Higher Education: Where Do We Go from Here?

Richard L. McCormick, President
As submitted; published in the Star-Ledger on November 18, 2007

America needs its colleges and universities 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 also 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.

Higher education is the great equalizer in American society. It is our colleges and universities that offer the true opportunity for self-realization unfettered by race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. No wonder it is the dream of countless young women and men to be the first in their families to attend college and achieve goals never imagined by their parents and grandparents. These values of higher education must be promoted and protected, and we will succeed only if our colleges and universities are governed well and independently and are held fully accountable to the citizens they serve.

A recent report of the State Commission of Investigation (SCI) has focused attention on the business practices and governance at New Jersey’s public colleges and universities and raised questions that Rutgers will answer fully in the appropriate venues. The report has also invited a larger discussion of the goals of higher education and of a system of governance to best achieve those goals. 

What should New Jersey citizens expect from their public colleges and universities? Above all, they should expect access and opportunity, giving each generation the means to achieve personal success and contribute to the public good, regardless of where they live or what their family income is. They should expect each institution to reflect the wondrous diversity of the people of New Jersey, ensuring that students benefit from divergent perspectives. Students should find outstanding undergraduate education on every campus and be exposed to inspiring faculty and rigorous academic programs. Our universities should train the graduate and professional students who will become the scientists, engineers, lawyers, nurses, and leaders our nation needs. And they should be renowned for research that addresses state needs and helps solve the 21st century’s most serious global problems.

Surveys in recent years have shown that more than 70 percent of New Jersey residents rate the state’s public colleges and universities as good or excellent. But it is clear that we have not yet fully achieved all the goals I have described. What will it take to realize that vision?

First and foremost, it will require strong leadership on each campus, particularly among governing boards and presidents. The boards, which hold a fiduciary responsibility for their institutions, set a framework for success by selecting and evaluating the president, whom they in turn hold accountable for hiring, managing, retaining, and rewarding the faculty, staff, and administrators who will make their institution great. 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. These board members must be close enough to the institution to understand fully its structure, operations, and priorities. 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. A recent poll shows overwhelming public support for nonpartisan boards rather than state agencies and officials to govern the colleges and universities.

Strong and effective boards must be shielded from political influence. Academic freedom, which is so vital to the pursuit of truth and the discovery of new knowledge, 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 over decision making on each campus, 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 with 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.

Public higher education in New Jersey also requires sufficient resources and a commitment to full accountability for them. We must address the recent decline in state funding for public higher education in New Jersey, but state investment is far from the only source of support. To secure and maintain the resources they require, public colleges and universities 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. Each institution must be accountable and transparent to all those who pay its bills.

New Jersey’s public colleges and universities have moved in the right direction by adopting new policies that follow federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act principles for ensuring public confidence. Rutgers has significantly changed its practices in accord with the new wisdom and the best national models. These improvements include the strengthening of our board’s audit committee, strict conflict-of-interest disclosure, the use of both internal and independent external audits, and the establishment of a whistle-blower 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 strong leadership and greater accountability and transparency—not more bureaucracy and political interference. The watchwords of public higher education in New Jersey must be opportunity, equality, and progress, with faithfulness to the public trust and to those who embody our greatest aspirations: our students.