Should Rutgers Go Private to Avoid Politicization of NJ Higher Ed?

Diary rescue from a very busy primary day. Promoted by Rosi.

Yesterday, the Senate Higher Education Committee in a predictable party-line vote, voted 3-2 to advance S1860 which restructures Rutgers governance without the consent of the Board of Trustees (nor the consent of Rutgers 450,000 living alumni, faculty, staff, students and other key stakeholders in the nearly 250 year old university).  The bill packs Rutgers Board of Governors with political appointees and creates an unwieldy board of 19, split between 12 political appointees and 7 Board of Trustees appointees, which mainly represent the alumni and Rutgers fiduciary interests.  The bill moves governance from an 8-7 political/BOT split, to an overwhelming majority of political appointees beholden to the Governor, the State Senate President and Assembly Speaker,

Senate Minority Leader Kean remained steadfast in his opposition to political mucking about in New Jersey’s flagship public university. State Senate President Sweeney signaled his ongoing commitment to politicizing higher education in New Jersey by sitting in on the committee hearing and engaging in rancorous back and forth with the Rutgers Board of Trustees Chairwoman, Dorothy Cantor.

This is the third attempt in three years that Senator Sweeney has attempted to disrupt Rutgers governance and organizational structures, first by an attempted give-away of Rutgers-Camden to Glassboro State College Rowan University and Cooper Medical School, last year in a unilateral attempt to dissolve the Rutgers Board of Trustees by legislative fiat, and this year by packing the Rutgers Board of Governors with political appointees.  

All this it would appear is part of a larger strategy to strip Rutgers assets and lands and shift them to Camden in pursuit of George Norcross’ longstanding “Eds and Meds” strategy.  Without a strong research university like Rutgers and its intellectual capital, financial assets and worldwide reputation, Norcross’s “Eds and Meds” strategy for Camden is doomed to second rate status and as an also-ran to the vibrant medical complexes and biomedical communities across the river in Philadelphia.

Make no mistake, these attempts to disrupt higher education in New Jersey in pursuit of a Camden-centered “Eds and Meds” strategy threaten the vision of New Jersey itself as former New Jersey Attorney General and current Rutgers General Counsel John Farmer eloquently articulated during the failed attempt to strip Rutgers-Camden from the larger University in 2012.  

Rutgers is a large and complex university with a long and distinguished history. It is unique among universities nationwide as it is the only university that is simultaneously a colonial college, a land grant institution and a public university. Along with William & Mary, we are one of only two public institutions founded before the American Revolution.

So should Rutgers go private in order to protect this heritage and our 200+ year contributions to our state? Prior to becoming New Jersey’s public university in 1956, Rutgers served the state’s public needs through the New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station and related land grant missions while holding private college status. As a private and quasi-private institution, Rutgers stepped in and acquired the financially troubled University of Newark (now Rutgers-Newark) and the financially troubled South Jersey Law School and College of South Jersey (now Rutgers-Camden), thus ensuring that two of New Jersey’s most important commercial centers, Newark and Camden, would continue to have colleges and universities located in the heart of their cities.  Rutgers recently stepped in again and merged with the financially troubled UMDNJ, a merger which caused Rutgers always excellent bond ratings to drop because of the excessive debt that UMDNJ held.

Time and again Rutgers has stepped up and met New Jersey’s needs whether they be urban, suburban, agricultural or coastal. And we do this despite the fact that New Jersey has historically one of the lowest levels of support for higher education in the country.

If the State of New Jersey reneges on the contract it established with Rutgers under the 1956 Compact, should the Rutgers Board of Trustees respond by taking the university private once again? While the state has barely provided 20% of Rutgers budget over the last few years, that is still well-over $700 million dollars of Rutgers $3.6 billion dollar budget that would have to be made up somehow.  Big Ten Membership should make the Athletic Department self-sustaining within the next decade and membership in the associated Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) should provide significant economies of scale for purchasing and procurement. This should help close the $700 million dollar gap a wee bit, but Rutgers will still face a large revenue gap and a number of other issues related to taking a $3.6 billion institution private, all on the heels of an unprecedented medical school merger.

But is the cost and disruption worth it?  Unfortunately, the answer is most likely yes.

I reluctantly come to this answer as a first generation college graduate who spent time living in Big 10 country where flagship state universities are seen as sources of pride and as core institutions that help define the state’s economy and culture. Unfortunately, New Jersey’s current political leaders have never seen Rutgers as part of New Jersey’s heritage and culture or as a source of ideas and innovation that could help power the state into the black. Rutgers also has world-class humanities and arts programs and an incredible success rate of admission to Ivy League graduate and professional schools by top-performing undergraduates. Rutgers has also been a top producer of Gates and Fulbright Fellows for quite some time now.  

Yet rather than working together with Rutgers to increase transparency, ensuring that unions, students and faculty truly share in Rutgers governance along with alumni and appointed administrators, reinforcing Rutgers longstanding commitment to first generation, immigrant, minority and low-income students, and increasing the university’s intellectual firepower by fully funding and expanding scholarships for New Jersey’s top performing high school students, New Jersey’s political leaders seem willing to sacrifice a 250 year old institution of higher education for short term financial gain and a flawed strategy.

Only in New Jersey do we see higher education policy driven by a State Senate President with a high school degree, a business executive who dropped out of college and a Higher Ed Committee Chairperson with no advanced professional or graduate degrees. So unfortunately, in this current climate of continual attacks on its governance, organizational structure, mission and heritage by New Jersey’s political leaders, Rutgers University should go private and return to its colonial college roots.

Disclosure: I am a Rutgers alum and have recently returned as a doctoral fellow in organizational communication.  

Comments (9)

  1. dbkurz415

    Jack, while I understand your anger over this issue, if Rutgers went ‘private’ what exactly would constitute the university’s infrastructure? Aside from Old Queens Hall and a few other old buildings (like Kirkpatrick Chapel), Rutgers’ infrastructure was literally built by the State. Every dorm, every lab, every student center, every library was funded by the taxpayers. So how this institution could self-privatize is beyond me.

    It’s true that there are issues at Rutgers with governance and funding priorities, and such issues exist at all major universities. Still, I do not think that the current proposals will change things that much. The bottom line is that Rutgers provides an amazing value in tuition to the residents of New Jersey and I cannot see anything worth endangering that mission.

    But for what it is worth, I do not approve of the current Senate bill either.  

    Reply
  2. 12mileseastofTrenton

    Unbelievable.

    Reply
  3. 12mileseastofTrenton

    Republican senators to offset Stack and the Norcross caucus.  And it still has to make it through the Assembly.

    Reply
  4. keepitreal

    But you have to keep fighting the Sweeney/Norcross takeover plan. The good news is that you have a lot of great legal minds on your side. Ultimately, I do not think that the Senate bill will stand.  

    Reply

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