Rutgers Gay-Slur Debacle Shows How Sports Can Soil College Ambitions

Rutgers University President Robert Barchi stands in a room after the Rutgers University Board of Governors voted to go into closed session Thursday, April 11, 2013, in New Brunswick, N.J., during a Rutgers University Board of Governors meeting.
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi stands in a room after the Rutgers University Board of Governors voted to go into closed session Thursday, April 11, 2013, in New Brunswick, N.J., during a Rutgers University Board of Governors meeting.

NEW YORK — Two months into his presidency at Rutgers University, Robert Barchi was overseeing the largest reorganization at U.S. public colleges, including a medical school merger. In a fateful decision, he chose not to watch a video of the men’s basketball coach abusing players that later horrified the nation.

Barchi became the latest college president to discover that big-time athletics — while a small part of massive organizations — can easily create a crisis that can derail a leader’s ambitions and tarnish a school’s reputation.

Similar scandals have engulfed Ohio State University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina and Pennsylvania State University. Now the Rutgers scandal is endangering Barchi’s own career, distracting from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s plan for the biggest public university merger in U.S. history and putting Christie on the defensive in his re-election.

The Rutgers crisis is an example of the risk involved with big-time sports programs, especially for public-university presidents facing steep budget cuts that monopolize their energy, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 college presidents.

“It’s a cautionary tale for any new university leader,” Hartle said in a telephone interview. “The potential for intercollegiate athletics to create serious problems for university presidents appears to be limitless.”

Barchi was working to complete what Christie called the largest public university merger in U.S. history, between Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, when he was told about the video of Rice taken during practices from 2010 to 2012.

He left the investigation to Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, general counsel John Wolf and an outside law firm. The group decided in December — with Barchi’s support — to suspend Rice for three games and fine him $50,000. The video was aired by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program on April 3 and Rice was fired the following day.

Barchi, 66, received support from Christie, a Republican, and Rutgers’s Board of Governors as calls for his firing came from some faculty and students.

“You cannot micromanage every issue,” Christie said at an April 8 press conference. “While I agree with Dr. Barchi that he should have looked at the video tape, on the other hand I can tell you that’s not his main responsibility as president of the university.”

Barchi said at an April 5 news conference to announce the resignation of Pernetti and the demotion of Wolf that while running an organization the size of Rutgers, which has 40,000 students, he often is forced to rely upon those that report to him rather than examining issues himself. Wolf resigned Thursday.

“This is one where I dearly wished I had,” Barchi said. “If I had to do it again, I would have asked for that video.”

College sports scandals are wide-ranging in nature, often developing due to rules infractions and sometimes from criminal activity. Examples include the child sex-abuse case involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and accusations of rape, later proven false, against members of the lacrosse team at Duke, in Durham, N.C.

At the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the 2010 death of a student assistant who fell from a video tower during a football practice drew intense media interest, as did a hoax last season involving a fake online girlfriend of linebacker Manti Te’o.

Holden Thorp, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, last September announced his intention to resign at the end of June after college athletes and faculty were implicated in an academic cheating scandal.

Rutgers spokesman Steve Manas and Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said in emails that their schools declined to comment about the athletic department scandals. Mike McFarland, a spokesman at North Carolina, said Thorp was out of town and unavailable for comment. Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers and Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown didn’t return emails seeking comment.

School administrators call athletic programs the “front porch,” a public gateway to the broader organization, according to Angela Pratt, who teaches sports communication at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

“They certainly know that’s not all there is to the university, but it does leave a big impression,” Pratt, 35, said in a telephone interview. “It garners more media attention than almost anything else and certainly presidents have to pay attention to that.”

Sandusky, a long-time defensive coordinator at Penn State in State College, Pa., was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison for sexually abusing boys over a 15-year period, some of them on campus. Joe Paterno was fired as coach after 46 seasons; Graham Spanier, once considered among the top university presidents in the nation, also lost his job. Spanier was charged with perjury, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children in a cover-up of the Sandusky abuse and is awaiting trial.

Such job losses are rare. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in August 2011 that of the 29 presidents whose schools were put on NCAA probation in the previous five years, 15 were still running their universities, while the rest resigned for reasons unconnected with the sports scandal or moved on to schools of comparable or greater prestige.

Ohio State President Gordon Gee kept his job in 2011 when the school’s football team received a one-year bowl ban and other penalties after it was learned that players received $14,000 in cash and tattoos in exchange for autographed jerseys and other memorabilia.

Gayle Saunders, a spokeswoman for Ohio State, declined to comment on the case in an email.

New presidents at schools with prominent athletic programs need to know the culture they’re walking into, said Karen Holbrook, who was Columbus, Ohio-based Ohio State’s president from 2002 to 2007. Holbrook said she was unprepared for the fervor that surrounds Buckeyes sports.

“It’s very, very important to know how important it is,” said Holbrook, now the vice president for research and innovation at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Holbrook said she met regularly with Ohio State’s general counsel and Athletic Director Andy Geiger, and trusted them to alert her to issues that warranted her attention. Those included Title IX, the U.S. law mandating gender equity, as well as cases of hazing or violence, “anything that would embarrass the university or cause the trustees pain,” she said.

Geiger recommended firing Ohio State men’s basketball coach Jim O’Brien in 2004 after paying a recruit. O’Brien later won a lawsuit against the university.

“It was an agonizing situation,” she said. “This isn’t something you wanted to do because Jim was someone that was very much admired. Andy knew he had to maintain the standards of the university.”

Holbrook, who declined to discuss the Rutgers case in detail, said she probably would have wanted to see the video of Rice.

“I liked to know more than less,” she said. “I would want to know what was going on.”

Biddy Martin, former chancellor at the University of Wisconsin and now president at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., said she faced a crisis soon after joining the Madison, Wisconsin-based school over alleged hazing by marching band members. Like Barchi, she relied on advice of those who reported to her, banning the band from a nationally televised night game against Ohio State.

“I was new and didn’t understand the history, but I got excellent advice,” Martin said in a telephone interview.

Presidents of big research universities must focus on tasks such as running hospitals and medical schools, intellectual- property transfer and orienting research toward practical applications, Martin said.

“We have to find ways to ensure that athletics is not its own dominion and doing that takes more than just a president,” she said. “It takes establishing a team to ensure athletics can be more easily folded into the core mission of the institution.”

Presidents of large universities usually aren’t compensated as well as the football and basketball coaches they oversee.

University of Louisville President James Ramsey will receive $600,000 this year, less than 10 percent of the $6.1 million in salary and bonuses due men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino, who led the Louisville, Ky.-based school to the NCAA title April 8.

“It is in some cases a little bit of an unfair fight, regardless how much the president is officially in control,” said University of Georgia President Michael Adams. “Coaches with multimillion-dollar contracts, huge constituencies that can apply pressure, you have to be careful how you interact so that you are making the right decisions in managing the department while keeping the whole institution moving forward with as few distractions as possible.”

Presidents have 40 to 50 items on their to-do lists, each critical in varying degrees to their constituencies, said Adams, who is retiring in June.

“Athletics may or may not be near the top of the list on any given day, but of course, their supporters believe it should be and is,” Adams said in a telephone interview.

Athletic expenditures as a percentage of a university’s total institutional budget range from 4 percent to 5 percent at top-tier programs, according to the most recent NCAA Revenue and Expenses Report. The document also showed that 23 athletic programs among more than 120 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level, reported a profit in fiscal 2011, up one from the previous year. Median generated income for all in the group was $38.8 million.

Rutgers’ athletic department accounted for 3.4 percent of the school’s $1.89 billion in spending for the 2012 fiscal year, according to the athletic department’s revenue and expense report.

Rutgers’s move to the Big Ten Conference, which would bring financial and academic benefits to the university, was also probably on the mind of Barchi, Pernetti and others. A two-hour meeting with more than 20 Rutgers officials including trustees and board members on Dec. 14, three weeks after the change was announced, focused on the conference move and revenue from its marketing deal, the Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, said yesterday.

Pernetti discussed the allegations against Rice at the meeting, according to the Star-Ledger, which obtained minutes of the gathering. None of the participants recommended firing Rice, and Barchi commended Pernetti and his department for handling the case “appropriately,” the newspaper said.

Pernetti said in November at a New York University Sports & Society panel that when he was hired as athletic director at Rutgers in 2009, the school’s board asked him to promise nothing bad would happen under his watch. He said he told his bosses he couldn’t make that pledge.

“Human capital is what you can control,” Pernetti said in video of the NYU event. “That’s the only piece you can truly control anymore.”

Pernetti failed to control it. He hired Rice.

At Georgia, Athletic Director Greg McGarity reports directly to Adams, who said ADs “need to be on the same wavelength, so much that they develop a sixth sense for what I’d want and need to know.”

“The president will ultimately be held accountable, and should be,” Adams said.