Bill to expand Rutgers governing board advances

AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer

TRENTON - The ongoing fight between Rutgers University and New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney flared again Monday as a legislative panel backed his controversial proposal to expand the school's board of governors.

The bill would increase from 15 members to 19. Twelve would be political appointees - 10 by the governor, one by the Senate president, and one by the Assembly speaker.

The 59-member board of trustees would continue to appoint the seven remaining members of the board of governors. The chairs of both boards oppose Sweeney's bill (S1860), saying it would shift the balance of power on the board of governors to politicians and also violate the state's 1956 contract with the university that requires trustees' consent to any significant changes to the university's governing structure.

The board of governors is the more powerful of the university's two governing bodies, overseeing the running of the university, including setting tuition and approving new programs.

Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he wants the governing board to better reflect the university at large, after Rutgers absorbed two medical schools, a hospital, and other health-science units as part of a higher education restructuring that took effect last year.

His bill would require each of the four new appointees to have professional medical backgrounds and two of them to be Rutgers alumni.

"Rutgers' history is a source of pride, but we can't rely on an 18th-century organizational model to meet the challenges of the 21st century," Sweeney said in prepared remarks before the Senate Higher Education Committee. "Enhancing the board of governors will modernize and improve governance of the university."

He said 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 - damaged the school's reputation and "its ability to pursue academic excellence."

"The status quo is not acceptable," he said.

Rutgers board members and faculty objected that the Legislature already had accounted for the restructuring by expanding the board two years ago to 15 members, from 11. That expansion maintained the balance of political appointees and trustee-appointed members.

"It is incumbent upon the trustees to preserve the integrity and autonomy of the university," Dorothy Cantor, chair of the board of trustees, told the Senate panel. "That was the intent of our predecessors in 1956, when they agreed that Rutgers would become the state university. They never wanted the board of governors to be a center of political patronage."

A spokesperson for Gerald C. Harvey, chair of the board of governors, noted that there are two holdover members on the board, and the term of a third expires at the end of June. Thus, Gov. Christie could soon appoint three members with medical backgrounds, if desired.

Most striking, opponents said, was that the bill appeared to violate the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions. Allan R. Stein, a professor at Rutgers-Camden School of Law, testified that the Rutgers Act of 1956 constituted a legislative contract, which could not be modified without the consent of the Board of Trustees.

Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819 ruled in Dartmouth College v. Woodward that New Hampshire's attempt to take over that school's governing body violated its charter, Stein said.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean, a member of the committee, asked Sweeney: "How in the world is this at all constitutional?"

Sweeney said he did not know but added: "We'll see what happens in court."

Kean voted against the bill, which advanced from committee on a 3-2 vote. Sweeney said he would post the bill June 12 for a vote on the Senate floor. It needs to pass the full Senate and Assembly before it would head to Christie.

The relationship between Sweeney and the trustees has been rocky in recent years. When Sweeney joined with other legislators to propose the restructuring, the initial proposal involved merging Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University. The ensuing firestorm saw the trustees threaten to sue to block the legislation.

Last year, Sweeney introduced a bill to abolish the board of trustees. The trustees held a three-hour emergency meeting, retaining prominent constitutional lawyer Neal Katyal, who has served as acting U.S. solicitor general, and vowing to go to court if the legislation passed. It did not, though Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) immediately reintroduced the bill when the new session began.

Adding to the tension, Sweeney on Monday accused Cantor, the trustees' chair, of hiding an internal board report from the public.

Last year, Rutgers said a task force led by the Rev. M. William Howard Jr. and composed of members of the two governing boards would study the university's governance structure.

Cantor said Monday that she and Harvey, the board of governors' chair, had received a draft report on the matter in December. Cantor said no one else had seen the report.

When Sweeney asked whether she would provide a copy, Cantor said she would have to confer with Harvey.

"I'm telling you one way or another, I'll get this report," Sweeney said, adding he would file a public-records request if he had to. "Only two people have seen it for six months, and you say that's OK? . . . Obviously there must be some things in that report that the two chairs don't like."