New Jersey an acknowledged leader in the healthcare field.

Of course, the governor will need help. What’s needed is a collective will to bring together the best in education at Rutgers with the best in healthcare research at UMDNJ and the best in technology at NJIT.

New Jersey prides itself as the “Medicine Chest to the World” for being home to the pharmaceutical giants of America. With a merger, we can guarantee these companies that our university graduates will come to them fully prepared for careers in biology, pharmacology, chemistry and medicine. We can also enrich the experiences of students in other disciplines, by giving them the chance to sample the best of a cutting-edge science curriculum.

The Vagelos report found that the quality of education at Rutgers was good overall and excellent in several specific areas. A U.S. News & World Report survey placed Rutgers among the nation’s top universities in chemistry, pharmacy, library science, drama, applied mathematics, services for children and youth, and both African-American and women’s history.

But the Vagelos report also found evidence in interviews with faculty and administrators that the school’s “true academic quality and future potential” would be enhanced by the addition of a medical school and other health schools. I agree.

Four years ago, the merger proposal was killed by loyalists at each institution, and especially by those who didn’t want anyone looking too closely at the underbelly of UMDNJ. (Now we know why.) But the scandals at UMDNJ can be the catalyst for moving New Jersey forward.

Some may question the cost of a merger, but money doesn’t have to be an issue. The bulk of the costs cited four years ago were based on new and expanded programs that are not necessary for the merger to be successful.

Some also may challenge my belief that we can overcome the obstacles, both governmental and institutional, and create one great institution out of three good ones — or, in the case of UMDNJ, not so good.

But I have spoken to political leaders, both Democratic and Republican, who want to give it a shot. New Jersey deserves the best, and being the best is never easy. But it’s always better to seek excellence than to settle for less.

We shouldn’t settle for anything less than the best state university in the nation, and that can only be achieved by a merger. So let’s get to work.

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, who represents the 20th Legislative District, is a graduate of Rutgers University.