By W. Cary Edwards

Public higher education is one of New Jersey's most valuable investments. Every year, billions in tax and tuition dollars are devoted to our state colleges and universities, and the dividends are substantial and worthwhile: students who graduate to become world-class professionals, research at the cutting edge of international innovation, a reputation for academic excellence and achievement.

Like any public treasure, public higher education deserves and demands to be safeguarded by strong, transparent and accountable governance and independent oversight.

Unfortunately, as the record now amply demonstrates, there is no assurance that any such safeguards are in place and functioning effectively. Indeed, in many instances, they are not. The state withdrew from oversight of public higher education more than a dozen years ago, and the consequential harvest of that withdrawal has been bitter and lasting.

Over the last two years, investigations by state and federal authorities - including the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation (SCI), of which I am chair - and the media have revealed a wide spectrum of serious problems and weaknesses in publicly funded higher-education governance. Scandals at one institution alone, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, have produced criminal indictments and put on display an astonishing array of waste, fraud, abuse and violations of the public trust.

Completing its own comprehensive fact-finding investigation recently, the SCI reported that while the panorama of corruption at UMDNJ is an aberration, it nonetheless signifies what can occur anywhere within a system that almost seems designed to render its constituent parts vulnerable to abuse.

What happened at UMDNJ happened because no mechanism existed, internally or externally, to ensure institutional integrity and to detect and prevent abuses before they could occur. Simply put, no one was minding the store. Similarly, the questionable practices at other state colleges and universities recently detailed by the SCI evidence the consequences of poor oversight, lax accountability and inadequate transparency all across the board.

It's time to do something about this. Just as history has shown that the state's disengagement in 1994 was a mistake, it would be unwise and reckless to turn back the clock and reestablish the sort of unwieldy and unnecessary bureaucracy embodied by the former department, board and chancellor of higher education.

The SCI has provided rational recommendations for systemic reform to strengthen New Jersey's state colleges and universities while protecting the integrity of the substantial public stake in these important institutions. These recommendations would:

Give state college and university governing boards new tools to govern effectively, including a central role in the selection of new board members, more training, and enhanced committee structures.

Make the Commission on Higher Education a cabinet-level agency with authority - not to control or dictate to colleges and universities but to oversee their governance and to work with them to fulfill their potential and provide a voice for higher education at the highest levels of government.

Establish uniform fiscal and accounting standards.

Get politics out of the governance process; restrict the practices of higher-education lobbyists and prevent state colleges and universities from being pawns in pay-to-play.

Make sure New Jersey's state colleges and universities borrow sensibly and effectively for capital improvements and maintenance, especially since they currently carry some of the heaviest higher-education debt-loads in the nation.

As the governor, the Legislature, the higher-education community, and taxpayers at large grapple with these issues, it should be regarded as a time of opportunity, not conflict.

Our public higher-education system is one of New Jersey's most valuable investments, and we owe it to the taxpayers and to all tuition-paying students and parents to fulfill its full promise and to move it to the next level. They deserve nothing less.

W. Cary Edwards, a former attorney general of New Jersey, has served as chair of the State Commission of Investigation (www.state.nj.us/sci) since 2004.