Steve Sweeney takes another swing at Rutgers: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board

If this were Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s first swipe at the boards that run Rutgers University, it would hardly rate headlines. His latest legislation proposes to add four seats to Rutgers’ board of governors and who should appoint them. Nothing sinister here.

But it was only last year that the Democrat from Gloucester County tried to abolish Rutgers’ other governing body, the board of trustees, which would have put control of the board of governors — and by extension, the entire university — in the hands of New Jersey’s political bosses. At the time, observers called it payback, because the trustees had blocked his attempt to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University in 2012.

Ultimately, the bill failed.

Sweeney’s new attempt to remake the board of governors is the same brand of political power grab, only smaller. It should suffer the same fate.

Sweeney’s bill (S1860) would expand Rutgers’ powerful board of governors — responsible for all university functions, including its $4 billion budget — from 15 members to 19. The four, Sweeney told The Star-Ledger, would be required to have a background in health science to reflect the university’s addition of medical schools last year. The governor would appoint two more, giving him 10. The Senate president and Assembly speaker (who put forth an identical bill) would each get one; they currently have none. The trustees would still appoint seven members — their influence mathematically diluted.

Sweeney’s strategy may be different, but the goal is fundamentally unchanged: greater control over Rutgers by reshaping the boards that limit his control of the state university.

That’s no accident. The Rutgers Act of 1956, which created the university we know today, contains language prohibiting exactly the type of shenanigans Sweeney has tried.

Last year’s attempt to eliminate the trustees was blunt and extreme. This year’s effort doesn’t touch the trustees, but it still attempts to shift control of Rutgers to New Jersey’s political leaders, headed by the governor and legislative leaders.

The 1956 Rutgers Act wasn’t written to prevent change. It was written, however, with political interference in mind.

Therefore, our objection remains the same: If lawmakers show they can reshape Rutgers’ governance with an act of legislation, they’ll prove the Rutgers Act of 1956 is vulnerable — and open the door to any change they want to make.


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