A Bill that Calls for Change Will Not Change Rutgers University For the Better

Today, I am reading about a bill in the New Jersey Legislature that proposes to eliminate the system-wide Board of Trustees of Rutgers University and in effect replace it with three campus advisory boards that would work closely with the chancellors of the three campuses in Camden, Newark and New Brunswick. In effect, one advisory body would be replaced with three. The final decisions with respect to adopting a budget to present to the governor and the state legislature, the hiring of the university’s president and the approval of faculty and senior administrative hires would rest, as they always have, with a Rutgers University Board of Governors that is politically as well as fiscally accountable. However, it’s also quite possible that the current trustees, under state law, would need to consent to their own elimination. That does not appear likely, but New Jersey politics are not always predictable.

Why I am I writing about this?

What does this have to do with a current or future Rutgers University student and their education?

Quite a bit, actually.

Rutgers University became a state university system in 1956. . The governor of New Jersey at the time, Robert Meyner, a Democrat, was touted as a presidential and vice presidential candidate for 1960. Like our current governor, Chris Christie, Meyner was highly-sought as a speaker and fundraiser for other candidates of his party across the country. Like Christie, Meyner was a fiscal conservative as well as a staunch investigator into political corruption. And, like Christie, he governed successfully when the presidency was held by the other party.

The legislation establishing the Board of Trustees as a system-wide board could be considered landmark for its day. It came on the heels of McCarthyism, when government employees, celebrities, military personnel, as well as university professors were questioned vigorously about their loyalty to their country. In 1956 there was a U.S. Supreme Court case, Slochower v. Board of Higher Education of New York City,  where the court ruled that a Brooklyn College professor had been denied his due process rights . He had been terminated because he refused to answer questions about his supposed past membership in the Communist Party on grounds of self incrimination.

Had it not been for its 1956 legislation, Rutgers University could not act to protect its faculty in a similar manner. While Governor Christie has, to his credit, been laissez faire, as to what is taught in Rutgers classrooms, a future governor could be granted greater powers to remove faculty or administrators, as well as students, who publicly express views that s/he does not like. Rutgers is a school where diverse viewpoints are encouraged more than most, not only on the part of students but faculty as well. A governor should not be given the power to silence them.

Elimination of the Board of Trustees also places a governor of being in the position of “chief strategist” for the state university system. But a governor is term-limited and strategic planning is long term. Rutgers University President Robert Barchi, chosen by the Board of Governors, with the consent of Governor Christie, is already taking on that leadership role. It must remain with him as well as the faculty and administrators of the university, as well as its donors and supporters. Elimination of the Board of Trustees could also lead, in the future to more political patronage not less. A legislator who can deliver a governor votes will always get a governor’s ear. The university president does not deliver votes, but he becomes weaker when he is too easily undermined by those who can.

Rutgers University is not three separate flagship research universities. It is a system where each school has different issues and missions. In a system it’s not about money going here or there, it’s about fulfilling campus missions.

While the main campus grasps with how to compete in Big Ten sports and build a self-sufficient athletic department as well as how to integrate scientific research with medical research, health and science education with medical education, the campus in Newark has to become a stronger partner with its local and regional business community as well as continue to advocate for access and diversity. Camden needs to do the same, but also do more to improve the retention and graduation rates of its undergraduate students. Undergraduate liberal arts and business education dominates this campus more than the others. I know that there are faculty in Newark and Camden who believe that they are no less than equal to their peers in New Brunswick. When it comes to assessing intellect, I am  in no position to argue. But I do believe that the faculty in similar departments on the three campuses should have different responsibilities when it comes to balancing teaching with research. The campuses that serve a higher share of students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds need to be placed in a position to provide those students with more personal attention and teaching support. The research must come second.

I understand the reasons for the legislation: a belief that more efficiency will result from fewer decision-makers who do not control funds, a greater voice for each Rutgers University campus, and a reprimand for past mistakes in the vetting of the hiring of an athletic director. But a state university system has to take a long term view, not place the leadership in the position of mediating “they’ve got that and we don’t” arguments that contribute nothing to improving the quality of a student’s education or enhancing the Rutgers University’s role in the state’s economy. Instead it creates governance based on the resolution of resentments and petty political differences, no matter who leads the state.