Sweeney's effort to control Rutgers misguided

Prospective students and their parents leave Rutgers University Visitors Center during a tour on Oct. 12, 2009. ( Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer /File)
Prospective students and their parents leave Rutgers University Visitors Center during a tour on Oct. 12, 2009. ( Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer /File)
Posted: June 12, 2014

You remember that adage, Those who can, do. Those who can't, attempt to control education.

Education is already a political hot mess before elected officials become involved. New Jersey Senate President and Gloucester County Democrat Stephen Sweeney's epic, ongoing battle over Rutgers University's governance makes Philadelphia City Council's issues with the public schools look like finger painting.

Chartered a decade before independence as Queen's College, Rutgers evolved into the state university, with a 1956 act installing a powerful board of governors in addition to the historic board of trustees, which helped maintain the school's independence and limited political interference. The boards have worked well in running Rutgers, which has a current $4 billion annual budget, roughly a fifth appropriated by the state. In 2012, both boards - with the support of faculty, administrators and staff - voted to successfully stop political interests from seizing Rutgers-Camden and merging it with Rowan University, which happens to be in Gloucester County.

"I'm a fighter and I don't make no bones about it," said Sweeney, a high school graduate and ironworker by trade, earlier this year. "And I fight hard."

If Sweeney has his way the South, South Jersey that is, will rise again.

Last year, Sweeney - the master of the subtle gesture - sought to abolish the board of trustees. This year, he's back with a doozy of a bill, due for a Senate vote Thursday, that would further wrest control from the trustees by expanding the board of governors by four members who would all be political appointees. Ultimately, a majority of the board of governors, 10 of 19, would be appointed by the governor.

Sweeney, you may have heard, plans to become Jersey's next governor. Gov. Christie plans to become Jersey's next president, embarking this week on his Bridge Too Far comeback tour. The governor is scheduled to appear Thursday on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show, where I fervently hope he slow jams the traffic.

Sweeney's bill was branded by board of trustees chair Dorothy Cantor as "heavy-handed" and a "power grab," which Sweeney may well view as praise. The change in governance would threaten the university's independence, critics argue, while resulting in less transparency but more sweetheart contracts and political favors. You know, classic Jersey politics.

Sweeney's ostensible argument for an expanded board of governors is to include more health-science professionals, convincing only to folks who fail to study state history. There happen to be current vacancies on the board, with more to come, that could be filled by experts without changing governance.

The new politically connected joint Rowan and Rutgers-Rowan board just bypassed a formal search and hired as its CEO Kris Kolluri, a lawyer with no apparent health-science expertise. Kolluri, however, does appear to have experience dealing with the South Jersey political machine.

"Sweeney's explanations for changing the board are self-serving and transparently flimsy," said Rutgers professor Andrew Shankman, who testified against the bill. "He's trying to fundamentally destroy the university's autonomy and freedom from political authority."

Democratic Sen. Raymond Lesniak of Union County, a proud Rutgers alum, said Sweeney's bill "would be a setback nationally for the school's reputation. None of the country's top state universities are beholden to the political system. The more outside political control there is of Rutgers, the more things will happen that shouldn't be happening."

Shankman told me: "I'm not opposed to taking a serious look at the administration of Rutgers. If this was about a more equitable and fair and transparent budgeting process, I would be Steve Sweeney's biggest fan."

But there are few folks who believe this is what Sweeney hopes to accomplish. "I would never presume to criticize decisions about ironworking," Shankman said. "I wish Sweeney would trust the people in charge of higher education."

As if that's going to happen. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate this week, before heading to the General Assembly and, if approved there, most certainly the courts. Make no bones about it.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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