Despite optimism, rapprochement between Rutgers and state a ways away

Sen. Stephen Sweeney
Sen. Stephen Sweeney
Posted: June 23, 2014

Locked in a struggle to reshape Rutgers University, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney last week declared a de facto three-month cease-fire even as he seemed to issue an ultimatum.

Sweeney on Thursday gave the university's two governing boards - of trustees and governors - 90 days to act on recommendations laid out in an internal Rutgers report. Failure to do so, he said, would prompt the Assembly to move forward with legislation, already passed by the Senate, that would increase the number of politically appointed members on the board of governors.

If the boards oblige, it would allow Sweeney (D., Gloucester) to claim responsibility for incremental reform despite considerable recalcitrance at Rutgers, while the boards would stave off what they see as another attempt to gain political control.

That could be a starting point for broader reconciliation, some hope.

"I think this controversy is actually going to produce positive results," State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union), a Rutgers alumnus who voted against Sweeney's bill, said in an interview. "Rather than confrontation that we see now, there will be more of a spirit of cooperation."

A rapprochement may be a ways away.

While the boards may consider legislative input, they are reluctant to adopt the report's recommendations wholesale, as Sweeney is demanding.

One board explicitly voted against adopting one of those recommendations last week. And the chair of the other board said it wouldn't heed the report's recommendation to decrease the number of voting members.

Nowhere does the report address one of Sweeney's stated goals of integrating health sciences into the school's management to better reflect its absorption of two medical schools in 2012. It also supports retaining the board of trustees, which Sweeney has proposed eliminating.

The 59-member trustee board acts in a largely advisory capacity. The 15-member board of governors has responsibility for university operations, including setting tuition and key personnel decisions.

The 65,000-student university formed the task force last August, charging it with evaluating the effectiveness of the university's governance structure - including its uncommon two-headed model. The report supported the model, saying the board of trustees "plays a key role within the university," but recommended decreasing the size of the board for the sake of efficiency.

Other recommendations include streamlining a few committees and "more active engagement with state legislators." The state funds 20 percent of Rutgers' $3.6 billion budget.

Sweeney's bill would expand the board of governors from 15 members to 19. Appointments by the state's governor would increase to 12, while the trustees would continue to appoint seven.

Two of the new gubernatorial appointees would have to be trustees.

Conciliation

Opponents of the expansion see it as a way to increase political control of the university.

Still, the Rutgers general counsel urged the boards to be conciliatory.

In a letter last week, John J. Farmer Jr. wrote that Rutgers was being held back by a poor, or nonexistent, relationship with the state.

"It is clear, at least to me, that in order for Rutgers to be successful in transforming itself, its relationship with the state must also be transformed," Farmer wrote in the confidential letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer.

That would be difficult to achieve, though, if Sweeney and the boards remain at loggerheads.

Sweeney tried unsuccessfully to merge Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University in 2012. Last year, he attempted to eliminate the board of trustees, again to no avail.

"There ought to be a better relationship between Rutgers and the state," said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), who opposes Sweeney's bill. "However, when there's a continual back and forth about its very governance structure and you have a [university] president who's not well-respected in all corridors of Trenton, it's not easy to have that happen."

The trustees passed a resolution Thursday stating their opposition to Sweeney's bill. In it, they suggest an openness to legislative input but refusal to be bullied.

"[T]he Board of Trustees will, over the next 90 days, and thereafter, review its governance structure and will continue to review and evaluate the Joint Task Force on Governance Report, and will welcome a dialogue with legislative leaders," it reads.

'The way it is'

Dorothy Cantor, the chair of the board of trustees, told reporters her board was unlikely to reduce its own size because "the trustees would prefer to keep the board the way it is."

Earlier in the day, the board of governors passed on a chance to immediately adopt one of the report's recommendations. Members objected to the proposed elimination of a committee, questioning the speed of the move.

Asked Friday whether the boards would need to carry out specific changes to satisfy Sweeney, spokesman Chris Donnelly said: "The Senate President has given Rutgers 90 days to act on the recommendations. . . . How they choose to do so is up to them."

Farmer, the university's top lawyer and a former state attorney general, wrote in his letter that Sweeney's succession of proposals seemed more like a "face-saving retreat" than "creeping aggression."

Peter McDonough, Rutgers' chief lobbyist, said he did not see Sweeney's 90-day proposal as an ultimatum. Instead of a faceoff between Senate president and university, he said, the situation is now collaborative.

"There's a difference between political interference and input from policymakers," he said. "And I think that we are - based on the resolution that was passed by the board of trustees last night - they're welcoming the opportunity to receive input. I think any sort of black-and-white notion that autonomy means that you don't have to pay attention to your largest donor is both naive and dangerous."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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