Kevin Riordan: Sweeney's vision for Rutgers trustees: Hold off

Posted: July 05, 2013

New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney insists that scrapping Rutgers' board of trustees would bolster the independence of the state university, including its Camden campus.

"It's an antiquated system of governance," the Gloucester County Democrat told me Wednesday, suggesting the current structure - Rutgers has separate boards of trustees and governors - is a relic of history.

"Just because something's been around for 250 years doesn't mean it's warranted," he said, dismissing the board as "a bunch of rich people . . . whose views are sometimes driven more by self-importance than by what's best for the school."

The trustees "can be a foundation board," he added. "Let them raise money."

Sweeney's under-the-radar proposal to eliminate the trustees, retain the governors, and change the appointment procedure for a third board overseeing Rutgers-Camden became public June 24.

While the bill has yet to get anywhere in the legislature - Deputy Assembly Speaker John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex) wants a study of the university's governance first - Sweeney has reignited concerns about Rutgers-Camden's autonomy.

About 60 alumni gathered Tuesday at a Cherry Hill restaurant for a dinner and rally against Sweeney's measure, which Rutgers-Camden law professor Robert F. Williams likened to "a heart amputation . . . [that] would make us not a real university."

Williams was among several speakers warning that abolition of the trustees board could pave the way for a merger of Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University, as Gov. Christie sought in 2012 with the support of Sweeney and other South Jersey Democrats.

That shotgun marriage was ill-conceived at best. And it inspired a grassroots revolt in South Jersey and opposition from, you guessed it, Rutgers' board of trustees.

Thus, the notion of merging the two very different campuses under the Rowan banner was dropped from the higher-education restructuring bill. That measure was approved last year, and this week, it provided for absorption of the University of Medicine and Dentistry by Rutgers and Rowan.

Sweeney told me his bill "has nothing to do with" any merger of Rowan and Rutgers-Camden.

"There's no move, there's no interest - you can quote me on that, I'll stand on that statement - there's no move to do anything with Rutgers-Camden and Rowan," he said. "This isn't an attack on the independence of the university. I feel it's the opposite."

The Camden and Newark campuses ought to be treated as "equal partners, not stepchildren" by Rutgers' historically dominant flagship in New Brunswick, said Sweeney, who supported the inclusion in the latest state budget of separate line items for the campuses.

Nevertheless, alumni and faculty at Tuesday's spirited gathering took home "Save Rutgers" lawn signs. They also were urged to write Christie and their legislators.

"This speaks to our passion and our loyalty," Charles Ivory said, adding that Trenton "grossly underestimated" the depth of public antipathy to the 2012 merger plan.

"I am not a political person, but [the Sweeney bill] came in through the back door," said Carol Beahm of Haddon Heights.

"We don't want to see things fast-tracked," Voorhees resident Barbara Capuano said. "We want a chance to speak on it."

Appearances to the contrary, Sweeney insisted "there's no rush" behind his proposal.

But he also cautioned against delay, saying he did not want to see his proposal studied to death.

"This isn't about me," he said. "This is about what's right for Rutgers."

Sounds good.

But in 2012, Christie and others insisted a merger with Rowan would be right for Rutgers.

It would have been wrong then; it's wrong now.

If there's no rush, then let's take a breath and make sure it's wise to radically change the governance of New Jersey's signature university.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@philly.com, or follow

on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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