Higher Education Demands
Richard L. McCormick
President, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
The Times of Trenton
December 10, 2022
America needs its colleges and universities now more than ever. Young people depend on higher education not only for the skills to compete in the global economy but also to develop their abilities to tackle the most complex issues of a pluralistic world. Society turns to university research to cure disease, expand economic development, improve public health and address urgent problems such as climate change.
Just as important, we count on our colleges and universities to prepare students to be intellectually independent -- to become critical thinkers who are capable of sorting through fast-moving, contradictory and sometimes factually suspect information. To fulfill this mission, so vital for democracy to flourish and our economy to prosper, it is essential that institutions of higher learning remain intellectually independent, pursuing and conveying knowledge free from political interference as well as corporate control. These goals have been worth fighting for since the beginnings of public higher education, and they still are.
A recent report by the State Commission of Investigation (SCI), which focused attention on the business practices and governance at New Jersey's public colleges and universities, has invited a larger discussion of what system of governance will help our institutions best serve students and the state. In my view, three elements are particularly critical: We must appoint strong governing boards and presidents; we must ensure each institution's flexibility and independence from political influence, and we must provide adequate funding while demanding strict accountability for how those funds are spent.
First and foremost, excellent colleges and universities require strong leadership on each campus, particularly among governing boards and presidents. A governing board must never become a landing place for political friends but instead must comprise committed women and men who are selected for their leadership and expertise in areas relevant to the institution's mission and purpose. To ensure high- quality appointments, the state should develop a formal vetting process for board members through an independent entity, comparable to that used for judicial appointments.
INDEPENDENCE AND FLEXIBILITY
Strong and effective boards must be shielded from political influence. Academic freedom cannot thrive where the leadership is focused on political rather than educational agendas. This doesn't mean the boards can fail to be accountable to the state. They must be. But even the SCI report, while calling for greater state control, stops short of proposing the return of an expensive and cumbersome bureaucratic structure. Some of the finest higher education systems in America -- Texas, Virginia, California and Michigan -- are flourishing under equally limited, or even more limited, statewide regulatory authority as compared to New Jersey. Just as in these states, New Jersey's colleges and universities must have the latitude to be innovative and to move quickly to meet students' ever-evolving educational needs.
FUNDING AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Public higher education in New Jersey requires sufficient resources and a commitment to full accountability for them. We must address the recent decline in state funding, but state investment is far from the only source of support. To secure and maintain the resources they require, our institutions must demonstrate to all those who invest in them -- students, families, state and federal governments, foundations, taxpayers and donors -- that their dollars are invested wisely and well.
New Jersey's public colleges and universities have moved in the right direction by adopting policies that follow federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act principles for ensuring public confidence. At Rutgers, we have improved our practices in accord with the best national models by strengthening our board's audit committee, enacting strict conflict-of-interest disclosure, employing both internal and independent external audits, and establishing a whistleblower hotline for reporting suspected abuses. The state should explore adoption of a Sarbanes- Oxley-like model for public higher education rather than entertain the alternative of costly, burdensome and potentially politicizing new state regulations.
Higher education is more important than ever. To realize its highest goals, we need leadership, independence and accountability -- not more bureaucracy and political interference.