“Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers, said that even in New Jersey’s checkered political history, it was shocking to find that government officials had taken ‘an institution of higher learning, and a source of health care for thousands of people, and filled it with hacks.’”

No, this quote does not come out of today’s slew of reactions to the legislation introduced by Senate President Steve Sweeney to reorganize higher education.  It comes from an April, 2006 report in the New York Times, one of many reports on the rampant corruption at UMDNJ that has  since prompted the proposed reorganization of higher education as a whole. 

When he was a crusading U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie made UMDNJ the object of his reform efforts, a campaign that carried over to the recommendation  he warmly endorsed as governor  in January when that university was targeted for complete reorganization. Why, then, is Christie repeating the same mistake in creating a politically dominant governing board to control the combined resources of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan universities?  Isn’t he simply making the same mistake as his predecessors?

Christie will argue, you can be sure, that his motives are purely to advance higher education in the region. But his means as well as his methods reek of the same political dealmaking that set UMDNJ up for a fall to begin with.

Let’s remember what happened in Camden when the state took over the city in 2002. Senator Wayne Bryant was the chief architect of the municipal recovery act, which contained generous provisions for the city’s “eds” and “meds,” even as it made only token investments in human capital through job training and union apprentice programs.  

As I report in my book, Camden after the Fall, then Governor Jim McGreevy  wanted to strip the funding  for the eds and meds out of the bill, believing they could fend for themselves.  Because he relied on South Jersey Democrats chairing the important budget committees in both branches of the legislature to get his budget through, however, McGreevey acceded to their demands that he retain support for the city’s anchor institutions.

Subsequently Senator Bryant, who was chair of the Senate Budget Committee at the time, offered his services to several of the act’s grateful beneficiaries, notably UMDNJ’s campus in Stratford and Rutgers-Camden, where he expanded his role as both part-time instructor and sometime adviser.  Byrant was prosecuted and convicted for not working in return for his position at UMDNJ. As the Gloucester County Times reported at the time, “U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie called Bryant’s actions ‘simply the most disgusting conduct’ he’s seen by a public official during his seven-year tenure as the state’s top prosecutor.”

Now the shoe is on the other foot.  Christie needs the support of South Jersey Democrats to maintain his image of bipartisan “reform,” and like McGreevey before him, to get his budget through.   Not incidentally, it is the leader of the South Jersey Democrats, Steve Sweeney, who has introduced the reorganization bill and made the creation of an all-powerful governing board over Rutgers-Camden and Rowan its keystone by  assuring a majority of the appointments.  If this isn’t an invitation to cronyism, I can’t think of a better possibility.

Happily, the public has not been fooled by the shallow public relations campaign to effect this takeover. What remains to be seen is whether South Jersey  politicians succeed in securing the spoils in Camden. U.S. Attorney Chris Christie would have bellowed at such a violation of the public trust. But of course he’s in a different place now.

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