Higher 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.