By Patricia Alex, staff writer, The Record
TRENTON — State officials long insisted that the cost of the huge Rutgers medical school merger would not be borne by students, but the university president conceded on Wednesday that those expenses made it difficult to avoid tuition increases.
“Fifty million dollars would go a long way in keeping the cost of tuition down,” said President Robert Barchi, referring to the total that has been spent to date on the reorganization.
Barchi spoke at an Assembly budget hearing in Trenton, where school leaders grappled with declining state support that has contributed to making New Jersey’s public colleges and universities among the most expensive in the nation.
Rutgers absorbed the bulk of the debt-laden University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 2013 in one of the largest academic mergers ever. The move — pushed by Governor Christie and approved by the Legislature — increased the size, scope and prestige of the state university. But it came with costs — mostly for such professional services as legal work and bond refinancing.
Barchi said it would be a couple of years before Rutgers was clear of those expenses, with an estimated $17 million to $25 million more to be spent on the move.
Barchi called the costs an “unfunded mandate” and, in response to a question about what efforts were made to prevent tuition increases, told legislators that he might have been able to keep tuition flat without the merger expenses.
In the run-up to the merger, Rutgers insisted — and Christie assured the public — that the move wouldn’t affect tuition and that other budget adjustments would be made to accommodate the costs.
“The commitment that President Barchi made to me and made to the Legislature was that those costs would be paid for |out of savings at the university and not out of higher tuition or more money from the state,” the governor said on a call-in radio show in 2013. “The fact is that |if you’re a manager who will |now be running a $4 billion company and you can’t find $70 million in savings somewhere, then you’re not very much of a manager, and he is a very good manager.”
But after the hearing on Wednesday, Barchi said that “everything we’ve done to reduce costs is eaten up by the $50 million” and said that money could have helped keep tuition down.
However, when reminded about the pre-merger promises, he insisted that the $50 million cost had not been passed on to students. And he noted that Rutgers tuition increases had been in the 2 percent range for the past few years, a rate he said is low.
Rutgers students have complained for years about the cumulative effects of increases that have pushed tuition and fees over $13,000 at the flagship campus.
“Every semester that I’ve been at New Brunswick, my tuition has seen an increase,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, a senior from Newark. “I’m not sure if it’s attributable to the merger or what.”
The squeeze is not expected to improve under the Christie administration’s proposed $1.5 billion higher education budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. The total is an overall decrease of about 1.2 percent, according to the state’s Office of Legislative Services.