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Sweeney's Bill Could Shift Balance of Power on Rutgers Board of Governors

University promises strong action against bill that would add four politically appointed governors to current board

State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney.
Credit: philly.com
State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney.

For the third time in almost as many years, Rutgers University’s two main governing boards are fighting efforts by state lawmakers to encroach on the school’s right to self-determination.

At 11 o’clock this morning, representatives from the school's board of governors and board of trustees will testify before the Senate Higher Education Committee against a bill (S-1860) that would add four politically appointed governors to its current complement of 15.

Calling the move “heavy-handed” and a “power-grab,” board of trustees chair Dorothy Cantor convened an emergency meeting Friday to solidify members’ opposition to the bill, which she and others say would violate a 1956 agreement that requires the board of trustees to approve most major transactions involving Rutgers governance or real estate. The board of governors oversees general operations of the university.

“This is seriously changing the balance of the board of governors,” said Cantor, referring to the fact that the bill keeps the number of university appointed governors at seven.

The bill was introduced by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who’s repeatedly tried to circumvent the trustees and the Rutgers Act of 1956 -- most notably when he unsuccessfully sought to separate Rutgers-Camden from the rest of the university.

He later introduced a failed bill that sought to abolish the board of trustees.

Although some trustees say they were caught off guard by the latest bill, they quickly paired up with the board of governors and the administration last week. As of Friday, the school’s in-house attorney was drafting a legal response, and the state’s Office of Legislative Services was also preparing an opinion.

University departments immediately emailed a call to action to present and past board members, plus all 200,000 alumni living in New Jersey. According to university Senior Vice President for Public Affairs Pete McDonough, that resulted in 8,500 emails opposing the bill reaching legislators in just 15 hours. This morning, Cantor will testify before the higher education committee and a representative will read a statement from board of governors chair Gerald Harvey, who can’t attend in person.

“Every member (of the board of governors) I’ve spoken with, including every publicly appointed governor, feels this bill is unnecessary,” said Harvey on Friday. “And I’m certain the trustees have a right to approve or disapprove it.”

The bill itself doesn’t list any rationale for the change. But since its introduction, Sweeney has told the press he feels the board should have more members who have medical expertise now that the New Jersey Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act of 2012 required Rutgers to fold in the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and other medical and nursing schools.

According to McDonough, the higher education committee will almost certainly receive and approve an amendment that specifies the qualifications for the new members, two of whom would be named by the governor and two who would be appointed individually by the Senate president and by the Speaker of the Assembly. He says the amendment would specify that of the two new gubernatorial appointees, both most come from the medical field and one must be a Rutgers alumnus. The Senate appointee must be a medical alumnus and the Assembly appointee must be a medical professional.

On Friday afternoon, Sweeney emailed, “The higher education restructuring that I helped implement means that Rutgers now has a medical school. I want to ensure that one of the governing boards of Rutgers properly reflects that change, which is why the four additional members will be required to have medical backgrounds. In addition, two members will also be required to be Rutgers alum. I think this is a fair and needed approach to ensure that the transformational changes occurring at the University continue to attract the leadership and attention it deserves.”

But critics argue that the restructuring act itself expanded the board of governors from 11 to 15 members precisely to accommodate the university’s larger scope. The governor was allowed to appoint two additional members with confirmation by the Senate, and his first two appointees did not come from the medical field. Additionally, the Trustees, who promote the non-public governors up from their ranks, have appointed several medical professionals since the act took effect, and terms are expiring for four others this summer.

“I can’t help but wonder if there was a need for this, wouldn’t there have been a different balance of power (written into the bill)?” asked Cantor.

The bill, which is replicated by an Assembly version introduced by Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Secaucus), was introduced in March but wasn’t moved to committee for a hearing until May, after the spring semester had ended and most students and faculty had left campus for the summer.

The identical bills have no co-sponsors, and the executive director of the faculty union told members in an email obtained by NJSpotlight that he’s confirmed Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.’s opposition to the bill. Kean sits on the higher education committee, though his office could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

As for Sweeney, Rutgers-Camden history professor Andrew Shankman, who helped lead efforts to defeat the restructuring bill as it was originally proposed by the Senate president and some of his colleagues, said, "It's just frustrating year after year to have Sweeney try such an absurd and pointless end-runs around the c oonstitutional rights that preserve Rutgers' autonomy and integrity and freedom from undue political interference. It's beyond unfortunate that Sweeney can only imagine the politics of search and destroy and vindictive personal vendetta.”

Shankman acknowledges that although he shares some of Sweeney’s concerns over Rutgers’ internal budget process and equity and fairness among its three campuses, he feels the only way he can seem to have this conversation is to seek to destroy the university in order to save it.

“At this point he deserves no trust and can bring no value to any conversations about how to improve Rutgers,” Shankman said.

It’s unclear whether the university has once again retained the services of former solicitor general Neil Katyal, who was brought in at the end of negotiations over the restructuring act in 2012. He has, however, remained in contact with the boards.

Because the 1956 Act was a contract signed between trustees and lawmakers when that board turned the then-private university over to the state, they maintain the question is a constitutional one. Additionally, they’ll soon have to directly take on the legislature yet again, as Prieto has reintroduced Sweeney’s bill from the last session to dissolve the board of trustees.

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