Heightened Goals for Higher Education

Former Governor Tom Kean is concerned about the future of higher eduction in the state.

Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean in Mead Hall at Drew University, where he served as president from 1990 to 2005. “Our institutions of higher ed are becoming less competitive,” he says.
Photo by Mitsu Yasukawa/The Star-Ledger.

When it comes to higher education, there’s no higher authority than Tom Kean. The former governor—who was called the education governor—served for 15 years as president of Drew University in Madison. Last year, Governor Chris Christie chose Kean to head a task force on the future of higher education in our state. The task-force report, released in January, was a stunning call for change—including increased spending at a time when the state is looking everywhere for cuts.

Kean tells me we have no choice. “Buildings are falling apart,” he says, “and our institutions of higher ed are becoming less competitive in relation to colleges and universities outside the state.”

Long-term, Kean says, the condition of our colleges and universities will impact the quality of life in New Jersey. It’s no secret the reason many companies come to our state is because we have a well-educated and well-trained workforce. “When I would try to sell New Jersey and bring jobs into our state, the businesses wanted to know the quality of our schools and the type of training the graduates are coming out with,” Kean says. “If we have a crumbling system of higher education, it will affect the jobs that are available, which will ultimately impact our state’s economy.”

Kean says it’s time to stop the bleeding. After all, we have been cutting funding to higher education year after year. I agree with Christie that state spending is out of control, and I’m pleased to see that his newly proposed budget—while making cuts in many programs—holds the line on direct aid to state colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the budget does cut funding for facility improvement at the state’s campuses.
Increased higher-education funding is essential, Kean says. “We can start small, with a revolving fund for infrastructure,” he suggests. “The way it has been is that the state says to a college that they must accept more and more students to meet the need with declining state support, new unfunded mandates and a cap on their ability to increase tuition. The colleges have to pick up these increased costs out of their own budgets, inevitably leading to a decline in quality.”

Kean says a number of states have a constitutionally dedicated fund that goes to infrastructure at their universities. It makes perfect sense in New Jersey, he says, given long-term maintenance needs. But it hasn’t happened here for more than a decade because, as Kean says, higher education has not been a priority. Still, there is a potential silver lining. “Governor Chris Christie has been very positive and supportive of the recommendations put forth by our task force,” Kean says. “He said he didn’t see anything he didn’t agree with.”

One of the key recommendations is the creation of a new position of secretary of higher education to report directly to the governor. Since New Jersey no longer has a higher-education chancellor, de facto there has been no higher-ed advocate. “We don’t need a chancellor since he had autocratic control,” Kean says. “However, what we do recommend and support is having an advocate in the governor’s office who would be there, with a small staff, to advocate for higher education and step in if there are major problems. As of now, every interest in the state and every important area of the budget has an advocate in the governor’s cabinet with the exception of higher education.”

What does Kean say to parents who are convinced that the best higher education for their children is outside our state’s borders? “I don’t think that’s true,” he responds. “We have several first-class institutions in the state, depending upon what the child’s interests are. A lot of our institutions are doing really well. However, if we want to have the best state university in the country, we need to change our policies, and if we don’t, we are all going to suffer. The bottom line is, I don’t know a great state that doesn’t have great institutions of higher education.”

For information on the Higher Education Task Force, go to nj.gov/governor/news/reports/pdf/20101201_high_edu.pdf.

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