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Senate Panel Moves to Add More Political Appointees to Rutgers' Board of Governors

Sweeney -- who's clashed with board before -- contends new members reflect need to add medical expertise to governing body

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Despite some fiery testimony by Rutgers University administrators and New Jersey lawmakers, members of the Senate Higher Education Committee advanced a controversial bill yesterday that would add four politically appointed members to the school's board of governors, its main governing body.

The bill (S-1860), proposed by Senate President Steve Sweeney, would increase the total number of governors to 19, up from 15.

Under the new format, 12 governors all told would be political appointees -- 10 by the governor, with state Senate confirmation, and two by the Legislature one by the Senate, and one by the Assembly.

The remaining seven will still be appointed by the board of trustees.

“I believe this goes to an important issue,” Sweeney said, reading from a prepared statement at yesterday's hearing. “I believe that this would improve the ability of the Board to effectively govern Rutgers at an important time in the school’s history.”

Sitting in on the hearing, Sweeney cited a number of changes -- and challenges -- Rutgers faces following its merging with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the state’s largest medical school.

Among those changes, he said, was the addition of a medical and health sciences sector that has added thousands of students and faculty to the school and billions of dollars to its budget. Appointing members with medical backgrounds to those four additional seats -- which an amendment to the bill, proposed at the hearing, would require -- would help the university’s governing structure better reflect this change, he said.

“With the restructuring, 40 percent of the University is new, including the merger of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and The School of Public Health” he said. “This is why the Board of Governors must include members with medical experience.”

But Sweeney’s testimony was met with a number of criticisms by opponents of the bill, most of whom see it as yet another attempt by the South Jersey Democrat to gain long-term political influence at the state’s largest and most prestigious public university.

If the critics are correct, it would be Sweeney's third attempt in almost as many years -- counting one in 2012, when the Senate president supported a move by lawmakers to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University in South Jersey. Last year saw another attempt when Sweeney introduced a bill aimed at abolishing the school’s other governing body, the board of trustees.

Both Gerald Harvey, chairman of the board of governors and represented at the hearing by spokesperson Margaret Derrick, and Dorothy Cantor, chairwoman of the board of trustees, opposed the bill. Derrick, on behalf of Harvey, noted that two holdover positions -- together with a third that will be vacant by the end of the month -- are currently open for Gov. Chris Christie and the Senate to appoint members with the sought-after medical skills, rendering the bill unnecessary. Derrick is also a member of the board of governors.

“Existing legislation already addresses the purported purpose of this bill,” she said, adding that the board was already enlarged from 11 to 15 members following in anticipation of the UMDNJ merger two years ago.

Cantor, who called the move to expand the board “heavy-handed” and a “power grab” after convening an emergency board of trustees meeting earlier in the week, added yesterday that the bill, in its current form, “serves no public purpose.” She noted that the bill obstructs a careful balance of power struck between the state and Rutgers administrators back in 1956, when the school became a coeducational research university and was designated the official state university of New Jersey.

“It is incumbent upon the trustees to preserve the integrity and autonomy of the university," she said. "That was the intent of our predecessors in 1956, when they agreed that Rutgers would become the state university. They never wanted the board of governors to be a center of political patronage.”

Sweeney reacted by asking Cantor about the status of the Howard Report, an internal investigation announced last summer that was tasked with producing recommendations on overhauling the university’s governance structure in the wake of a number of Rutgers-related scandals. The study was conducted by a seven-member committee and headed by Rev. M. William Howard Jr., pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark and a former chairman of the Rutgers board of governors.

Sweeney accused Cantor and Harvey -- who, apparently, are the only two people who’ve seen the results of the study -- of keeping the report secret. "One way or another I will get this report," he said, adding that he’d request it through the state’s Open Public Records Act if she refused to produce it voluntarily.

The bill was ultimately advanced from the committee yesterday 3-2, with Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean, who sits on the committee, voting against it (as did Robert Singer, the other Republican on the committee). But some critics argue that the bill violates the Rutgers Act of 1956, so it is likely the measure will be tested in court.

Allan Stein, a professor of Law at Rutgers-Camden who said he closely studied the history and legal status of Rutgers, testified that the Rutgers Act constitutes a legislative contract and so cannot be modified without consent of the board of trustees.

“Any attempt to abrogate that contract would be a violation of the rights of the university under the contract’s clauses of both the federal and state constitutions and would be subject to an injunction by the state or federal courts,” Stein said.

He cited Dartmouth v. Woodward, an 1819 ruling that found the state of New Hampshire to be in breach of Dartmouth’s charter, now considered a legislative contract, after trying to take over the private school. “This conclusion is not subject to serious dispute. The status of the Rutgers Act as a legislative contract has been seriously recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court and every legal expert who’s examined the question,” Stein said.

The bill has yet to pass the full Senate and Assembly. An identical bill has been proposed by Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and is pending in the Assembly.

Chase Brush is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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