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Rutgers Releases Internal Report Calling for Revamping Governing Bodies

Task force suggests down-sizing number of trustees, consulting with lawmakers and governor on appointments to university’s two boards

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Under pressure from state legislators -- including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who accused the school of keeping the document “hidden from the public” at a June 2 hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Higher Education -- Rutgers University officials yesterday released a copy of an internal report that details problems with the school’s governing structure and provides recommendations for overhauling it.

The 15-page report, sent to Sweeney and other top lawmakers by Rutgers’ Senior Vice President for External Affairs Peter McDonough, is the product of the school’s Joint Task Force on Governance, a cooperative venture between its two governing bodies, the board of governors and the board of trustees. Headed by the former chair of the board of governors, the Rev. M. William Howard Jr., administrators appointed six alumni and board members to the task force back in August 2013 to re-evaluate Rutgers’ governance in the wake of its merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry.

“As the new university strives for greater distinction in the arts and sciences, biological and environmental sciences, engineering, medical education, research and clinical care, it is incumbent on the governing boards to better align university governance structure with the newly expanded university,” the report’s introductory paragraphs read.

The work of the task force, which held its first meeting on August 12 of last year with board of governors and board of trustees chairs Gerald Harvey and Dorothy Cantor, included gathering information through interviews with board members and comparing Rutgers governing structure with those of its “aspirational peers” like the University of Michigan and other Big Ten schools.

The report outlines a number of issues with the state university’s governing structure, from the size of the board of trustees, currently made up of 59 voting and 31 nonvoting members, to committee meeting requirements to the requisite skills sets of members on the 15-member board of governors. To remedy those issues, the report recommends drastically decreasing the size of the board of trustees, lowering the number of voting members sent to committee meetings, and consulting with the governor and legislative leadership on the state level about their appointees to the boards.

“A board (of trustees) with 36-43 members would be more efficient,” the report notes, adding that the desired size could be achieved through attrition over the next four to five years.

Additionally, the report advises:

  • Developing a list of committee chair responsibilities to ensure that the charge to each committee is followed and annually reviewed. (Board of trustees and board of governors members are both required to sit on board committees concerned with various areas of the university during their tenures).

  • Establishing a new Joint Committee on Governance to enhance the performance of the boards.

  • Examine and clarify the roles and authority of the boards in relation to the Camden board of directors and the Rutgers-Rowan board of governors. (The latter was formed as a compromise following a 2012 attempt to merge Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University in South Jersey, and is the subject of recent controversy).

  • Better communicate reputational risk-related matters to the Board of Governors Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees Chair on a timely basis. (The university implemented a risk management system following a flurry of controversies over the last two years, beginning with the Mike Rice basketball scandal).

The task force’s findings give some weight to Sweeney’s claim that Rutgers’ governing structure needs an overhaul. Nowhere in the report, however, did the task force address the issue of increasing the board of governors from 15 to 19 members, a measure Sweeney has argued for over the last several weeks.

Sweeney, whose bill, S-1860, to expand the board advanced through the Senate Committee on Higher Education at its hearing on June 2, believes that adding those additional politically-appointed members would increase the board’s effectiveness.

“I believe this goes to an important issue,” he told lawmakers and Rutgers administrators at the 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.”

At the hearing, Sweeney accused Cantor, who had urged lawmakers to reject the bill, of keeping the Joint Task Force’s report a secret. “Why wouldn’t (the report be released),” he asked, “after the scandals that took place at that school over the last couple years that were an embarrassment?”

Cantor contended that the report was not put together in response to the scandals, but because the boards’ chairpeople thought it would be an indication of good governance following the school’s merger with UMDNJ.

When asked why the administrators waited so long to release the report, Cantor told NJ Spotlight: “As a document for internal guidance, there was never any consideration given to any broad public release. The Senate president expressed an interest in the report last week and after consultation with those who prepared the document we elected to distribute it to the Senate Higher Education Committee.”

Cantor has said that a number of the report’s recommendations have been adopted, including voting to lower the number of members the boards send to committees and putting in place valuation metrics to allow administrators to gauge the effectiveness of the boards. But she stressed that the recommendations provided in the report are just that -- recommendations.

“Those changes are being considered by our governance, and it will be up to the membership of the boards to determine which recommendations they believe are appropriate or not,” she said.

Chase Brush is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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