Only two weeks after celebrating its official merger with what was once the state’s premier medical school -- the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey -- Rutgers once again found itself debating about how it would be run and dealing with various controversies at its first regular July meeting.
The Board of Governors created its own task force to look into Rutgers' administrative structure, a move that comes on the heels of the controversial bill from state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to dissolve the school’s 200-year old Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) has introduced an alternative measure to form a commission charged with duties similar to those of the governors’ task force.
Other controversies included a rally by students protesting tuition hikes, plus a vacant seat on the board, which was also considered the work of Sweeney. In addition, the board voted for a 3.5 percent increase in tuition.
In announcing the new task force, formed in partnership with Board of Trustees chair Dorothy Cantor, Board of Governors chair Gerald Harvey said “Rutgers University has entered a period of opportunity and potential that is perhaps unprecedented, this is a time for self-reflection and self-appraisal.” He added, "I believe we should also ask hard questions and be bold enough to explore whether there are opportunities for Rutgers to become a more efficient and effective institution.”
He denied speculation that the task force was a way to address criticism over the school’s handling of a recent athletic scandal that resulted in the resignation of Athletic Director Tim Pernetti or a way to stave off Sweeney’s widely rebuked attempt to encroach on Rutgers’ system of governance.
Nevertheless, after the meeting Harvey did take Sweeney’s bill head on by emphatically telling NJ Spotlight, “I remain convinced of the continued benefits to the university of having the Board of Trustees .” The Board of Governors has not issued its own official position statement on Sweeney’s bill, though Harvey is showing his support for trustees by forming it with Cantor. Harvey, who was sworn in as chair yesterday, is a former trustee. Board of Governors member and former chair Rev. William Howard will lead the task force, which will start its work by the end of this month and report its findings to both boards after Thanksgiving.
Board of Governors appointee Martin Perez was conspicuously absent from the meeting yesterday, where he was supposed to have been inducted to the board along with three other newcomers. Published reports quoted anonymous sources saying that Sweeney had threatened to sue the school if Perez was allowed to join the board.
Gov. Chris Christie appointed the New Brunswick Latino leader in December, after the restructuring act increased the number of board members and the number of gubernatorial appointees. At the time, Sweeney released a statement calling the appointment illegal because, "The legislation clearly states the additional appointments to the board need to be from Camden and Essex Counties." Christie’s earlier attempts to appoint Perez had been blocked by Senate Democrats. It was unclear whether Perez might be inducted at a later date, and when questioned, Rutgers officials responded simply, “Ask Senator Sweeney and ask Gov. Christie.” Media representatives from both offices could not be reached for comment.
After listening to tearful students plead with them to freeze tuition, governors voted to raise in-state undergraduate tuition 3.5 percent to $10,718 for the 2013-2014 school year. Once room and board and fees are added, the increase drops to 2.4 percent. The board also approved a $3 million university addition to student financial aid and a $3.6 billion operating budget for the current fiscal year.
Students in attendance called Vice President for University Budgeting Nancy Winterbauer a liar when she assured governors that budget officials had kept increases to a bare minimum and explained that the increases, which keep pace with inflation, were necessary to cover a growth in mandatory costs. But Winterbauer countered that the 2.4 percent increase is lower than comparable public universities in other states, including University of Maryland (3 percent), University of Virginia (3.8 percent), and Stony Brook University (5.4 percent).
Indeed, though this year’s average U.S. increases haven’t been calculated yet, The College Board reported that last year’s average in-state undergraduate tuition and fees at public four-year colleges rose 4.8 percent. Although last year’s Rutgers tuition alone exceeded average tuition and fees at public colleges across the country, Kiplinger’s ranked Rutgers 50th in a list of 100 public universities that provide the best value for the money. Further, two public New Jersey colleges -- the College of New Jersey and New Jersey Institute of Technology -- cost more than Rutgers and are ranked in the top 25 most-expensive public universities in the nation.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the tuition hike could be attributed to the estimated $75 million Rutgers has paid to absorb UMDNJ as mandated by the restructuring act, but in an interview last month, interim Rutgers provost Chris Molloy, who spearheaded the integration process, promised, “We are committed to not letting that happen.”