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Bad Days

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Step back for a moment to 1998, when Gov. Whitman forced NJSEA head Bob Mulcahy as Rutgers athletic director on a skeptical university president Francis Lawrence. There's one quote from back then which resonates very strongly in light of today's situation.

''It's a lot easier when a school comes up for a budget hearing if that school has a winning team,'' said State Senator Richard J. Codey, the Democratic minority leader who said he rarely attends Rutgers games these days. ''It wouldn't hurt if you had legislators begging for tickets. It would do wonders for the university.''

Sen. Codey's thesis hasn't yet been proven wrong, but it'll certainly need a sufficient length of time to prove accurate. Five straight winning seasons hasn't been enough.

Here's a quick review of the facts: as of 2009, Rutgers University received 25.5% of its operating budget from the state of New Jersey. State support of higher ed has been steadily dropping for the past two decades (as per pages 82-83 of that report). Funding reached its zenith under Tom Kean, and has been steadily dropping ever since. During last year's gubernatorial election campaign, candidate Chris Christie made vague assertions of future aid, while offering little in the way of specific policy proposals, and in the context of predicting looming fiscal catastrophe for the state. It's been apparent for a while now that bad news was on the horizon, and last week the other shoe finally dropped.

More accurately, the Governor's 142-page budget can be described as a political bomb. While it is not the place of this site to discuss political issues unrelated to Rutgers, needless to say that there is a very large projected deficit in place for next year. Revenues do not match expenditures, so something has to give. Everyone disagrees about what to do, but there are serious problems to address, and that likely means a combination of difficult choices and sacrifices regardless of what eventually happens. Policy changes of any variety were certain to generate a groundswell of public debate and scrutiny.

It's also important to remember that the proposed budget is a starting point for negotiations with the Legislature, and doesn't necessarily reflect the final product that will make it through both houses for the Governor's signature. However, while that may mean that other items are up for political horse-trading, there is little reason to think that Rutgers will be able to avoid feeling the full brunt of the cuts. There is no reason to expect statehouse Democrats to stand up for Rutgers and higher ed when they have never done that at any point. In fact, the first cuts were enacted during Jim Florio's administration, and Christie Todd Whitman's budgets were far kinder than anything offered by Jim McGreevey or Jon Corzine.

Cite situational factors all you want, and some of them in fact are very important. However, empirical evidence shows that New Jersey Democrats have never valued higher education to the point that they collectively went above and beyond the call of duty to make it a top priority. This, in fact, is in direct contrast to the approach of Pres. Obama and Congress. Honestly, all of this would have came last year if it wasn't for conditions tied to receiving federal stimulus funds that barred further cuts. Absent another bailout from Washington, this is going to happen, so it's time to brace for what's going to happen and be candid about the implications.

According to Rutgers president Richard McCormick, state aid will be cut 15.1% in the FY 2011 budget, which is about what the school received in 1994. McCormick is vowing new austerity measures, but in spite of what he says, there are only so many possible cuts remaining. It's true that Rutgers has a crippling and inefficiency bureaucracy, but that's been an organizational issue festering for years which has proven extremely difficult to solve at such a large public university. The loss in aid will only exacerbate the problems, as Rutgers has coped with the McGreevey/Corzine cuts through tuition increases and upping enrollment to the point of overcrowding.

The result has been an extensive strain on student families and campus facilities and infrastructure. I am not at all certain that either can bear much of a further burden. All members of the university community should certainly lay all blame at the feet of Trenton. As for Gov. Christie, while the Rutgers administration obviously needs to maintain cordial relations with him, be careful not to be fooled by any symbolic gestures. There's more to being pro-Rutgers than sitting in the stands at a game and wearing red. Maybe things will get better, but as of now this proposal is not only worse than expected, but somehow manages to go further than the legacies of Christie's two immediate predecessors in office.

The devil is also in the details. Buried in the budget is a proposal to merge Trenton's Thomas Edison State College into Rutgers. This seems like a naked attempt to save money, but there probably aren't enough redundancies to justify the merger and completely stripping all funds from Edison and its library/museum. It does not work on a number of levels. Rutgers will probably resist the idea, and the Edison president is already in opposition.

"It doesn't make sense financially," Pruitt said. "I don't understand how any money is being saved. The president of Rutgers told me this was not his idea, and he did not know about it and it was not something he coveted or wanted."

Geographically, it's not much of a fit (Thomas Edison is a much better match for TCNJ, which is right next door in Ewing.) Even though Rutgers has made a commitment to more offerings for nontraditional students, its educational mission does not seem to mesh at all with Thomas Edison. It seemed strange that the Christie transition reports didn't mention any further interplay between Rutgers and UMDNJ, and now his administration is floating this out of the blue instead of a carrot like the RWJ-NB hospital and medical school that would actually be of interest. While the cuts are probably inevitable, there remains enough regional powerbroker fiefdoms at stake (cf: the infighting over McGreevey's University of N.J. proposal) to scuttle this aspect dead on arrival.

There's one other legislative proposal which hasn't received much public attention in the midst of all the budget talk, but is attracting a great deal of attention in the academic community, and certainly poses very real and significant consequences for Rutgers. Sen. Donald Norcross just introduced a bill to mandate that public employees live in state. Leave any concerns aside about direct state employees; the legislature has a lot of nerve to try to step on the university's independence to this extent when they only provide 25.5% of the Rutgers budget, and that figure has been steadily dropping.

Say what you will about admissions and the mean university student, but by far the best selling point at Rutgers remains its world class faculty. If you are dedicated and work hard, you can get an education that's as good as it would be at a far more expensive private institution. That kind of value is the selling point; why not stay home with that return on investment? While some faculty live in state, others choose to live in New York City or Philadelphia. Others commute from either further away.

This proposal is nothing more than an invitation to the Ivy League to cherry pick the best and the brightest. If enacted, it'll combine with the next round of budget cuts to further diminish the value of a Rutgers education. As an alumnus, that is a very troubling prospect. At this point in time, it's hard not to be excited about certain aspects of the Rutgers University community. Pres. McCormick's vision for the school going forward is largely correct, even if you wish he was more of a natural salesman ala Tim Pernetti instead of a nebbish academic-type. The athletic department is certainly on the right track, and my belief is their upward momentum will pay broad dividends over time.

On the other hand, I have never been more pessimistic about the future of Rutgers in light of the developments discussed above. Critics may point to a causal link to increased expenditures on athletics over the past decade, but that's just silly considering how small the (as of two years ago) $15 million figure of yearly direct institutional support to the athletic department is as a percentage of the overall $1.8 billion university budget. It's a relative drop in the bucket, but conserving those dollars will be even more important with all that's now at stake.

It should be clear by now why this post is a direct companion to yesterday's about athletic department finances. As the decision to retain Fred Hill Jr. as head basketball coach shows, the two issues go directly hand in hand. It will be the ongoing responsibility of the athletic department, and its flagship football program, to continue to be a good citizen and reduce its level of direct subsidy from the university's general fund. Maybe Sen. Codey will end up a prophet and the legislature will rally behind Rutgers. Until then, it's time to hunker down for austerity's sake, because bad days are clearly ahead for the foreseeable future.