No need to rush change in Rutgers’ Governance

by Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski

For nearly 300 years, from its founding as Queens College in 1766, until it became the State University in 1956, Rutgers was governed by a Board of Trustees. With...

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No need to rush change in Rutgers’ Governance

July 15, 2013

by Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski

For nearly 300 years, from its founding as Queens College in 1766, until it became the State University in 1956, Rutgers was governed by a Board of Trustees. With the University’s evolution from a private institution to the State University of New Jersey, the Board of Trustees’ responsibilities shifted from governance to that of an advisory body and guardian of the university’s assets from its days as a private institution. The Trustees were also given responsibility for appointing some of the members of the Board of Governors.

Late this past June, legislation was introduced that would again restructure governance at Rutgers. The legislation, Senate bill S2902 and its Assembly companion A4215, would abolish the Rutgers’ University Board of Trustees, turning over its fiduciary responsibilities to the Board of Governors and its appointments to the Governor of the State of New Jersey.

The proposal to reorganize Rutgers governance has also been designated for fast track consideration. As a result, members of the New Jersey General Assembly and Senate have been asked to vote on these bills without the committee hearings and the opportunity for public comment that is the normal course for proposed legislation.

With the recent merger of Rutgers University with most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), it may well be an appropriate time to reassess the governing structure of Rutgers. But the fast track legislative proposal that awaits final action has not undergone the scrutiny the public expects from the legislature and that an institution with nearly 350 years of history, deserves.

Among the concerns I have with the proposal are the simple question of why and why the rush. Proponents have cited recent decisions regarding personnel and the allocation of resources among Rutgers’ programs and campuses as a fault with the existing governance structure. Yet these decisions were decisions of the Board of Governors, not the trustees.

Another criticism has been that the two boards create a bureaucratic logjam, but without the Board of Trustees, Rutgers would have been forced to surrender its Camden Campus in last year’s higher education reorganization. It is also ironic that the sponsoring legislators, as members of a bicameral legislature, would fault a similar system for Rutgers.

In addition, I’m concerned that the proposal strips the University of its ability to exercise any independence from the Governor’s office. Recent history with UMDNJ has shown how a heavy-handed administration in Trenton can ruin the reputation of a once well-regarded organization.

Curiously, the fast-track proposal also has not been developed in consultation with any representatives of Rutgers. Both the Office of Legislative Services and University Law School professors maintain that any such proposal would, by law, require concurrence from both the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees. Some respected attorneys also maintain that the proposal would violate both the state and federal constitution without their approval.

For the legislature to impose a reorganization of Rutgers governance would likely result in protracted litigation that would divert time and resources from the task the university faces with the integration of UMDNJ. The uncertainty of a court challenge would also likely raise interest rates for bonds the university must issue as a result of the merger.

There is no justifiable reason for any rush to judgment on what, if any, changes make sense for the future governance of Rutgers. Instead, I have proposed legislation that would create the “Rutgers, the State University Study Commission” made up of representatives from state government, the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees.

My bill, A4341, would require the commission to study the question of Rutgers’ governance and report back to the legislature and the Governor within 6 months with any recommendations for changes as well as on any other issue or matter the commission deems appropriate. The bill would allow for a careful study of the question of governance, the consultation with Rutgers that the University deserves and the possibility of developing a consensus on any changes to the University’s governance.

Rutgers University and its Board of Trustees have a history longer than that of our country. It has built a reputation for excellence around the world and is about to embark on a new journey with the merger with elements of UMDNJ that offers great opportunities. There may very well be improvements that would help it along that journey and there are many whose opinions on the subject deserve to be heard and considered. Let us give all ideas a chance to be heard and considered by creating the study commission.

This appeared in the Sunday, July 14th edition of the Home News Tribune.