Leadership & Governance

For Rutgers President, Sports Controversies Open Another Wound

Andy Marlin, Getty Images

A big challenge facing Robert L. Barchi when he took office last year was Rutgers's impending takeover of key parts of the U. of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Now a spiraling scandal in his athletics department has handed him another challenge.
June 01, 2013

The hiring of a new athletics director at Rutgers University may have been the last, best chance for Robert L. Barchi, the university's president, to project an image of competence in the throes of a sports scandal. But a wave of damaging allegations about Julie Hermann, who was tapped as athletics chief on May 15, has put the president on the defensive again and further weakened an already wounded leader, some professors say.

Ms. Hermann, who came to Rutgers from the University of Louisville, where she was second in command to the director of athletics, was meant to bring a fresh start to an institution still limping out of crisis. Rutgers, New Jersey's public flagship university, has been in a state of suspended turmoil since April, when video surfaced of Mike Rice Jr., the head men's basketball coach, yelling gay slurs at players and throwing balls at them.

Rather than settle things down at Rutgers, Ms. Hermann's appointment has shaken things up. Days after she was hired, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported that Ms. Hermann's former women's volleyball players at the University of Tennessee considered her tyrannical and cruel.

Some members of the Rutgers search committee that recommended Ms. Hermann's hiring have publicly stated that the search process was rushed, suggesting that this latest controversy might have been averted with more thorough vetting of the candidates. Such a seemingly unforced error has raised further questions in the minds of some professors about the judgment of Dr. Barchi, a physician who was named president last September.

"When a new president comes in, the faculty want that person to succeed," said Adrienne E. Eaton, president of the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers. "It's a growing number of people who really doubt his leadership, and people are sad about that."

Dr. Barchi declined an interview request. In a written statement last week, the Rutgers president described the selection process for the new athletics director as "deliberative at every stage."

"Since the announcement of her selection, some media reports have focused on complaints about aspects of her early career," Dr. Barchi said. "Looking at Julie's entire record of accomplishment, which is stellar, we remain confident that we have selected an individual who will work in the best interests of all of our student athletes, our athletics teams, and the university."

'Absolute Confidence'

Rutgers hired Parker Executive Search, which was paid $70,000, to assist in vetting candidates for the athletics-director position, formerly held by Tim Pernetti, who lost his job in connection with the basketball-abuse scandal. Before Ms. Hermann was hired, the firm and university officials knew that she was at the center of two lawsuits, but neither knew of the allegations by the Tennessee players, The New York Times reported on Friday.

In 1997 a jury awarded $150,000 to an assistant coach at Tennessee who said Ms. Hermann had discouraged her from getting pregnant. A 2008 case, in which a former assistant track coach at Louisville said she was fired after complaining to Ms. Hermann about sex discrimination, is pending at the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Some elected officials in New Jersey have called on Dr. Barchi to resign, but he retains key supporters as well. Ralph Izzo, chairman of the Rutgers Board of Governors, provided a statement to The Chronicle on Saturday that said the board "has full confidence in President Barchi and his leadership." Mr. Izzo cited the president's accomplishments, including shepherding the university's entrance into the Big Ten Athletic Conference and leading the university's takeover of key parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The acquisition, which Mr. Izzo described as "the most significant transformation of higher education in New Jersey in the past 50 years," officially takes effect on July 1.

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said last week that he had "absolute confidence" in the president. Days later, five former governors, three Democrats and two Republicans, publicly backed Dr. Barchi.

The president's single greatest asset may be the belief among his supporters that he is the person best suited to push through Rutgers's takeover of key parts of state medical facilities. At the same time, the controversies only make the acquisition more difficult, a former Rutgers administrator said.

"Constant things coming out about this, that, and the other calls his judgment into question," said Barry V. Qualls, an English professor who previously served as vice president for undergraduate education. "It weakens him at the very time he needs to be a strong, focused person."

"I don't hold Barchi personally responsible for these things," added Mr. Qualls, speaking of the controversy surrounding Ms. Hermann's appointment. "But I do feel the atmosphere of haste around this was the unfortunate thing that caused these problems."

'A Nightmare'

A number of professors have previously expressed support for Dr. Barchi, and some were initially sympathetic to the president because he had been on the job for only a few months when an investigation of the basketball-abuse allegations began. But the controversy surrounding Ms. Hermann is just the latest to arise on Dr. Barchi's watch.

Rutgers introduced Eddie Jordan as the Scarlet Knights' new men's basketball coach in April, only to acknowledge later that university officials were wrong in saying he had a degree from the university.

Cahill Gordon & Reindel, the law firm Rutgers initially hired to investigate its handling of the Mike Rice abuse allegations, was forced to withdraw from the case last month because the office had links to Connell Foley, the firm that conducted an initial probe of Mr. Rice's behavior.

Taken together, the missteps that have occurred in the wake of Mr. Rice's firing are cringe-worthy, said Mark R. Killingsworth, an economics professor at the university.

"The decision-making process at Rutgers is just in terrible, terrible shape," he said. "It's a nightmare."

Mr. Killingsworth subscribes to a popular and growing narrative about Dr. Barchi, who is perceived by some faculty members as a tool of the governor, appointed to push through the UMDNJ deal and do little else. Dr. Barchi was previously president of Thomas Jefferson University, a medical school in Philadelphia.

"He didn't want to get involved with this Mike Rice thing," Mr. Killingsworth said. "He didn't want to get sucked in. This was a tar baby. He's not a stupid man. He knew that to get involved was to run a huge risk, and it would come back to bite him. The problem was, he didn't get involved and it still came back to bite him."

A Set of Political Risks

Dr. Barchi has said he was kept "fully apprised" of the investigation into Mr. Rice, but said he did not watch the damning video until around the time it was made public by the ESPN program Outside the Lines.

Murray A. Sperber, author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, said Dr. Barchi would hardly be the first college president to come into a job with little knowledge of sports. The result is that presidents often put blind trust in their athletics staff, Mr. Sperber said, and even get a bit star-struck by players and coaches.

"I am totally amazed how administrators and college presidents turn to jelly when they meet these people," said Mr. Sperber, a visiting professor in the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.

Tyrone P. Thomas, a Washington lawyer who specializes in NCAA-compliance cases, said Dr. Barchi is in a particularly difficult spot now. He has hired a new athletics director who will have trouble establishing the trust and credibility she needs to bring about necessary reforms, Mr. Thomas said. But to force her out now carries its own set of political risks, Mr. Thomas said, because a board will be less understanding of a president who signs off on a bad hire than one who may have followed bad advice from staff members who were already in place when the president was appointed.

"It would be very difficult for a new president with one of his first critical hires to say, 'If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone a different way,'" Mr. Thomas said. "The president is somewhat hip-locked with the AD."