The biggest threat to the integrity of Rutgers University has nothing to do with its basketball program. The most shameful scandal involving the university isn’t whether its president, Robert Barchi, did or did not look at a video or properly vet a new athletic director. Rutgers is in deep trouble because the governor of the state, abetted by political bosses, is out to seek revenge.
Gov. Chris Christie is out for revenge because, a year ago, the university’s trustees had the courage to stand up to the bully-boy governor and refuse to go along with his plan to ensure a regular revenue stream to institutions favored by the political boss of Camden County, George Norcross. The governor, accustomed to obsequious fawning from everyone around him, got a black eye from a group of men and women whose allegiance was to something other than Christie for President 2016. The Rutgers trustees.
Now, Christie’s surrogate, Steve Sweeney, a creature of the Norcross machine, is trying to subvert both the university’s governance and also the democratic process by pushing for a bill that would eliminate the trustee board. Christie has openly supported Sweeney’s move and the tactics that threaten to make the New Jersey Legislature look about as independent as North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly on a good day.
Christie says Rutgers’ governance is “confusing” and needs to be “streamlined.” Sweeney says it is “cumbersome.’’ Many might remember both Christie and Sweeney last year endorsed a plan for running Rutgers and Rowan that would create nearly a score of committees and panels to run the universities.
“Sweeney’s intentions are transparent,’’ says Linda Stamato, who once led both the university’s trustees and its board of governors. “The plan is to place the governance of the university totally in the hands of political appointees who serve on the board of governors.’’
“Last year, the trustee board was a voice of reason and acted to protect the integrity of Rutgers as the state university of New Jersey in the face of significant political pressure,’’ says Stamato, who also served on the now defunct state Board of Higher Education.
Stamato calls the effort an “unseemly, unconscionable move, an overt political power play’’ engineered by the “good old boys in the State House and the Legislature.’’
Let’s remember what happened last year. Norcross wanted Rutgers-Camden taken away from the state university and made part of Rowan University. The Cooper Medical School, established when a different man with different debts to Norcross was governor, would become part of this new Rowan—a school once known as Glassboro State College, a teacher training school. No studies were done to determine whether New Jersey needed or could afford a new medical school or a new university.
The Rutgers trustees said no to the university’s dismemberment, despite Christie’s insistence and his typical name-calling tactics. (Remember he called an Iraqi vet a “jerk” and an “idiot” for disagreeing with him about Rutgers?) You cross Chris Christie at your peril. Inevitably, he would have his revenge on the trustees and here it is.
So, the Legislature won’t hold hearings. Sweeney will just force this bill through and the one-party junta that increasingly runs New Jersey policy will demonstrate it is bigger and tougher than all of us, tougher than democracy itself.
And the attack on Rutgers comes in a bad time. The absurd public hanging of Robert Barchi for the basketball “scandal” has weakened him. He may believe he owes his job to the kindness of strangers like Chris Christie and Steve Sweeney and may not feel strong enough to stand up to the bullies. It’s not at all clear that the newly reconstituted Board of Governors—which starts its work today—has the political courage to stand up to the governor and legislative leaders who appoint the majority of its members.
So, it’s up to the trustees again to demonstrate its courage in the face of dictatorial tactics from the Bully Who Would Be President and his cheerleaders in the Democratic leadership.