NEW BRUNSWICK — The 15-member Rutgers University board of governors is the right size and does not need Trenton lawmakers adding more political appointees, the board chairman said Thursday in his first remarks about a controversial measure to expand the school’s powerful governing body.
Gerald Harvey, the board chairman, said he planned to submit written testimony to the state Legislature on Monday calling for lawmakers to reject a proposal introduced by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to increase the board to 19 members.
“The bill isn’t necessary,” Harvey said. “Each of the governors I’ve spoken to have told me they don’t think the bill is a good idea.”
Sweeney riled many at Rutgers when he introduced a bill to add four members to the board, which oversees the 65,000-student state university. Under the current system, eight members are appointed by the governor and seven are chosen by the Rutgers board of trustees, a separate body made up mostly of university alumni. Proponents say the system helps keeps political influence and meddling in Rutgers affairs to a minimum.
Under Sweeney’s proposal, the four new members of the board of governors would all be political appointees, shifting the balance of the board. The governor would get to fill 10 seats, and the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the General Assembly would each get to fill one seat. The trustees would continue to control seven seats.
The Rutgers board of trustees is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting about the legislation at noon today on the New Brunswick campus. The 59-member group is expected to vote to oppose the bill.
Sweeney said Rutgers officials were overreacting to his proposal to expand the board by adding four new members — all with medical and health backgrounds — to reflect the university’s recent addition of several new medical and health science schools.
“They’re having an emergency meeting tomorrow, for what?” Sweeney said. “This is them running around saying the sky is falling, and honestly it’s not. Nowhere in the bill does it do anything to hurt the trustees.”
The showdown over the expansion of the board of governors is the latest skirmish between Sweeney and Rutgers officials. In 2012, the Rutgers board of trustees led a successful fight to derail a plan backed by Sweeney and his political patron, George Norcross, the most powerful Democrat in New Jersey, to merge Rutgers-Camden and nearby Rowan University in Glassboro.
Norcross is chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, which has partnered with Rowan in a new South Jersey medical school.
In what some say was political payback, Sweeney introduced legislation to eliminate the board of trustees, saying Rutgers did not need two governing bodies. But the measure failed.
Sweeney has repeatedly said Rutgers’ system of governance is antiquated and needs to be updated — especially after the school found itself at the center of several sports-related scandals in recent years.
The state Senate’s higher education committee plans to hold a hearing Monday in Trenton on Sweeney’s new bill (S-1860) to expand the board of governors. Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) has proposed an identical bill in the Assembly.
Harvey, the board chairman, said he could not attend Monday’s hearing in Trenton, but would submit written testimony opposing the measure that would be read by a fellow board member.
Harvey said he would argue that adding four new members to the board with medical backgrounds — to reflect Rutgers’ addition of medical schools last year — is unnecessary. The board already expanded from 11 to 15 members last year after Rutgers’ merger with the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
“The (Sweeney) bill addresses a need that was already addressed,” Harvey said. “This proposed bill simply muddies the water.”
In addition, he said, the board would soon have a number of open seats because the terms of several members are expiring, providing the opportunity to add more members with medical backgrounds. Harvey’s own term on the board is among those ending next month.
Sweeney is not the only one questioning whether Rutgers’ governance system needs to be reformed. Last summer, Rutgers formed a task force to study its governing boards after it merged with UMDNJ. The task force was headed by the Rev. M. William Howard Jr., pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, who is a former chairman of the Rutgers board of governors.
Howard’s group submitted its recommendations over the winter, though Harvey said he and Dorothy Cantor, the chairwoman of the board of trustees, had chosen not to make them public while the university continues to consider reforms.
The task force did not recommend expanding the board of governors or eliminating the board of trustees, Harvey said.
The two boards are continuing to study whether they need to make some changes, including reforms to their committee systems.
“Sen. Sweeney’s bills have been a distraction,” Harvey said.