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Rutgers cuts size of trustees board

The Rutgers University boards voted this week to reduce the size of one of the governing boards, signaling an end to months of review - at times contentious and political - of the way the school is run.

The Rutgers University boards voted this week to reduce the size of one of the governing boards, signaling an end to months of review - at times contentious and political - of the way the school is run.

The university's largely advisory board of trustees voted Monday evening to decrease the number of its voting members to 41 from 59. Most of the 18 slots will be eliminated through attrition over about three years. The others will come from ending dual membership on the trustees and the primary governing body, the board of governors.

The move comes months after State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) introduced legislation to force changes to the board of governors, sparking a battle with members of both boards, alumni, and faculty members, who called the proposal political interference.

On Tuesday, Sweeney, the state's top elected Democrat, said he would accept the changes and drop the legislation.

"Rutgers is changing itself, and I applaud their efforts," Sweeney said in a statement. "It is a world-class research university that has grown in size and stature, and we all want to see that continue."

Rutgers trustees met in a special session Monday, with 28 of the 29 voting members present voting in favor of the changes. The board of governors met Tuesday afternoon in a regular session, where members gave the changes final university approval.

Some changes require legislative action to amend the 1956 law that created the modern Rutgers system, and Sweeney introduced a bill Tuesday to make those changes. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said he would introduce a companion bill.

Under the current system, the board of trustees sends seven members to the board of governors, which is responsible for most major decisions, including setting tuition, approving academic programs, and hiring the university president. New Jersey's governor appoints eight members to the board of governors. Most of those appointees also serve as trustees.

Most of the governors who are also ex-officio trustees tend to ignore the secondary board, according to a task force report released this year. The report recommended reducing the size of the trustees board through attrition and elimination of dual membership.

The task force report became a flash point this year in a battle between the Rutgers boards and Sweeney.

In 2012, Sweeney and other top politicians, including Gov. Christie, supported a proposal to merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University as part of a higher education restructuring, but that effort failed. The next year, Sweeney tried to abolish the Rutgers board of trustees, which had blocked the merger proposal and threatened to sue over it.

This year, Sweeney introduced legislation to expand the number of political appointees on the board of governors. When activists and members of both boards fought back, he argued at a legislative committee hearing that Rutgers' increased size and scope should be reflected in the size and makeup of the board of governors.

He also has suggested that poor governance contributed to scandals at Rutgers, including the firing of men's basketball coach Mike Rice last year after he was caught on video verbally and physically abusing his players.

Sweeney later called on Rutgers to release the task force report commissioned after the basketball scandal. Its main recommendation was to reduce the size of the board of trustees.

With Tuesday's agreement, all sides can now move on, with a friendlier and more collaborative relationship than before, said Pete McDonough, Rutgers' senior vice president for external affairs, who acts as the university's chief lobbyist.

"There's a very productive working relationship that we now have between the leadership of the boards and the leadership of the Senate," he said Monday night. "There's a much more collaborative spirit in the air right now."