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Newark Mayor Cory Booker vowed Tuesday to "consider every option" — from lawsuits to legislative action — to "trip up" the plan that dismantles the city-based University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
Booker voiced his strongest opposition yet to the proposal unveiled by Governor Christie late last month that would reorder public higher education in the New Jersey.
"We want to see if we can prevent what I think would be the undermining of my city," Booker, a Democrat, said during a meeting with the Editorial Board of The Record.
"I will consider every option to defend critical assets for Newark," he said.
The plan — drafted by a panel appointed by the Republican governor — would split the beleaguered UMDNJ in Newark and replace it with a smaller health sciences university. Overall, the restructuring would shift power and resources from Newark to central and south Jersey.
"It's really problematic for this region of New Jersey," Booker said.
The governor's office declined to respond to Booker's comments.
Rutgers University in New Brunswick/Piscataway would get some of the strongest pieces of UMDNJ, including the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
But under the plan, Rutgers' Camden campus would be absorbed by Rowan University, which is building a medical school at Cooper University Hospital in that city. It is thought the move — opposed by many at Rutgers — would catapult Rowan to become a large research university, like Rutgers.
Booker said the teaching hospitals in New Brunswick and Camden would each have the advantage of affiliation with a large research university, while UMDNJ's University Hospital in Newark would be attached to a much smaller health sciences university that would be at a loss to compete with the others for faculty, grants and students.
The mayor and others have said they have concern for the viability of University Hospital, which, under the plan, would seek a private management partner. The hospital is the largest charity care provider in the state and an anchor in Newark.
"I'm deeply upset and suspicious about what's going on in higher education" and how it would affect northern New Jersey and University hospital.
"We have no faith, especially the way we've seen Newark treated in the past," Booker said.
The governor's office has said most of the plan could be accomplished by executive order but legislative hearings are scheduled.
Opponents are marshaling against many parts of the plan and more questions have been raised about its cost, both in money and jobs. The task force set no price for the plan, but some informal estimates range into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"It's very clear to me they don't have a detailed plan, and I think there are a lot of hurdles," Booker said.
Last week U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, sent a letter to Christie expressing similar concerns about the plan and asking for more information. Christie's office also declined to comment then.
The Democratic mayor and the GOP governor have had a generally cordial working relationship, collaborating, for instance on education initiatives in Newark. But it was clear that the UMDNJ proposal was a strain.
Booker said he'd been "kept in the dark," receiving no heads up or few details about the plan. Newark leaders, including himself and state Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, met with Christie's representatives to discuss the plan last week, Booker said. "We do not see how this works," he said of the plan. "They've created an unlevel playing field."