Can one man–ok, three–decide the future of Rutgers?

Stephen Sweeney, the New Jersey Senate president, deserves some sort of recognition for serving as the poodle to both a Democratic political boss, George Norcross, and a Republican governor, Chris Christie. He best illustrates this when he deals with issues involving Rutgers University—most recently, his attempt to force the elimination of the Rutgers trustee board without bothering to hear anyone’s opinion but his own and those holding his leash.


Followed by my answers to him, here is the text (in italics) of an op-ed he published in The Star-Ledger defending his position:

With the restructuring of our higher education landscape now complete, Rutgers University is poised to become one of the nation’s leading research universities, as it should be. But the work is not done. Rutgers will not become the institution we believe it can be by accident, or on its own. It still needs a governance structure that can propel it to the next level.

The New Jersey “higher education landscape” is an unaccountable mess without statewide coordination. It is politically vulnerable, as you are so convincingly proving. Virtually every four-year college pretends to be a university, offering all manner of unnecessary courses, spending all sorts of public money on both buildings that may or not be needed and marketing ploys that still can’t stop New Jersey from exporting its talented young to other states. And this happens while most schools graduate a shamefully small percentage of their admitted students. Rutgers already is “one of the nation’s leading research universities” because it has managed, until now, to avoid the sort of political interference it now faces from the Sweeney-Norcross-Christie axis of political ham-handedness. Want proof of that? Ask how in the world did Norcross get himself his own medical school?

Unlike every other public institution in the state — and the vast majority of research universities nationwide — Rutgers maintains a multileveled bureaucracy with both a 15-member board of governors, which holds the ultimate responsibility for the university’s management, and a 59-member board of trustees, which holds responsibility for, seemingly, its own self-preservation.

Rutgers, of course, is, in fact, unlike any other public institution in the state—let us be grateful for that!– and has become so because of its unique history. Throughout the nation, governing boards of major research universities, public and private, evolved in response to the needs of the institutions and the states they served. Harvard has two boards. Michigan elects its board members. Penn State has 32 governing board members, with only six appointed by the governor. And there is no bureaucracy at Rutgers—multilevel or otherwise– serving its trustee board.

The reality is that while we are trying to make Rutgers a 21st century powerhouse, it is stifled by an unwieldy governing model stuck in the 18th century.

Sorry, Sen. Sweeney, the present governing board model was established in 1956, not the 18th Century. It allowed New Jersey to build a state university on the foundation of a private institution. The trustees owned the property it contracted to allow the state to use. It has fiduciary responsibility to protect the assets the university owned prior to 1956. Any effort to change that arrangement will end up in court and cost New Jersey taxpayers millions to resolve.

The board of trustees is an unnecessary bureaucratic body that has brought only more confusion to the recent scandals that have hurt the school’s image because of the lack of accountability at Rutgers it has created. Moreover, it is largely a self-appointed board; of its 59 members, 48 members are elected by the board of trustees itself. It seems more like a secret college society than a public body.

Again, the board has no bureaucracy. The “recent scandals”? The trustees had absolutely nothing to do with the over-blown, media-hyped “scandals” involving athletics at the university. You want scandals? Find out what Christie, when he was the United States Attorney for New Jersey, said about Norcross and what the current governor did—or did not—do about it.

Just what, Mr. Sweeney, has any trustee done to “hurt the school’s image”? Name him or her—and name the act. Then ask yourself what your bloviating about Rutgers has done to hurt its image—and, possibly, its bond rating.

Throughout its history, Rutgers University has been a profit center at the expense of students at Rutgers’ campuses in Newark and Camden. That inequity is something that our restructuring effort has sought to correct. Students at Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden are more empowered today despite the board of trustees’ efforts to undermine the status quo at every turn.

What? The university a profit center? What profits? You must be thinking of Norcross’s business ventures. I understand you might confuse those with the public welfare. And the trustees haven’t tried to “undermine the status quo”—you and your minders have.

We need to take the next step to modernize and streamline Rutgers’ governance by eliminating the board of trustees and placing full and total responsibility and accountability with its publicly appointed board of governors. The newly reformed board of governors should be subject to stronger conflict-of-interest policies and be subject to full financial disclosure.

Why not be honest and change the phrase “publicly appointed” to “politically appointed”? That’s what you mean. And let’s have “full financial disclosure” about private, unelected political bosses who control public people and policy—like George Norcross. Now, wouldn’t that be fun?

With a budget of more than $2.2 billion, we must eliminate every bit of waste from our state’s flagship public university. When decisions are made, we must know exactly where they come from and who is responsible. A board of governors appointed by the governor and accountable to the state’s taxpayers must be that vehicle.

But, hey, Sen. Sweeney, how come when you make decisions, the people of New Jersey are not allowed to know “exactly where they come from and who is responsible”? Why did you try to do this without any consultation at all? You will be wasting money when the inevitable court fight starts.

Appointments to the board of governors go through the same process as selecting members to the Supreme Court, the College of New Jersey’s board of trustees and countless other boards and commissions that operate effectively and ethically throughout the state.

See how well that turned out. New Jersey once had one of the great, most politically independent, supreme courts in the United States. Now we’ve got a governor who doesn’t even hide his desire to craft the court in his own ideological image.

When things go wrong at Rutgers, as they have in a few instances over the past several weeks and months, fingers are pointed in a thousand directions as to who can do what to solve the issue. That must end. The board of governors is more than capable of picking up the duties assigned to the trustees. The school does not need dozens upon dozens of people sitting in the periphery to be part of the decision making process.

I am sorry—I can’t even understand this. The only things that went wrong at Rutgers over the past several weeks were the media hanging of Rutgers President Robert Barchi and your efforts to end the independence of the university. The trustees had nothing to do with either.

As I have said on countless occasions, New Jersey suffers from way too much government. This is exactly the same situation Rutgers is currently in. It is time to eliminate redundant leadership positions to ensure a smoother, more efficiently run university. Simply because something has existed for centuries does not mean it is a good idea.

No, New Jersey suffers from way too many efforts by a small junta of politically powerful men to control and corrupt institutions—like Rutgers– that need protection from meretricious politics. Speaking about something that’s lasted for centuries, you might want to read the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1813 decision in the Dartmouth College Case before you waste public money getting revenge for the trustees’ refusal to bow to your masters.

  1. On page 3 of last Sunday’s Star-Ledger, Steve Sweeney is quoted in large print expressing his opinion that the Republicans in the state legislature are under Governor Christie’s thumb. On page 4 Sweeney opines that a Rutgers board of governors appointed by Christie with legislative approval would be fine. If Christie were to win reelection by a wide enough margin he might sweep Republicans into control of the legislature – his own great big personal rubber stamp – and create a Rutgers board of governors top heavy with his cronies.

    1. A former student of yours strongly agrees with you. Hope all is well with you. It is terrible to see what Christie, Norcross, et al are doing to Rutgers, although I am far more disturbed by the degree to which the school has been investing in athletics at the expense of academics since I was there, when its academics were top notch and its athletics were terrible.

      I can only imagine how much worse things will get if these hyperpoliticizing morons get their way. They will start trading political favors for donations to the football team and/or prime seats to football games for campaign contributors. There are no depths to which these corrupt bastards will not go to leech everything that they can out of everything that they control.

    2. Sadly, the Republicans do not need to win the Senate to establish political control over Rutgers. With Sweeney and Norcross, nominal democrats, on his side, Gov. Christie is already very close to that noxious goal.

  2. I agree with this piece fully and have written directly to my state reps accordingly…and with warnings not to support it. Rutgers alumni stepped up with over 10k letters of the same sort within 24hrs of the news that Sweeney was trying to run this legislation through. We have spoken, and will continue to do so. Universities have enough politics of their own. We don’t need to add governmental (and I stress “mental”) politics to the mix!

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