As short as political memories are, it’s time to invoke the specter of Newt Gingrich and his startling claim at the start of the year that the United States could produce a colony on the mood at no cost to the taxpayers. Now Chris Christie has one-upped his fellow Republican: we can turn higher education in New Jersey on its head and actually save money by “phasing out duplicative administrative and academic functions.” You’ve heard that phrase a million times in budget debates before. It’s akin to politicians leaving office under a cloud saying they want to spend more time with their family. Such claims are neither honest nor credible, as Rutgers’s Adam Scales makes clear in a column in today’s Inquirer.
The proposal to reorganize higher education keeps getting worse and worse, as politicians jump in to get their share of the spoils, caring not a whit about any of the high goals they claimed for themselves at the start of the process. For Rutgers, what started as a problem in Camden has spread to infect the whole system. That situation was exposed in the ugliest possible form earlier this week when Rutgers lobbyist Peter McDonough, at the direction of senate executive director Andrew Hendry, interrupted RU Board of Governors member Candice Straight in an effort to prevent her from testifying that she would support the legislation only after the adoption of amendments making it consistent with the principles Rutgers adopted earlier this month. Bob Braun provides full details in his column in today’s Star-Ledger.
The New York Times, which has yet to pay any attention to the bizarre and destructive actions of the New Jersey legislature, provides some warning nonetheless of the perils of political meddling in higher education, by recounting the turmoil that has followed the summary firing of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan. Her fault, it seems, was not responding quickly enough to dictates laid down by newly appointed Republican members of the university’s Board of Visitors. Sullivan was a member of the commission that issued the stinging report on the crisis in higher education I reported on last week. New Jersey continues to act as the poster child for what not to do to improve higher education, by adding more politically appointed members not just to Rutgers itself, but to the newly envisioned joint board governing Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.
The bill before the legislature is dishonest in the extreme. It designates Rowan a research university without providing any of the resources needed to accomplish that standing in any nationally recognized body outside of New Jersey. So, what is it that legislators have in mind? Can savings be wrung out of the two institutions in order to create a research university in fact? Would it help to have one school of Arts and Sciences, using funds generated at one campus to add new faculty to the other? Would one business school vault the two existing programs to higher status? Since the proposed joint board of governors imposed over the two schools is to be staffed by the two affected institutions, wouldn’t it be logical over time to eliminate other administrative functions on each campus?
Isn’t the goal to make this governing board a university operating system for the two campuses? Certainly that impression is widely and correctly perceived. And if true, this could be a lot worse than an empty cliché about spending more time with one’s family. If acted upon , these powers will not save money. Instead, they will inflict damage beyond anyone’s imagination, distorting priorities and undermining strengths at each of the affected campuses. And it won’t be hidden away on the moon. It will be right here for everybody to see.