The continuing financial woes facing governments, institutions, families and individuals these days are causing us to reflect on whether the ways we have been doing things historically are indeed the best ways. The pressure to economize during tough financial times can often provide the impetus for outside-the-box thinking.
With correcting the state's dire fiscal condition of paramount importance, Governor Christie proposed last May a set of ideas he called the "tool kit" for reform. Among those reforms are several proposals supported by the leaders of New Jersey's state colleges and universities, which will help colleges manage more effectively, and we hope, lead to more families being able to afford to send students to these institutions in years to come.
Three principal parts of the higher education tool kit are worker's compensation reform, exemption from state civil service regulation, and collective bargaining reform. I commend the New Jersey Legislature for its commitment to study all three matters, and to add some ideas of its own. One of this trio — worker's compensation reform — recently advanced in the Senate with bi-partisan support including sponsors Teresa Ruiz and Tom Kean, Jr.Civil service change at the state colleges is long overdue. The colleges are currently operating a cumbersome and expensive dual system for about 40% of all employees. Because the 21st century college work environment is not at all like that of a government agency, many of the civil service rules are difficult to apply. Civil service is simply a vestige of a bygone era when the colleges were, in truth, operated as state agencies. No other public higher education institution in New Jersey — that includes Rutgers, NJIT, UMDNJ, and the county colleges — has employees classified under civil service titles.
Reform in this area will have its benefits. State colleges can more quickly fill key positions without cumbersome restrictions that are inefficient, costing time and money. Those employees with civil service titles can rest assured that they will retain all career service rights as long as they maintain uninterrupted service in a state college/university position, or are on approved leave of absence from that title. These rights include, without change, the right to collective bargaining. New Jersey stands out, oddly, nationally, by granting state college employees both civil service and collective bargaining protections.
Collective bargaining reform reflects another move away from abnormal treatment of the state colleges. These colleges are the only educational organizations in the state lacking authority to negotiate directly with their employees. Currently, the Governor of New Jersey serves as the employer of record. This unique position is another artifact of the colleges' past as state agencies.
The current ineffective bargaining arrangement undermines managerial effectiveness. In addition, although leaving negotiations in the hands of Trenton, it results in wage increases that the State does not pay for. The effect is sticking colleges with the bill for pay raises, which leads directly to increases in tuition and fees above what they would be if contracts were funded. Reform legislation would authorize each state college to take over the responsibility of negotiating directly with its own employees on both economic and non-economic matters, as is the case with all other public universities and schools.
College leaders need to be in the driver's seat and held accountable for decisions that will affect their current students, future students, educational quality and affordability, and the fiscal integrity of their institutions.
Under collective bargaining reform legislation, employee rights in this area will be undisturbed. Only the locus of negotiation on the management side of the table will change. In the final analysis all parties, employees, college/university leaders and citizens served by state colleges will benefit from greater accountability for a major share of what drives the cost of going to college in New Jersey.
Darryl G. Greer is CEO of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities whose member institutions are The College of New Jersey, Kean University, Montclair State University, New Jersey City University, Ramapo College of New Jersey, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Rowan University, Thomas Edison State College, and William Paterson University.