Education Needs A Strong Voice in the Cabinet
By State Senator Bob Smith (D-17)
Last week, more than 10,000 students graduated from Rutgers
University, New Jersey’s flagship
public higher education intuition.
Overall, more than 38,000 students graduated from our state colleges and
universities as members of the Class of 2003.
These graduates will soon join the New Jersey workforce or
continue their education in graduate school.
Amid the pomp and celebration, however, loomed the specter of a devastating
12 percent budget cut, more than $100 million, which will severely handicap our
public system of higher education’s mandate to provide a quality education at
an affordable price for all New Jersey residents.
As an alumnus of Rutgers University, I
have long recognized the tremendous value that Rutgers, along with our other
state colleges and universities, offers to New Jersey. Unfortunately, many in our state take Rutgers for granted and do not
recognize its importance in educating our highly skilled workforce and
providing an engine for technological advancement. Rutgers shines brilliantly as a nationally and internationally recognized
public research university.
Rutgers also provides a strong
voice for New Jersey’s entire higher
education system. Recently, several
other alumni in the legislature and I attended a dinner meeting at Rutgers to discuss the
current budget situation. What most
impressed me was that the administrators and faculty who were in attendance not
only argued for restoration of Rutgers’ budget, but made a strong case for the
contribution that all of New Jersey’s county and state colleges and
universities make to their communities.
Unfortunately, a strong voice for higher education has been missing in New Jersey for almost a decade. This is often at the center of higher
education’s recurring budget woes. The
root of this problem must be attributed to the Governor Whitman’s abolition of
the Department of Higher Education in 1994.
This was replaced with the Commission on Higher Education, a body with
no teeth or influence.
This action was quietly accepted by the presidents of New Jersey’s colleges in
the interest of increased autonomy for these institutions. Yet, the Chancellor of Higher Education, as a
member of the cabinet, was a strong advocate for higher education within the
governor’s inner circle, keeping it on par with other state
programs and agencies during budget negotiations. Currently, this voice within the
administration is absent and public higher education continues to lose the
funding it needs and deserves. For this
reason, I have introduced legislation that would re-establish the Department of
Higher Education as a cabinet-level position in the interest of reinstating this
voice and reversing New Jersey’s trend of
historically under funding our state colleges and universities.
In the meantime, we must not allow our state colleges and universities
to disproportionately suffer during the current budget crisis. New Jersey will not be able
to recover from our economic recession without the foundation of a strong
public system of higher education to build on.
Furthermore, we cannot close the gates of opportunity to those who will
no longer be able to afford rising tuition costs. Many of the other Rutgers alumni in the
legislature and I, along with alums of the many other fine institutions we have
in New Jersey, are committed
to working towards budget restoration for our colleges and universities. Enough
funding must be found in order to allow the successors to the Class of 2003 to
receive the high quality education at an affordable price that we, as a state,
have a responsibility to provide.
Bob Smith is a State Senator representing Franklin
Township, Highland Park, Milltown, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, and Piscataway. He is a member of the Senate Environment and
Judiciary Committees and has served as a member of the legislature since 1986.