Those who were around at the time of the largest higher education merger in U.S. history — the one in which nine University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey schools and institutes were legally integrated to create the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences program — may remember what was seemingly a minor objection at the time: What would happen to the acronym that oddly had become so beloved to so many: UMDNJ?
Now, 10 years later, those letters have long been forgotten by most.
Perhaps it’s because the merger — which promised to help make Rutgers University a “powerhouse” in higher education and medicine — seemingly has done just that.
One decade later, the outcome has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. At least, that’s the take of so many involved.
Chris Molloy, the former dean of the Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy who oversaw the integration of the two schools — and the person who has been in so many aspects of Rutgers in the past 40 years, summed it up this way.
“Bringing UMDNJ and Rutgers together is the accomplishment I am most proud of during my time at this university,” he said. “It was a very heavy lift, with many challenges. But the results speak for themselves.”
Denise Rodgers, vice chancellor of interprofessional programs at RBHS and the final president of UMDNJ, agreed.
“Rutgers is much stronger because of the integration,” she said. “There have been some very important programs developed and others strengthened by building upon the natural synergies that existed in the two institutions.”
Integrating UMDNJ’s schools with Rutgers was a feat of administrative perseverance. Overnight, Rutgers grew by approximately 6,500 students, 10,000 faculty and staff, and 6.2 million square feet of buildings and land.
To ensure a smooth transition, UMDNJ and Rutgers staff worked for a year after the legislation was signed to ensure no interruptions to student learning, patient care, student financial aid, housing allowances, staff pay and more.
RBHS Chancellor Brian Strom said that work is paying off.
“My goal since arriving at RBHS has been to build one of the best academic health centers in the country, with an emphasis on one,” he said. “We’re succeeding, and the integration with UMDNJ made it possible.”
Actually, it was legislation first introduced by then-Senate President Steve Sweeney and state Sens. Donald Norcross and Joe Vitale — legislation championed by then-Gov. Chris Christie — that made it possible.
Designed to strengthen collaboration opportunities and draw more research funding to the state, the education bill transferred to Rutgers most of the assets of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey — including the medical schools in Newark and New Brunswick.
“Rutgers was already an outstanding institution,” the governor said as he signed into law the New Jersey Medical and Health Science Education Restructuring Act. “Now, it’s going to be a powerhouse.”
The assets were officially integrated July 1, 2013.
The payoff has been evident ever since.
New research support also has found its way to Rutgers. Today, research expenditures top $730 million annually — putting Rutgers among the largest research entities in the U.S. During the last decade, RBHS has brought into Rutgers $3.6 billion in new extramural awards.
These efforts have had a direct impact on the state’s life science economy, BioNJ CEO Debbie Hart said.
“This was, in many ways, the answer to a very specific need in the state’s life sciences ecosystem — the need for increased medical innovation and the benefits that come with it for students, patients and the economy,” she said. “The integration of UMDNJ and Rutgers has delivered, and continues to deliver, significant and meaningful economic results for New Jersey and beyond.”
Some feel the crowning achievement was the award in 2019 of a $29 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health to help translate clinical research into patient care and treatments. Rutgers’ contribution to understanding and ending the COVID-19 pandemic also is a matter of immense pride for Strom and others.
Others point to the rise of life science and bio hubs, including the soon-to-be-built HELIX in downtown New Brunswick — a location that will include a new biomedical sciences building that will house RWJMS and Rutgers translational research programs to facilitate the spinout of new medicines and treatments.
And then, there’s the overall spirit. That’s what Rodgers sees.
“I grew up in Michigan, where there is huge pride in our state universities,” she said. “I want Rutgers to be like that for New Jersey. Rutgers is an outstanding university that should be fully embraced by the people it serves.”
(Editor’s note: This story was produced from the reporting efforts of the communications team at Rutgers University.)