Rutgers University President Robert Barchi accepted his athletic director’s resignation and vowed to keep his own job amid growing uproar by faculty and politicians over the handling of a basketball coach’s abuse of players.
Barchi, 66, apologized to students, players and faculty at a news conference yesterday and said he regrets not seeing video of the abuse sooner. Ralph Izzo, chairman of the university’s Board of Governors, told reporters there are no plans to oust Barchi.
Even as Barchi tried to put the scandal behind him, fresh documents raised questions about Rutgers’s response, threatening his plan to reorganize the university’s campuses and vault its academics and athletics into the top tier of public colleges. The controversy also became an issue in the re-election campaign of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
In a statement, Christie, a first-term Republican, called Athletic Director Tim Pernetti’s decision to resign “appropriate and necessary.” The governor commended Barchi for taking steps to establish new leadership for Rutgers athletics.
Christie wrongly praised Barchi for “decisive leadership,” said Barbara Buono, 59, a Democratic state senator from Metuchen who is running for governor. He “seems to think that the resignation brings this regrettable chapter to an end, and I think he’s sorely mistaken,” she said.
In a telephone interview, Buono, a graduate of Rutgers Law School and the mother of two Rutgers students, urged the Board of Governors and the state legislature to review the matter.
In 2010, another video led Christie to fire his first education commissioner, Bret Schundler, after New Jersey didn’t qualify for $400 million in schools funding from the federal government. The administration at first said the loss was due to a clerical error on a Race to the Top grant application.
“I’m not going to fire anybody over this,” Christie said at an Aug. 25, 2010, news conference, where he attributed the mistake to “some mid-level person at D.O.E, who is putting this application together.”
When a video of a meeting of Schundler, department staff and federal officials showed that some application information was missing, Christie reversed himself.
“I ordered an end to Bret Schundler’s service,” Christie said three days later.
The April 3 dismissal of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice followed the national telecast of a video showing him physically and verbally attacking players at practices while using gay slurs.
Yesterday, several new documents provided details about the university’s handling of the matter.
Pernetti said in his resignation letter that his instincts when he saw the video were to fire Rice, rather than suspend him.
“However, Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel,” Pernetti wrote. “Following review of the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal.”
Yet, the outside law firm’s Nov. 26 investigative report, released yesterday, concluded that Rice’s action could violate his contract: “We believe there is sufficient evidence to find that certain actions of Coach Rice did ‘cross the line’ of permissible conduct and that such actions constituted harassment or intimidation within Rutgers’ Policy.”
A Dec. 27 letter to Rutgers’s legal counsel from the attorney for Eric Murdock, the school’s former director of basketball player development, alleged that Pernetti knew about the abuse as early as June. Attorney Barry Kozyra said in the letter that he submitted a CD containing audio recordings of phone conversations between Murdock, Rice and Pernetti from that time.
Murdock, a former NBA player, is suing the university for wrongful termination, saying his contract wasn’t renewed because he brought Rice’s behavior to their attention. He is seeking $950,000 to resolve his claims, according to the letter.
At his press conference, Barchi denied any cover-up. He said he first saw the video on the evening of April 2, and decided immediately afterward that the coach must go. Rice was fired the next day.
Rice’s conduct was “‘unacceptable and does not represent the high standard of leadership and accountability we strive for within the Rutgers athletics program,’’ Barchi said.
‘‘I’m not going to try to defend myself,’’ Barchi told reporters yesterday. ‘‘That’s for the people I report to to make a decision about.’’
Barchi said he regretted not taking action sooner. Rice was initially suspended and fined $50,000 in December, three weeks after Rutgers was invited to join the Big Ten Conference, a move from the Big East Conference that may increase the school’s athletic-department income by millions of dollars.
‘‘I wish I had the opportunity to go back and override’’ the initial decision not to fire Rice, Barchi said. ‘‘The outcome would have been different.’’
It wasn’t the first time a Rutgers president had faced such an uproar. Francis L. Lawrence, who served from 1990 to 2002, fended off calls for his resignation after he made comments in 1994 suggesting that black students didn’t have the ‘‘genetic hereditary background” to perform as well on standardized tests. His presidency survived.
Barchi is a neurologist and former provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Since becoming the school’s 20th president, he has set about implementing Christie’s directive to reorganize the state’s higher education system, including the merger of Rutgers and state medical schools.
State funding for Rutgers, New Jersey’s flagship public university, fell 10 percent to $262 million in the three fiscal years through June 2012. The school’s subsidy to sports programs was $28.5 million in fiscal 2011, the largest among 54 U.S. public universities in the six biggest football conferences, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
As a result, academic units were forced to cut budgets. The history department stopped paying for faculty telephones and the psychology department chairman issued a directive suggesting professors give shorter and fewer tests to save money on photocopying.
Rutgers is facing pressure to raise revenue, cut costs and improve its academic profile -- all while undergoing the most sweeping restructuring of any state system, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 college presidents.
Especially in this tough environment, when the president’s attention was focused elsewhere, the scandal at Rutgers shows how big-time athletics has the potential to derail a president, Hartle said in a telephone interview.
“The risk that universities face is not reacting aggressively enough as soon as they discover there is an issue,” Hartle said.
The diversion of cash to subsidize sports rankles some professors.
“We call on the board of governors, once again, to revisit their oversight of the athletics department and to create a healthy balance between academics and athletics,” the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors- American Federation of Teachers said in a statement this week.
The number of faculty members calling for Barchi’s immediate resignation swelled yesterday to at least 50.
Barchi’s concern for sports overshadows his commitment to poor and minority students and is part of a broader effort to refashion Rutgers more along the lines of a business, at the expense of academic values, said Beryl Satter, a history professor at Rutgers’s Newark campus, who was among academics that signed a letter calling for the president to resign.
“The abuse of student athletes is just a part of the picture,” Satter said in a telephone interview.
Robert Puhak, a math professor at the Newark campus who serves on the executive committee of the University Senate, said “a relatively small percentage” of the faculty is calling for Barchi’s resignation.
“It’s important in a situation like this to make sure things are considered in a fair, logical and comprehensive manner, not in an emotional rush,” said Puhak, who said he would like to give the president more time to do his job.
A group of 38 professors also backed Barchi.
“A very unfortunate chapter in university life unfolded over the last several days and the healing process will take time,” the professors said in an April 5 letter. “Given his strong and decisive leadership, we have no doubt that President Barchi will address these issues quickly and firmly. We strongly support his continued leadership.”
Some students also came to the president’s defense, including 19-year-old Indraneel Purohit, who is studying computer science. He credited Barchi for creating a long-term plan for the school.
“There are a lot of positive things he’s done in the last six months and I feel like it’s unfortunate this had to blow up the way it did,” he said.
At the same time, supporters of athletics suggested the president could face a backlash because of the resignation of the athletic director.
“The response we’re seeing is very negative toward the administration right now,” said Brian Kelley, president of the basketball booster club, the Rutgers Court Club. “I’m hearing that a lot of people don’t feel like they are going to renew their season tickets or continue their donations to the athletic department.”
Until the basketball scandal broke, Rutgers’s academic ambitions had been buoyed by the school’s announcement it was switching to the Big Ten Conference, an academic powerhouse.
Like Rutgers, all Big Ten colleges except Nebraska are in the Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group of 62 research schools. The conference also makes up the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which facilitates sharing of academic resources. The school’s biggest benefit from the switch may be getting a share of conference revenue -- $265 million in 2010.
Rutgers, with more than 58,000 students on three campuses, was founded in 1766 as Queen’s College and renamed in 1825 after Revolutionary War hero Henry Rutgers. Graduates include economist Milton Friedman, singer Paul Robeson and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who went to the law school.
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