NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney was in a unique position of power Monday morning, as he fielded questions about S1860, the controversial bill to expand the Rutgers Board of Governors from 15 to 19 members.
Despite concerns about its legality, the Senate's Higher Education Committee approved the bill by a 3-2 vote along party lines, with all three Democrats reluctantly siding with Sweeney.
Democrats Nellie Pou, Paul Sarlo, and Sandra Cunningham voted for the bill, while Republicans Thomas Kean Jr. and Robert Singer voted against.
If it passes both houses of the legislature and secures the support of Governor Chris Christie, the board would be expanded to include one member appointed by Sweeney himself, in his role as Senate President. Two more would be appointed by the state's Governor, and the final new member would be chosen by the Speaker of the Assembly.
Sweeney repeatedly dismissed allegations that the bill would provide for exactly the type of political influence that the state took efforts to avoid when it made Rutgers the official state univeristy in 1956.
By law, the Trustees select seven of their members to serve on the smaller, more powerful Board of Governors. The remaining eight Governors are appointed by the state's Governor.
Since the 1956 agreement, the board has maintained a single-vote advantage for the political appointees, but if Sweeney's bill becomes law, the political appointees could outnumber the trustee appointees 12-7.
Representatives of both the Board of Governors and the Trustees spoke forcefully against the bill.
BILL LIKELY WOULD BE STRUCK DOWN IF PASSED
“The Rutgers Act of 1956 constitutes a legislative contract which cannot be modified without consent of the Rutgers board of trustees,” Rutgers-Camden law professor Allan Stein told the committee.
“The law could not be clearer that the university shall be given a high degree of self-government and shall be free of partisanship. Changes to that governance are explicitly subject to trustee approval under the act.”
Senator Thomas Kean Jr. criticized the bill, pointing out that the Rutgers board in question was expanded by four members just one year ago when the school absorbed the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ.
"How in the world is this at all constitutional?" asked Kean, who said both US Supreme Court precedent and the 1956 law that made Rutgers the State University would require consent from the existing governance structures.
At first, Sweeney gave a nonsensical answer.
"That would be left up to the courts," responded Sweeney. "I'm not an attorney."
"Some people feel this would be successful because laws are considered laws first, when there's a challenge. So then if this passes the legislature, I think it has standing."
Pressed again to answer how the bill could possibly be constitutional if it did not secure the endorsement of the Trustees, Sweeney told Kean, "We'll see in court. And you know something? When you go to court, sometimes you win sometimes you lose."
When Sweeney made the argument that Rutgers was the only NJ public school that had any appointments that were not political, Kean countered that none of the state's school have direct representation appointed by the Senate President or Assembly Speaker.
Sweeney argued that the merger with the medical school meant more officials with healthcare expertise was needed.
Dudley Rivers, one of the Trustee-appointed members of the Board of Governors is the Finance Director for city-based Johnson & Johnson. But Rutgers conceeded he was the only one who works in healthcare.
"It is correct that none of the political appointees to the Board of Governors have medical backgrounds," said Peter McDonough, Rutgers' governmental affairs agent.
"The most recent political appointees include two attorneys and a policy analyst," he said.
Officials admitted that, currently, two of the fifteen seats on the BOG are vacant.
McDonough added that some ten medical professionals currently serve on the Trustees, and another five will join on July 1.
Dorthy Cantor, the current Chair of the Board of Trustees is a doctor of psychology, who will soon join the more powerful Board of Governors.
Cantor testified against the bill, as did several representatives of Rutgers, arguing it will disturb the careful balance between political appointees to the BOG and trustee appointees, which are usually alumni with special connections to and knowledge of the university.
Sweeney was permitted to sit with the Higher Education Committee after his remarks, and took advantage of the opportunity to question Derrick and Cantor. He took issue with why a draft report on the issue of reforming the school's government was not yet made public.
Under pressure, Cantor said she would likely provide Sweeney with a copy of the report, produced by former BOG chair William Howard, but said she would have to check with outgoing BOG Chairman Gerald Harvey, who was unable to attend the hearing in Trenton.
ONE OF MANY RECENT ATTEMPTS TO INFLUENCE RUTGERS
The 59-member Board of Trustees usually maintains a low profile, but they quickly became one of the driving forces that helped kill an effort to give away the Rutgers-Camden campus to Rowan University in 2012.
The move was widely seen as being made for ulterior motives, including pleasing Sweeney's alleged political boss, George Norcross, who heads a Camden-based hospital that recently teamed up with Rowan, which calls Sweeney's district home.
It proved to be one of the most unpopular ideas Governor Chris Christie supported in his first term leading the state.
When it became clear the Trustees would not support that part of the restructuring, which had been grouped with the UMDNJ-Rutgers merger, the proposal was shelved.
Seizing on the Mike Rice scandal, Sweeney attempted to steer anger towards the Board of Trustees, which serves as a check on the more powerful half of Rutgers government structure.
According to the official story, at least one member of the Board of Governors appointed by the Trustees knew about the video of basketball coach Mike Rice shoving players and shouting homophobic slurs at them months before it became public.
"Mark Herschorn, who's the one who created all the embarrassment in the athletic program… They never took care of that."
Last year, Sweeney introduced a controversial bill that would have eliminated the trustees, one that seemed like it might be passed just before the legislative session ended last summer.
As we reported at the time, the bill was fast-tracked skipping the committee process in both houses, until a groundswell of opposition helped put the brakes on the effort.
Like today's fight, the Rutgers Trustees said that the bill could not be legally permitted to usurp their power, and the state's legislative office agreed that it would likely be overturned if it did not get the endorsement of the Trustees.
Sweeney had the votes to get it passed in the Senate, but Assembly Speaker Shiela Oliver and a coalition of Democrats in that chamber helped defeat the bill.
This year, however, a new man is at the helm of the Assembly, Hudson County's Vincent Prieto, the same official who submitted a companion bill identical to Sweeney's last week, just as he did during the controversial push to abolish the trustees.
After the trustee kill bill failed, Sweeney switched gears towards removing the only Latino member of the Board of Governors, New Brunswick's own Martin Perez.
Perez was appointed by Christie, thanks to legislation that enabled the school to absorb the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
But Sweeney threatened a lawsuit, and briefly halted Perez's addition to the board last summer.
Rutgers quickly reversed course and decided to honor the appointment, calling Sweeney's bluff. The Senate President did not back down, filing a lawsuit against Rutgers, but that too failed.
Asked about Sweeney's latest power play, Perez told New Brunswick Today, "The university must be free from outside political interference. It's autonomy is part of the essence of the university and shall be not negotiable."
Perez added that "the university must have internal mechanism of administration and governance that are transparent, accountable, efficient and inclusive."
IS SWEENEY RUNNING FOR GOVERNOR?
Just days after his latest scheme to alter the governance structure at Rutgers University became public, NJ Senate President Steven Sweeney paid a visit to the Hub City.
But the press event, which also featured Mayor James Cahill, took place miles away from the Rutgers campus.
Sweeney used the Livingston Avenue Foodtown as a backdrop for the staged event celebrating the overwhelming victory of a ballot initiative where voters approved a Sweeney-sponsored increase to the state's minimum wage.
Sweeney was asked by a reporter if the event was a sign that he was preparing to run for Governor in 2017, when Chris Christie will be prevented from running again thanks to term limits.
Sweeney, believed by many to be among a small group of establishment front-runners for the Democratic nomination, defended his actions as part of his job as State Senate President.
Sweeney said that as President, this was his second "tour" of the state in three months, which he described as reasonable.
“Time and again, increasing the minimum wage has shown the positive impacts of giving a boost to working people,” Sweeney said, according to a report on NJBIZ.com.
“Rather than simply give tax breaks to the so-called ‘job creators,’ we need to be investing more in the working poor and middle class. That money gets put right back into the economy, benefiting local businesses and communities.”
Ironically Cahill got burned in his most recent job creation endeavor, when the city's newest supermarket TheFreshGrocer closed after just eighteen months.
The market had gotten considerable help from the government, including its landlord New Brunswick Parking Authority, who allowed the tenant to rack up a $1 million debt.
Perhaps if the minimum wage hike celebration had been held six months ago, it would have been in the now-vacant market, just a few blocks from the epicenter of Rutgers.
Instead, Sweeney found himself deep into the city's Fourth Ward for the press event, but the Star-Ledger's Matt Friedman and WCTC's Mike Pavlitchko both asked him about the controversial bill, much to the chagrin of Sweeney's handlers.
Sweeney responded, emphasizing that all four additional members would have to have a background in healthcare and two would have to be Rutgers alumni.
"Nowhere in the bill is anything that will hurt the Trustees," Sweeney claimed.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.