After months of relative silence, the Rutgers University Boards of Governors and Trustees have finally taken a joint position on the proposed restructuring of the state's higher education system and overwhelmingly rejected the portions of the deal that would sever Rutgers-Camden from Rutgers. The boards, however, would be willing to take over the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJ) and said they would make changes that will provide more autonomy to both the Camden and Newark campuses.
In a rare joint meeting held in New Brunswick yesterday, governors and trustees also approved the creation of a committee comprised of members of both boards to work with the Legislature to enact a law that would restructure higher education in New Jersey.
In a voice vote, the boards overwhelmingly voted to endorse a set of principles that will provide the basis for negotiations between the committee and Legislature. However, the vote is expected to derail or prolong the passage of the Legislation introduced into the Senate on Monday by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and senators Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) that closely resembles the original proposal for restructuring promoted by Gov. Chris Christie and is quite different from the principles that the board affirmed yesterday. But despite trustees’ victory, they worry about the political realities their principles will face as they travel down the corridors of government.
“I’m worried about negotiations because they work on the premise that if you negotiate for common ground, everybody has to give up something,” said trustee Abram Suydam. “Today we approved principles. How much of those principles will be expected by the other side that we will give up in order to have them play nice?”
The approval of the trustees, who released a resolution in opposition to the relinquishment of Rutgers-Camden last month, was nearly guaranteed. But no one took for granted the support of the governors. Despite the one-time uncertainty, governor Gerald Harvey, who led the proceedings, said, “I saw a lot of questions about process but I didn’t see any opposition on either board to the principles as stated.”
After heartfelt testimony by opponents of the merger during a public comment session, spectators gathered in the meeting room burst into applause when the decision was reached.
“We couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome than the one we got,” said Andy Shankman of the Committee to Save Rutgers-Camden
Their elation was echoed by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who released a statement saying, “These Boards’ … differences with this merger bill must be taken seriously by the Legislature. The current legislation is not in the best interest of Rutgers, the state of New Jersey or the future of higher education in our state."
Sen. Lautenberg’s public opposition is remarkable in that he’s among the only current or former officials elected to statewide office to express his disapproval. This week, his counterpart Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who’s waging a re-election campaign this year, joined a long list of politicians, including former governors James Florio (D-NJ) and Donald DiFrancesco (R-NJ), to release statements in favor of the bill.
Sen. Vitale, speaking by phone after the meeting, said, “Our legislation is both thoughtful and creative. I understand that [the Rutgers boards] are probably at the least surprised that this legislation was introduced … and I appreciate they’re willing to work with the Legislature but I believe time is of the essence. We’re going to continue to pursue legislative remedy while entering into discussion with the university and medical school. But moving forward is still the right thing to do.”
The principles, which have not been modified since they were first written by executive members of both boards two weeks ago, contradict the legislation in several notable ways: Instead of severing Rutgers-Camden from Rutgers as proposed in the Senate bill, the boards wish to establish advisory boards, subcommittees within the Board of Governors, and chancellors with matching authority to address the specific needs of each its three campuses. Rather than creating a governing board to oversee cooperation between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, trustees and governors will consider forging collaborative ties with Rowan only if both institutions retain their autonomy. According the principles, Rutgers will absorb the RWJ schools but makes no mention of integrating other parts of UMDNJ, as outlined in the bill.
The committee is likely to find allies in the Essex County delegation, which opposes the dismantling of UMDNJ while remaining open to discussions on the transfer of RWJ. Although UMDNJ officials released a statement this week saying they would not seek to block the bill, Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark), who accuses its sponsors of failing to include the northern delegation in negotiations, said in response to the Rutgers boards’ decision, “I think it was good. It’s the same thing that the northern delegation has been saying about needing to fill voids in the medical and educational systems. But we can’t do that by harming UMDNJ. And citizens of New Jersey have a right to know how much this is going to cost them.”
Trustees have long maintained that they and the Board of Governors are charged with an obligation to understand the fiduciary ramifications of any significant transaction before deciding whether to approve or deny it. The unanswered financial questions are just some of a host of issues that observers expect will spark a court challenge to any law passed without the approval of trustees and governors.
The bases for the challenge would rest primarily on the fact that Trustees and opponents of the bill remain adamant that a law passed in 1956 imbues the boards with the responsibility to protect the university from political interference and prohibits overhauls to its structure without both boards’ consent. The Rutgers administration circulated a legal fact sheet yesterday reiterating that position and noting a 1972 NJ Supreme Court opinion that determined the 1956 act was a legally binding contract that established Rutgers as “an autonomous public university.” A letter sent to trustees and governors this week by the Rutgers-Camden Law School faculty asserted that both the federal and state Constitutions prohibit states from passing legislation that impairs these types of contracts.
Law school faculty are also relying on the 1956 act to defend against a legal report commissioned by Cooper Health System that claims Rutgers does not, in fact, own most of the land upon which Rutgers-Camden is sited. According to the report, Rutgers sold a large parcel of Rutgers-Camden’s property to the state in 1950, thereby disqualifying the university from asserting control over it. But according to law professors, such a claim, if true, is irrelevant because the 1956 act establishes board control over the non-land assets of the campus and because the once-private university turned all of its land over to the state for use by citizens in return for the ability to make decisions as to its fate.
Rutgers president Richard McCormick released a statement Monday commending legislators for drafting a bill that overall “appears to advance the goals of enhancing medical education across the state, boosting Rutgers’ standing among its peer institutions, and fueling New Jersey’s economic engine,” and stating, “Ultimately, the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees will have to carefully review the bill and render a decision,” but he did not comment on today’s proceedings.