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Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr. Headshot

Rutgers Board of Governors Plays 'Blame Game' in Athletics

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There is little doubt: the Rutgers athletic department has been a mess for the better half of the past year, damaging a great university's image nationally. There are important lessons to be learned from how this happened.

Most of us became privy to the fiasco only when the horrifying video clips of former Head Basketball Coach Mike Rice's practices surfaced in April on ESPN, but the foundation for that media firestorm was set months earlier. Despite the inexplicable conduct depicted, in December Athletic Director Tim Pernetti suspended Coach Rice for three games and levied a $50,000 fine. Pernetti initially intended to fire Rice but properly consulted the human resources department and the head internal legal counsel, John Wolf, to whom he gave the video. Wolf referred the incident to an outside law firm. Pernetti also gave the video to Mark Hershorn, the head of the Rutgers Board of Governors' Committee on Athletics. Hershorn and Wolf never showed it to others. Pernetti never fired Rice as he originally intended.

The decision to retain Rice came from those outside the athletic department and the university who concluded that Rice's firing was not justified by university policy. This decision ultimately led to Pernetti's decision to resign. Although he resigned, it was clear that Pernetti drew the short straw to fall on the Scarlet Knights' sword (as did Wolf later under pressure).

Some of those who wanted blood were not satisfied, though, and newly hired President Robert Barchi was their next target. Critics cried that he had lost control of the athletic department (after a few months on the job), and the NCAA Division I model of big time athletics was once again scrutinized, faulted, and humiliated. But there are greater problems at play here. Problems that the sports and general media failed to understand or address.

The criticisms of Rutgers athletics gained even more traction when Pernetti's replacement, Julie Hermann, also came under fire for alleged verbal abuse of student athletes as volleyball coach at the University of Tennessee. How could Barchi hire a replacement with problems akin to those that started the mess?

As a Rutgers alumnus, and as a university president, I am disheartened by the damage to a great university's reputation. But, I see the root of the problems in failed governance compounded by fear of litigation. For me, the blame starts with the Rutgers Board of Governors.

Barchi, a medical doctor, first came to Rutgers in September 2012, just three months before Rice's suspension. He left his position as president of Thomas Jefferson University, a leading medical research institution, after eight years to become president of a Research I, flagship state university and one of the newest members of the Big 10 athletic conference. That is not exactly comparing apples to apples.

He was hired in large part to merge the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into the Rutgers family, a goal that was accomplished swiftly and smoothly on schedule on July 1, despite the unplanned time that quickly had to be shifted away from the merger, and onto the athletic department.

I fault the Rutgers trustees for being so singularly focused on this merger during their search. Even a small college is a mini-conglomerate. The Rutgers board clearly was not thinking about the complex problems of a major public, flagship university, especially a Research I institution with an NCAA Division I BCS (Bowl Champion Series) athletic program. Barchi's only prior experience in athletics came years earlier from his position as provost and chief academic officer at the University of Pennsylvania. Apples and oranges again come to mind when discussing Ivy League athletics compared to the revenues and stakes when competing in the Big 10 and other BCS conferences.

One major problem that no college president has yet to solve is that there are only 24 hours in a day. A friend, and fairly new president of another NCAA Division I BCS school told me that he spent 95 percent of his time on the medical school, health system, and intercollegiate athletics his first year, leaving five percent for every other aspect of running a multi-billion dollar a year organization.

The Board of Governors -- seemingly preoccupied with completing the politically charged merger of Rutgers and the School of Medicine and Dentistry and avoiding the spin-off of the Rutgers Camden campus during the presidential search process -- surely made the priority clear to the new president: complete the merger and retain the Camden campus. There could only be too little time to deal with a basketball coach.

The hiring of Julie Hermann to replace Tim Pernetti compounded Rutgers and Barchi's problems and damaged their reputations even more. The hiring process demonstrated another failure in governance. Rutgers hired the respected athletics search firm Parker Executive Search to recruit and vet candidates. But Kate Sweeney, a Rutgers alumna, foundation board member, and co-chair of the search committee, reached beyond the 47 candidates Parker presented, and promoted the candidacy of Julie Hermann. Members of the Rutgers Board of Trustees and Board of Governors, who served on the search committee, criticized the search process as rushed and flawed.

After Hermann's hiring, Sweeney celebrated the hiring of Rutgers' first female athletic director. Did her myopic agenda compound Rutgers' and Barchi's embarrassment and problems? It seems so.

The result is that Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and my alma mater, will suffer from its black eye until another scandal in collegiate athletics or academic governance comes along to allow it to heal quietly. Perhaps what is most disconcerting is we likely won't be waiting long. But if the governance processes at Rutgers are not improved, other issues are sure to follow.

So here are my key lessons to be learned: First, this was not fundamentally about athletics. Second, in search processes for presidents, deans or athletic directors, there should never be a single agenda. Universities and their athletic programs are far more complex. Further, individuals who serve on search committees should never have an agenda other than finding the best candidate. Third, what is right may not always hold up legally. Human resource professionals and attorneys always seek to avoid law suits, adhere to policy, and follow the letter of the law. Sometimes presidents have to overrule them to do what is truly right and accept the legal consequences. A university's ultimate responsibility is to teach what is right and their actions speak more loudly than words.

Finally, as president of an NCAA Division II university, our athletic program emphasizes a balance of athletics and academics. Our teams help us recruit and attract some of our best students, who also want to play sports. More schools would do well to follow this model. Precious few big-time athletic programs actually make money anyway, but the pursuit of championships, headlines, and more athletic revenues too often leads to embarrassing transgressions.

In our world, athletics is an educational and entertainment expense, not a headline and revenue generator. And for that, I am grateful.