Rutgers board approves governance changes after political battle

Rutgers University’s Board of Trustees, its secondary and largely advisory governing body, voted Monday evening to reduce its membership, signaling an end to months of review — at times contentious and political — of the university’s governance structure.

The number of voting trustees will be decreased to 41, from 59; 12 of the 18 slots will be closed by attrition over a period of about three years, with outgoing trustees not replaced. The other slots will be closed by eliminating dual board membership.

Trustees met for about an hour in closed session Monday evening, then took a few minutes to vote publicly on the resolution approving the moves. Of the 29 voting trustees present, 28 voted in favor of the changes. Richard Shindell was the sole no vote; he did not discuss or explain his vote, and could not be reached Monday night.

Under the current system, the Board of Trustees sends seven of its members to the Board of Governors, the main governing body responsible for most major decisions, including setting tuition, approving academic programs, and hiring the Rutgers president. The governor of the state appoints eight members to the Board of Governors. Most governors also served as trustees, under the 1956 law that created the modern Rutgers system.

But most of the Board of Governors members who are also ex officio trustees tended to ignore the secondary board, according to a task force report released earlier this year. Eliminating those responsibilities and decreasing the number of voting trustees could make the Board of Trustees more manageable, it said.

The report of that task force had become a flash point earlier this year in a battle between the Rutgers boards and New Jersey’s top elected Democrat.

In 2012, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and other top politicians — including Gov. Christie — lost a proposal to merge Rutgers–Camden into Rowan University as part of a higher education restructuring. The next year, Sweeney attempted unsuccessfully to abolish the Board of Trustees, which had blocked the merger proposal and threatened to sue over it.

This year, Sweeney introduced legislation to expand the number of political appointees on the Board of Governors; when activists and members of both boards fought back, he showed up at a legislative committee hearing to make his case, arguing that Rutgers’ increased size and scope should be reflected in the size and makeup of the Board of Governors.

He has also suggested that poor governance had contributed to a series of scandals at Rutgers, including the firing of its men’s basketball coach last year after he was caught on video verbally and physically abusing his players.

“The status quo is not acceptable,” he said.

He then called on Rutgers to release the report of the task force, which was commisioned in the wake of the basketball scandal. That report’s main recommendation was to reduce the size of the Board of Trustees; it did not recommend increasing the size of the Board of Governors or eliminating the trustees, the two changes Sweeney had previously advocated.

Sweeney’s bill passed the Senate, but he delivered an ultimatum of sorts to the university: adopt changes recommended in the report, or he would push it through the Assembly.

It was a way for both sides to back down from their very public brawl. While full-scale adoption of the report’s recommendations was unlikely from the start, some change was likely, board members said. The boards immediately adopted some other recommended changes, including changing the number and nature of some of the governing bodies’ committees.

The two sides have been meeting in the months since, with the chairs of the boards meeting with Sweeney in person and talking by phone multiple times.

The trustees’ move Monday will next be taken up Tuesday by the Board of Governors. If that board also agrees, which appears likely, then the state Legislature will need to pass a bill amending the 1956 law exactly as the Rutgers boards worded the changes.

Then all sides can move on, with a friendlier and more collaborative relationship than before, said Pete McDonough, Rutgers’ senior vice president for external affairs, who acts as the university’s chief lobbyist.

“There’s a very productive working relationship that we now have between the leadership of the boards and the leadership of the Senate,” he said Monday night. “There’s a much more collaborative spirit in the air right now.”