New Jersey public colleges and universities, by definition, are groups of educated people organized for the purpose of educating others. They’ve got executive branches, boards of trustees and state government overseers. Pretty much everything they do is public.
Yet state legislators felt a couple of examples of dubious spending — both with Jersey Shore connections — called for more restrictions and oversight.
The ill-fated purchase of the former Showboat casino hotel by Stockton University at first raised hope for an Atlantic City campus and then dashed it when a deed restriction required the property to be a casino instead.
Former Stockton President Herman Saatkamp executed the $18 million purchase. His successor, Harvey Kesselman, sold the property for $23 million — covering the cost and most of the $8 million the college spent maintaining it.
The failed purchase/project prompted state Senate committee hearings, which led to a bill signed into law in mid-month that requires public colleges to get approval from their trustees and attorneys before proceeding with purchases of properties for $10 million or more.
Saatkamp, though, had worked with attorneys on the Showboat deal and had gotten approval of the schools’ board of trustees — he just didn’t adequately inform the board of the deed restrictions, which he assumed would be removed. The purchase was not reviewed by the state controller, which already was required. That’s reinforced by the new law.
New requirements include submitting a report on a college’s purchase offer for a property to the governor, the Legislature and the secretary of higher education.
The other offensive spending was by Rutgers University students, who paid $32,000 from their fees to have Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, star of the “Jersey Shore” reality TV show, speak at a 2011 event.
Legislators were appalled that Polizzi was paid $2,000 more than author Toni Morrison. Worse still, Rutgers student protests later stopped former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from giving the university’s commencement speech.
A bill capping payments by N.J. public colleges to speakers at $10,000 passed both branches of the Legislature unanimously and awaits the governor’s signature. Asked about the bill, Gov. Chris Christie said he’s got more important concerns than “micromanaging what universities in the state decide to pay their commencement speakers.”
There’s some question of whether the bill would be effective, since schools can use funds not regulated by the state to pay for speakers. This year Rutgers is offering Stephen Van Zandt — a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — $35,000 to speak at commencement, paid for through its campus deal with Coca-Cola.
These and other questionable expenditures by colleges don’t result from a lack of organization or oversight. They happen because people sometimes fail to act with basic common sense and fiscal responsibility.
The new requirements and restrictions on colleges might help if they encourage sounder judgment or allow a little more time for reason to prevail. Ultimately, though, the culture of institutions determines how they’ll behave, and culture and common sense are hard to legislate.