For far too long, medical research and education in New Jersey have fallen short of their potential for greatness.
This is one of the most compelling conclusions in a comprehensive report on the future of higher education in New Jersey.
This visionary report — released recently by Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who chaired the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education — recommends an overhaul of medical research and education across New Jersey.
Some of the ideas in the report — including proposals to consider merging medical training with other higher education institutions in Newark and South Jersey — are complex and deserve careful deliberation.
But one major step toward excellence in medical education can, and should, be implemented immediately — reuniting Rutgers University with Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick and Piscataway.
Why? Because virtually all of the best medical schools in the nation are affiliated with top research universities, attracting the highest levels of funding for research that benefits society and bolsters the local economy. Rutgers already brings more federal research funding to New Jersey than any other university in the state, and more than all of the state’s other public colleges and universities combined. But we must do better.
As the Kean task force argues in its report, “For a state to be great, it must have a great state university . . . For New Jersey’s students to receive the quality of higher education they deserve, and for all our citizens to have the economic future we want, Rutgers must become a great university . . .
Having a medical school would help Rutgers attract top-flight researchers, increase federal research grants, and create exciting interdisciplinary opportunities among Rutgers’ distinguished academic departments.”
Add to those observations the untapped synergy between higher education and the state’s health care industry and the opportunities are clear. Reuniting Rutgers with RWJ Medical School would create an academic powerhouse that would significantly enhance the quality of New Jersey higher education and would benefit residents across the entire state.
Why now? Because Rutgers University and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School already have successfully collaborated for a half-century. Reuniting these world-class institutions can be easily achieved — providing an immediate boost to New Jersey’s national profile in teaching and research, and enabling the state’s leaders to focus their attention on solving higher education’s most chronic problems.
Here’s a little background. The Rutgers Medical School was formed in 1961 and enrolled its first class in 1966. Four years later the medical school was severed from Rutgers and absorbed into what is now the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). The medical school was renamed after Robert Wood Johnson in 1986.
Since then, political pressure has squelched efforts to reorganize UMDNJ and reunify Rutgers with RWJ Medical School.
“The need to reform medical education in New Jersey, and the institutions that serve it, is an important public policy and educational issue that has been discussed for years and left unresolved,” the task force report states. “Resolution of this serious matter for New Jersey is imperative.”
Despite obstacles, Rutgers and the medical school already enjoy a highly productive relationship.
Nine medical school buildings in Piscataway sit on 66 acres of Rutgers-owned property that we lease to UMDNJ. We jointly manage two of the region’s most successful research institutes: the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine and the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. The medical school offers 12 joint programs with Rutgers, leading to advanced degrees in such fields as biomedical engineering, molecular genetics, health care management, and neuroscience.
Fully unifying the medical school’s resources in clinical studies and public health with Rutgers’ engineering and pharmaceutical programs would unleash an economic engine that would benefit many core state industries, including drug development and medical-device manufacturing.
The overhaul of medical education in New Jersey should not overshadow the task force’s other significant proposals — including improved governance for higher education, greater assistance for students in need, and better funding for both the operating budgets and the capital facilities of the state’s public colleges and universities.
But reuniting Rutgers University with RWJMedical School is a critically important place to start.
As the task force concludes: “The question is not whether to act, but when. The answer is now.”
Richard L. McCormick is president of Rutgers University.