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Fast-Tracked Law Threatens to End Rutgers Board of Trustees Just Days Before UMDNJ Merger

Bill Sponsored by Senate Pres. Steve Sweeney & Supported by Gov. Christie Would Abolish 247-Year-Old Board
Sweeney Bill Signing
State Senate President Steven Sweeney returns to his vehicle after attending a bill-signing at the Rutgers Student Center. Charlie Kratovil

TRENTON, NJ—Led by Senate President Steve Sweeney, state officials have been quietly working this week to enact a major change that would eliminate the larger half of Rutgers University's governance structure, the 247-year-old Board of Trustees.

The change would also give Governor Christie and his successors full control over the appointments to the remaining half of the governance structure, the powerful Board of Governors.

But the University says it doesn't agree with the proposal.  In an official statement, the university said, "It is clear, after reviewing the text of the legislation, that it would violate the legislative contract contained in the Rutgers Act."

And the trustees, a 59-member group that is legally in charge of Rutgers assets, fought back during an emergency meeting last night, unanimously approving a resolution denouncing Sweeney's proposal.

The trustees said that the original wishes of the university's founding fathers "must not be unilaterally modified by the state without the consent of the trustees."

Their resolution said that Sweeney's bill (S-2902) was "an unconstitutional and illegal attempt by the State to intervene in the governance of Rutgers, which, by law, is a highly autonomous and self-governing instrumentality of the State that should be free from partisanship."

The trustees also pledged to seek a court injunction against it if it becomes law. 

"In the event S 2902 is adopted by the New Jersey Legislature and signed into law, in order to discharge their oaths and fiduciary duties to the University... the Board of Truestees will... file an order to show cause ultimately seeking a permanent injunction against the application of S 2902 and a judgment declaring S 2902 a breach of contract, a violation of the Rutgers Law, and unconstitutional," read a section of the resolution.

The process to arrive at the decision and prepare the resolution took longer than expected, as the board met privately for hours, while reporters and others waited outside the Busch Campus Center Multipurpose Room.

The trustees pushed back the beginning of their open meeting first by a half hour, then "twenty or thirty minutes," then "probably fifteen more minutes."  Eventually the meeting was opened to the public at 10 pm, 90 minutes later than expected.

It appears the trustees came to similar conclusions as the Office of Legislative Services (OLS), a nonpartisan branch of the government that investigates the effect that proposals may have if enacted.

According to a report last night on NJ.com, an OLS report on S2902 was prepared at the request of Middlesex County Assemblyman Jon Wisniweski and it found that the trustees may be in the clear thanks to the 1956 law that lays out the state's continuing relationship with Rutgers:

"The responsibilities of the [governing boards] were recognized as part of the ‘legislative contract’ between the university and the state," reads the statement.  "The implementation of the proposals to eliminate the Board of Trustees and alter the membership of the Board of Governors may, therefore, require the consent of both boards.”

CHANGE COULD GIVE CHRISTIE GREATER CONTROL OVER RUTGERS
Governor Christie said initially that he would support the changes Sweeney wants to make, specifically dissolving the trustees and giving himself (and future Governors) the power to appoint the entire Rutgers power structure.

For more than half a century, the smaller Rutgers Board of Governors has worked in concert with the trustees, in an arrangement that typically puts the governors in the driver's seat.

Under the current arrangment, the trustees serve as a check on the eleven-member Board of Governors, five of whom are chosen from among the trustees.

Pressure from trustees helped to defeat an unpopular plan to give up the school's Camden campus to Rowan University last year, a change pushed by both Christie and Sweeney.

PolitickerNJ.com's State Street Wire reported on Tuesday that Christie said he supported the idea to eliminate the trustees, calling the school's governing structure "confusing and not in compliance" with how the majority of the nation's public universities operate.

The Board of Governors is set to expand to fifteen total members on July 1, a result of compromise legislation that also merges most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ into Rutgers.  Under the new legislation, eight of the governors are to be appointed by the state governor, and the remaining seven are chosen from among the trustees.

But, if Sweeney's bill becomes law, the fifteen governors will be the sole entity responsible for supervising and managing one of the largest public universities in the country, ending an arrangement of shared governance that has been in place since Rutgers officially became the state university in 1956.

For the previous 190 years, the Board of Trustees was in full control of the university. 

FIGHT OVER RUTGERS EXPECTED TO GO DOWN IN TRENTON TODAY

A complementary bill sponsored by Hudson County Assemblymen Vincent Prieto and Charles Manior in the State Assembly (A4135) was introduced Monday

Both bills were inexplicably permitted to bypass the standard process of being heard by one or more of the committees in the Assembly and Senate.

Instead, both bills could be scheduled as early as today for a vote on the floor of either house, without giving interested parties an opportunity to provide testimony.

Sweeney himself permitted the fast-tracking in the Senate, while Assembly Speaker and US Senate candidate Sheila Oliver must have signed off on the fast-tracking in her chamber.

Many suspect the timing is meant to coincide with the addition of an already-established medical school to Rutgers.  In four days, the University of Medicine & Dentistry will become Rutgers Medical School, after a years-long debate about re-organizing the state's higher education institutions.

Rutgers officials have been fighting the change proposed by Sweeney since his intentions first became public this week.  Multiple emails were sent to alumni yesterday informing them of the proposed elimination of the trustees and encouraging them to contact their legislators.

Two Rutgers law professors also penned a three-page letter to the 120 members of the state legislature, expressing "deep concern" about the legality of the bill.

Acting Dean of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark, Ronald K. Chen, and Distinguished Professor of Law Robert F. Williams wrote that the "Board of Trustees, and not the Board of Governors, remain to this day as the successors in interest to the original Trustees of Queens College (later Rutgers College) established in 1766."

"Even universities as large and ancient as Rutgers can be fragile institutions whose reputation and legitimacy can be easily diminished if not protected against the ebb and flow of political tides."