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Rob Horowitz: Rutgers President Ducks Responsibility On Rice

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Rutgers University President Robert Barchi mobilized his allies on the Board of Governors and the extensive public relations machinery at his disposal into a high gear damage control effort in the wake of a national uproar sparked by the leaking of a video showing basketball coach Mike Rice physically abusing his players and hurling homophobic slurs at them. The explosive video was even more damaging because several Rutgers officials had viewed it this past Fall. At that time, instead of firing the coach instantly, they suspended him for only three games and kept the public in the dark as to the real reason for the suspension.

The immediate and broad outcry from people viewing the video, along with the outrage of powerful New Jersey elected officials, including Governor Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney, who control the school's purse-strings and could easily force President Barchi from his post, resulted in the quick firing of Coach Rice. But this action did little to slow-down the furor driven by the legitimate question of why the Coach wasn’t fired when the video was first viewed by Rutgers officials. By the end of the week, Athletic Director Tim Pernitti, a rising star in the Rutgers firmament, as well as an Assistant Coach and the University’s legal counsel had also been thrown overboard(disclosure: I spent a year at Rutgers as an Eagleton Fellow and received my Master's Degree from the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers).

President Barchi’s survival strategy has mainly consisted of working overtime to shift the blame to others, accepting little or no responsibility for his own role in the debacle. While he issued a general apology at his Friday media conference, he spent most of his time laying the blame at the feet of Athletic Director Pernitti. Separating himself from Pernitti who did watch the video when it first surfaced, he claimed to have not watched it until last week and said when he viewed it, it took him “5 minutes to decide to fire him (Coach Rice).”

What President Barchi failed to emphasize is that there was also an extensive report produced by Rutgers outside counsel which the President presumably read last fall before approving the suspension decision. The report documented that Coach Rice’s abusive behavior was a chronic and continuing problem—not an isolated instance. Because it provides context, the report is if anything more damning than the video. It is also disturbing that as the New York Times reported on Sunday, that the main focus of the report was narrow questions of potential university liability in case Rutgers was sued as a result of the Coach’s actions—not the broad question of whether Rutgers players should continued to be subjected to this abuse by keeping the Coach in his post.

Nor has the President been able to dispel the strong suspicion that the decision to keep Coach Rice last fall and sweep the problem under the rug was directly related to the concern that this information, if it had become public then, could have killed Rutgers chances of joining the Big Ten. The negotiations with the Big Ten--which turned out to be successful--were going on at the same time last Fall as the coach’s fate was being decided.

University presidents set the over-all strategy, priorities and tone—not athletic directors. The move to make Rutgers more of a big time Sports School and arguably have it punching well above its athletic weight class by joining the Big Ten was driven from the top.

Of course, Rutgers is not unique in chasing the siren song of big time athletics which offers the potential to bring in millions of dollars in television revenue, enhance alumni giving and boost applications and prestige. The catch is that to reap the benefits a college needs to win consistently and that provides a lot of temptation to bend standards and rules and is much easier said, than done. URI has certainly not been immune to this tendency as anyone who remembers the Jim Harrick era of URI basketball can attest. (One of the ironies of this current scandal is that the biggest beneficiary could be URI basketball coach Dan Hurley, who is about to get a boost in pay and a longer-term contract to prevent him from jumping to Rutgers.)

Still, if Rutgers is going to truly move on from this debacle, President Barchi needs to own up to his own responsibility in this matter. That’s the leadership example he should be setting for the students and the rest of the university community--as opposed to his strategy to date which amounts to using this teaching moment to demonstrate how one can slickly shift all of the blame to subordinates. That's the least that the Rutgers Board and Governor Christie--whom so far have rallied around him and championed his qualifications--should demand.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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