Sweeney, Rutgers Board in Battle For Control of University’s Direction

Rutgers Board of Trustees held a meeting to discuss a bill that increases Board of Govs.

By David Cruz

Most of the members of the board of trustees — Chairwoman Dorothy Cantor included — attended today’s emergency meeting by phone from around the state. Such was the urgency of the business before them.

“I believe everyone on the call here today here in the boardroom is aware that there is only one agenda item for today’s meeting and that is a discussion of Senate Bill #1860,” announced Board Secretary Leslie Fehrenbach.

That bill would increase the size of the Rutgers Board of Governors by four, from 15 to 19. All of those new members would be appointed by the governor or leaders of the legislature, which would give Trenton much more influence on the university’s governance — and finance. Today’s meeting comes on the heels of an online campaign started this week by the Alumni Association.

Pete McDonough, the university’s external affairs vice president, said 2,922 people sent a total of 8,500 email letters to lawmakers. “This has not just been focused on the Senate committee. I think we all know that with the meeting schedule, this bill, if it were to move forward, will move forward quickly,” he reported.

The Senate’s Higher Education Committee will hold a hearing on the bill, the brainchild of Senate President Steve Sweeney, on Monday. Sweeney has been battling with Rutgers boards for a variety of reasons, including their handling of the Mike Rice basketball team controversy and their opposition to the Rutgers-UMDNJ merger. Sweeney today said lawmakers are taking action where the board would not.

“If you don’t think Rutgers needs to be reformed, it’s Crazy,” said Sweeney today. “It’s a medical school. It’s a requirement. All four new members will be required to have a health care background. Two of them have to be Rutgers alums; so what are they afraid of?” he asked.

President Robert Barchi, whose tenure at the 45,000-student university has been marked by controversy after controversy, was at today’s meeting, physically, although at times he looked like he would rather be just about anywhere else.

“It’s certainly hard to see what the fundamental basis for this is from the point of view of reasons for taking these particular moves,” he said. “I’m certainly supportive of seeing more expertise in the health professions on our governing board and I think there are plenty of ways to accomplish that without changing the fundamental balance of representation on those boards.”

While President Barchi didn’t want to take a guess about their chances, the message to all the trustees was very clear: if you’ve got any political connections, now’s the time to use them.