Leadership & Governance

Amid Outrage Over Rutgers Coach, Questions Linger About President

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Mike Rice, the Rutgers U. men's basketball coach, had words for one of his players during a game last month. When video of the coach berating players during a practice surfaced this week, he was fired within hours.
April 03, 2013

Mike Rice Jr.'s days as Rutgers University's head men's basketball coach came to a swift end on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after video of him hurling basketballs and gay slurs at players aired on national television. But the fallout from the scandal may have just begun.

A harsh critical spotlight now shines on Robert L. Barchi, Rutgers's president, and Tim Pernetti, the university's athletic director. Following an investigation last year, both men agreed in December that Mr. Rice's behavior warranted suspension and fining rather than termination, only to reverse course after the ESPN program Outside the Lines broadcast the damning video footage on Tuesday.

The sequence of events invites the question: What did the president know, and when did he know it? In a statement issued on Wednesday, Dr. Barchi, a physician, said Mr. Pernetti had "immediately notified me" of the allegations of abusive behavior after reviewing "video excerpts of basketball practices."

"Tim kept me fully apprised, and I supported his actions," Dr. Barchi said.

But it was not until Tuesday that the president himself watched the videotape, a university spokesman said. Greg Trevor, the spokesman, said he could not confirm who had conducted the outside investigation, whether the investigator had reviewed the video, and why any final report to the president on the investigation's findings would not contain such a key piece of evidence.

Mr. Trevor also could not confirm whether any members of the university's Board of Governors had viewed the video before it became public.

Dr. Barchi and Ralph Izzo, chairman of the board, both declined interview requests.

Dorothy W. Cantor, vice chairwoman of the university's other board, the Board of Trustees, said she had no knowledge of the video or the nature of the allegations against Mr. Rice before the ESPN report.

"This is breaking news for us too," she said.

'Clearly Written by Lawyers'

Rutgers's Board of Trustees is an advisory body, but some of its members serve on an athletics committee with members of the Board of Governors, which is charged with oversight of the university. At the very least, the athletics committee should have seen the video, Ms. Cantor said.

"If they didn't see it, that's shameful," said Ms. Cantor, a psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association.

Thomas J. Prusa, an economics professor at Rutgers, said he was "really disturbed" that there was any equivocation about firing Mr. Rice. The president's statement, which is three paragraphs long, does little to explain why Dr. Barchi had a change of heart, Mr. Prusa said.

"Every single person who has read that memo is wondering what the hell he is really saying. It was clearly written by lawyers," Mr. Prusa said.

Mr. Rice's use of gay insults struck a particular chord at Rutgers. In 2010 a freshman at the university, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after a roommate used a Webcam to spy on his encounter with another man. Mr. Clementi's death drew international attention as a potent example of cyberbullying of a gay man.

"Our administration talked a hell of a good talk two and a half years ago about how we were a university committed to tolerance and we were going to be intolerant to people who were intolerant," said Mr. Prusa, who taught Mr. Clementi in an economics course. "It's clear that for some members of the university, those rules don't apply. As a faculty member, I'm shocked."

President's Test

The controversy at Rutgers will prove an early test for a relatively new president. Dr. Barchi took the reins at Rutgers last September, and he had been on the job for only a couple of months when the university began an investigation of Mr. Rice.

Linda Stamato, who was vice chairwoman of the presidential search that led to Dr. Barchi's hiring, said this was a defining moment for him.

"When you're a new president, there's a honeymoon period," she said. "I think it just ended. How the president handles this from this point on will be very important for the university."

Ms. Stamato, co-director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers, said Dr. Barchi had impressed the presidential-search committee because he is a "very decisive person." That character trait, she said, is likely to see the president through this crisis.

"I expect a lot, and I don't think I'm going to be disappointed," said Ms. Stamato, who was chairwoman of the Board of Governors from 1980 to 1983.

Barry V. Qualls, an English professor at Rutgers, also described Dr. Barchi as "decisive" and applauded his move to do "what had to be done."

"If he hadn't have, he would have had hell to pay," said Mr. Qualls, who has taught at Rutgers for 42 years. "People all over campus are up in arms about this."

The president can surely expect a lot more questions about what he knew months ago, Mr. Qualls said, and the onus is on him to be forthright.

"We don't live in an environment where you say that's behind us now," he said.

Tyrone P. Thomas, a Washington lawyer who specializes in NCAA-compliance cases, said Rutgers could expect a string of inquiries from the NCAA, the news media, and state lawmakers. Former and current players may also file lawsuits, arguing that they had not been protected by the administration, Mr. Thomas said.

"This is not going away anytime soon," said Mr. Thomas, an associate with the firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo. "This is going to be around for a while."