Rutgers trustees to fight Sweeney plan to abolish board

Posted: June 28, 2013

The Rutgers University Board of Trustees will file for a permanent injunction to block the application of legislation proposed by State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) that would abolish the board, the trustees announced Wednesday.

The trustees spent three hours in closed session at an emergency meeting that began shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday, followed by an open session where they adopted the resolution announcing their intent to take the issue to court should the bill pass.

"This legislation is unconscionable and unconstitutional," the trustees said in a statement.

"The legislation is wrong for Rutgers, wrong for higher education, and wrong for the State of New Jersey. If this legislation is enacted, Rutgers will take legal action to overturn it, and we are confident that we will prevail," the statement reads.

The bill, introduced Monday, "eliminates the board of trustees of Rutgers University and provides that its powers will be exercised by the board of governors of the university," according to its synopsis. If it is passed, the board of governors will also be appointed entirely by New Jersey's governor, "with the advice and consent of the Senate."

The bill (and a corresponding measure in the Assembly) could be put to a vote as early as Thursday.

The current 11-member board of governors, set to expand to 15, is made up in part by gubernatorial appointees and by members elected from within the board of trustees. That board handles most governance of the university, including setting tuition. The 59-member board of trustees, first established in 1766, serves largely in an advisory capacity, along with holding fiduciary responsibility for some university properties.

Under the proposed legislation, only the 15-member board of governors, composed entirely of political appointees, would survive.

Sweeney's move comes a year after the trustees threatened legal action as they fought a proposed merger that would have transferred Rutgers-Camden to Rowan University, leaving Rutgers University no footprint in South Jersey.

He has said that the university's two-board governance structure "is outdated and doesn't work," though he has not cited specific examples.

Sweeney could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Several trustees expressed confusion Wednesday at the move and its reasoning. The university is set for its merger with most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a major transition set for Monday that has been hailed as the largest of its kind for an institution of higher education.

"He throws it out right before the merger?" one trustee said of Sweeney's legislation. "Does he not care about the medical school and the cancer institute and stuff merging in and getting it done right? I don't get it."

The trustee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue, said having two governing boards is a concept that still made sense.

"Well, OK. You have two houses of the legislature; sometimes they disagree. That's good," the trustee said. "You don't want a rubber stamp sometimes."

Several other trustees expressed similar outrage and said they were prepared for a legal battle if one is necessary.

A letter sent to members of the Legislature and released to the media Wednesday evening echoed that sentiment. In it, Ronald K. Chen, acting dean of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, and Robert F. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, describe the school's governance structure as derived from a contract between the board of trustees and the state.

That structure, built on a contract, has been protected before, Williams said in an interview.

"The 1956 Rutgers compact was no ordinary law, it's a contract. It happens that the United States Constitution says no state may impair the obligation of contract - or, in effect, breach a contract," Williams said. "The New Jersey Constitution says the same thing."

 The board has retained outside legal counsel, prominent constitutional lawyer Neal Katyal, who has served as acting U.S. solicitor general. Katyal could not be reached for comment, though several trustees and a university spokesman confirmed his retention as counsel.

Williams is not on the board of trustees and does not serve as legal counsel to the university, but cowrote the letter because of the dangers the proposed legislation poses for academic freedom, he said.

The professors are "a part of the university that as of now has protection from political interference because of the board of trustees," Williams said. "And that's a big deal for professors, particularly law professors, who get involved in controversial stuff."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @elaijuh.

 

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