Spirit of Cooperation May Prevail in Power Struggle Between Sweeney, Rutgers

Joe Tyrrell | June 20, 2014 | Education
Sweeney offers -- and university’s board of governors accepts -- 90-day window for action before legislation advances

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Amid blasts of high-powered rhetoric, Rutgers officials and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) floated peace overtures on Thursday in their battle over control of the state university.

Sweeney’s came in the form of an ultimatum to Rutgers’ two oversight bodies, the boards of trustees and governors. It was not “Do what I say,” however, and was more like, “Do what your own task force has already told you to do about university governance.”

The threat came with some leverage, following the state Senate’s passage of Sweeney’s bill, S-1860, which would increase the number of Rutgers governors to 19, with the addition of four more political appointees. Sweeney gave Rutgers officials 90 days to act before he moves that bill to the state Assembly, where its fate would be uncertain.

Late in the day, the board of trustees responded with a resolution calling the legislation “unlawful,” but pledging to “review and evaluate” the task force proposals during the 90 days “and thereafter.” They also promised to discuss the measures with legislators as part of the process.

The developments had observers crediting both sides for being willing to give their long-running feud a cool-down period.

“I would hope so, there’s absolutely no good that would come from a battle,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union).

“I would say it’s substantial progress, I’m feeling upbeat,” said Andrew Shankman, a Rutgers-Camden history professor who has opposed Sweeney’s attempts to restructure the university. “Sen. Sweeney deserves credit for this, he’s only saying the university should follow its own recommendations.

“I think the governing boards on the other side should take, ‘Yes,’ for an answer,” Shankman said.

“I’m very committed to maintaining the current governing structure of the university,” Lesniak said, while noting that the task force recommendations parallel some of the questions raised by Sweeney.

The apparent détente came after both sides found harder-line positions were causing complications.

Rutgers announced formation of the task force last summer, chaired by the Rev. M. William Howard Jr., pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark and a former chairman of the board of governors. Although the task force completed its report seven months ago, university officials did not release it to legislators until last week, after being pressed by Sweeney.

Among other things, the task force recommended sharply reducing the number of members on the board of trustees, the body that oversees the lands and assets that Rutgers owned before becoming the state university in 1956. The task force suggests allowing the number of trustees to drift down from the current 59 to a “more efficient” range of 36 to 43.

“The task force isn’t saying do that in 90 days, but over the course of four or five years,” Shankman said. “So if Senator Sweeney accepts the task force’s recommendation, it means he’s willing to allow the university to make changes over a period of time as long as it gets started within 90 days.”

The task force did not endorse increasing the number of governors, who oversee the university’s tuition, budget and operations. Under the 2012 restructuring act adopted when Rutgers absorbed the administratively troubled University of Medicine and Dentistry, that board was increased to 15 from 11 members.

While not promoting Sweeney’s call for further expansion of that board, the task force did agree with him that the governors’ proliferating network of committees should be trimmed.

Rutgers officials had no ready explanation for Sweeney’s contention that they had “hidden” the task force report while he was repeatedly calling for changes in the governance structure.

But a memorandum this month from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services raised doubts about the legality of legislative action to change Rutgers’ governance without the university’s consent. The 1956 law creating the state university amounts to a contract between New Jersey and the trustees, which likely requires consent of governing boards to change, the OLS found.

For his part, Sweeney expressed willingness to work with the leaders of both boards “to ensure a smooth implementation of these changes.”

For the governors, that will be their new chairman, alumnus Greg Brown, the chairman and chief executive officer of Motorola Solutions. The Barrington Hills, IL, resident will succeed Gerald C. Harvey. Brown is also a trustee, was a commencement speaker in 2012, and is a member of the university’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni.