Rutgers report raises questions

JULIO CORTEZ / AP
JULIO CORTEZ / AP

It did not specifically back the changes Sweeney seeks. A vote is set for Thursday in the Senate.

Posted: June 12, 2014

A report sought by New Jersey's top elected Democrat in a campaign to change the governance of Rutgers University did not specifically support the changes he has proposed.

Legislation sponsored by State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) to increase the number of political appointees to Rutgers' main governing body has been scheduled for a full Senate vote Thursday. The Assembly Budget Committee will take up the corresponding bill the same day.

The report was the product of a Rutgers task force appointed in August to evaluate the university's two-board governance structure and make recommendations for the future. At a legislative hearing last week, Sweeney demanded public disclosure of the report, which he accused board members of hiding.

The senator's office released the report Tuesday, as did Rutgers. A spokesman said Sweeney was unavailable for comment.

Rutgers' 15-member board of governors weighs in on issues such as setting tuition and approving new programs; a 59-member board of trustees acts in a largely advisory capacity.

"Appointees to the board of governors may not always possess the skill sets needed on the governing board," the report found. It also concluded: "A review of the membership of the board of governors' committees suggests that the size of the committees may inhibit open discussion and deliberation of important governance matters."

Regarding the board of trustees, the 15-page report recommended decreasing the size of the voting membership and limiting the number of nonvoting alumni trustees. A board with 36 to 43 members "would be more efficient," according to the report.

It does not recommend eliminating the trustee board or expanding the size of the board of governors, two changes proposed by Sweeney in the last two years.

Rutgers expanded in 2013 as a result of statewide higher education restructuring legislation. Sweeney last year introduced legislation to abolish the board of trustees, a move he has characterized in terms of efficiency and accountability.

The current bill under debate (S1860) would increase the board of governors to 19 members, from 15. Trustees would continue to appoint seven members, and the number of political appointees would increase to 12, from eight.

"Rutgers' history is a source of pride, but we can't rely on an 18th-century organizational model to meet the challenges of the 21st century," Sweeney said last week during a hearing of the Senate Higher Education Committee. "Enhancing the board of governors will modernize and improve governance of the university."

The bill requires that the four new members have professional medical backgrounds, and two would need to be Rutgers alumni. Sweeney described the bill as a move to better reflect Rutgers' expansion, in which it acquired multiple health sciences schools and centers, including two medical schools.

Rutgers' report also says "there should be more active engagement with state legislators," specifically recommending developing a process for university administrators to regularly reach out to lawmakers "to understand their concerns regarding the governing boards and [work] to address any perceptions/misconceptions."

Dorothy Cantor, chair of the board of trustees, testified at last week's hearing that the board of trustees is necessary "to preserve the integrity and autonomy of the university."

Sweeney argued with Cantor at the hearing, asking for a copy of the task force report and accusing her of hiding it from the public.

The report was given to Cantor and Gerald Harvey, the board of governors' chair, in December, and to the trustees in March, according to a letter sent with the report.

The Senate Higher Education Committee advanced Sweeney's bill on a 3-2 vote along party lines. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union) strongly opposed the bill, as did Sen. Robert W. Singer (R., Ocean), who threatened to change his vote on the Senate floor if the report wasn't released.

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union) said last week that he worried that adding political appointees could jeopardize the university's independence.

When he was an economics major in the 1960s, he recalled, antiwar protests disrupted classes and canceled his final exams before he graduated in 1971.

"I was very proud of the fact that there was not any political interference and political activity on the campus," Lesniak said. "I don't want that to change. I think it would change the entire standing of the institution as an independent academic institution of higher education."


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220

@elaijuh

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