New Jersey's universities need a hero

Posted: June 22, 2012

When I testified before a state Senate committee in Trenton this week, I wore my Batman tie. I did so in honor of the sponsors of a higher-education restructuring bill, who had at last emerged from their cave.

After decades of development, endless rounds of engagement with stakeholders, and a couple of all-nighters last weekend, Sens. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex) stepped into the daylight to announce the price of the most complex reorganization of Rutgers, Rowan, and other New Jersey universities in 50 years.

The answer? Practically nothing.

That's right: This 100-page plan won't cost a dime. Heck, with all the efficiencies they found lying around, the sponsors suggested, we'll actually make money! They did not explain how, though, and it was only under persistent questioning that anyone would admit these may not have been official estimates.

It seems Senate Bill 2063 is the legislative equivalent of an invisible plane, with no wings or engine in sight — just hope. Maybe I should have worn my Wonder Woman tie.

Is this how public policy is made in New Jersey? It would have been bad enough if anyone on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee actually appeared to trust the sponsors' assertion that the bill would pay for itself — just days after they were unable to offer any estimate whatsoever. It was worse still to see the bill waved through the committee even though no one in the room seemed to believe them.

Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) certainly didn't. He seemed exasperated and incredulous that the sponsors — who presumably didn't want to embarrass him while asking him to look the other way for the team — gave him so little to work with. I like Sarlo, and I would like to think that, deep down, he wants to take some of his own questions seriously. But he couldn't have.

That was a theme yesterday, and indeed at every hearing on this bill, which is scheduled for a vote by the full Senate today. Senators and representatives ask questions, often good ones, but they ignore the answers. That's because everyone already knows the answer.

Pique and parochialism

Here's another question everyone knows the answer to: How many independent education experts have testified in favor of dismantling Rutgers to "save" higher education in New Jersey? The answer, of course, is none.

Proponents of the legislation have taken their predetermined solution — merging Rutgers-Camden with Rowan — and claimed that it solves nearly every conceivable problem. New Jersey isn't spending enough on higher education? Somehow, this will make it spend more. Too many students leave New Jersey to attend college elsewhere? This will fix that, too. How exactly isn't clear; the merger, in one form or another, is a solution with a universal adapter on it.

This plan to dismantle our prized system of higher education in the name of personal pique and parochialism threatens more than just Rutgers. It undermines the very idea of an academy that is accountable to the people but free from the dominion of persons.

Politicians often talk about the importance of sending the right signals about the state's priorities. Is this a good state to do business in? Does it educate its citizens well? That's the kind of reputation a state wants to have.

But New Jersey's farcical political process is sending a different message. Rushing this untested, unwanted, unconstitutional, and unaffordable bill through the Legislature unmistakably confirms what every New Jerseyan already suspects: This state isn't serious.

Dwindling spoils

New Jersey could be a player on the world stage in education or anything else. Instead, it will content itself with divvying up dwindling spoils.

Why is that good enough for New Jersey? Because too many of the state's politicians, like Sen. Sarlo, don't believe in the state or themselves.

In this kind of soil, the research culture that could propel New Jersey forward cannot take root. Merger enthusiasts who seek only to reap without toil will get the buildings of a university campus — or two campuses, actually, since Rowan is also being "saved" from itself against its will. But they will destroy what makes a great university system work for all the citizens of the state and beyond, not just for a powerful few.

They won't get the chance. You see, Rutgers does believe in itself and its commitment to the people of New Jersey. This bill is flatly unconstitutional, and the university just hired one of the best attorneys in the country to argue its case.

A few years ago, he beat President George W. Bush and the Pentagon. Just think about what he'll do to a law built with baling wire and duct tape.

Next time I testify, I might wear my Superman tie.

Adam F. Scales is a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Camden.

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