Columnists » Grinding The Edge

Can Rutgers University Be Fixed?

by Steve Weinstein
Sunday Apr 7, 2013

Something is rotten in the state of New Jersey -- specifically New Brunswick, the home of Rutgers University, the state's largest public university and the crown jewel in its higher-education system.

Anyone who owns a computer or TV has seen the endlessly repeated video of the school's basketball coach physically abusing players and hurling out the most vile homophobic epithets that would make the characters in "An Officer and a Gentleman" blush.

The coach, Mike Rice, has since been fired. In the ensuing media firestorm, the university quickly also fired its athletic director, who, in turn, pointedly castigated the school's legal counsel, who also ended up taking one for the team.

The fish, however, stinks from the head, and nowhere is that more true than in this tawdry scandal. The president of the university, Robert Barchi, is a textbook example of how the Peter Principle at work. It also points up, as if we needed another example, of how the heads of large corporate bodies never act in a scandal, only react, because their putting their own butts first causes fatal myopia.

Barchi is an academic, not an administrator. The Peter Principle states that every employee rises to his or her level of incompetence; in other words, if you're good at something, you're eventually pushed into managing others. Which means that, instead of doing what you do well, you're doing something for which you have no expertise or experience. Oh yes: He's also paid $650,000 a year.

Months ago, confronted with his behavior, the school's administration suspended him for a few games and fined him $50,000, which sounds like a lot until you consider that he was making $700,000 and change a year. (That doesn't include the inevitable benefits and perks, which, as we learned in the Paterno-Penn State scandal, are enough to make the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch blush.)

At the time, no one in the media or anywhere else questioned the decision or even why it was made. Rice's abusive behavior would have continued, and he would have continued to rule the roost if not for the recent video.

It has since come to light that the president and others were much more concerned with the legal niceties about Rice's behavior than any ethical concerns.

It just keeps getting worse as more snafus up and down the line come to light. Reports have surfaced that Barchi never even viewed the video before finally firing Rice. So concerned with a merger of medical institutions mandated by the state's legislature, Barchi continued to treat problems at the university's athletic department as a side issue.

The athletic department was given a pass after it managed to enter the ranks of the Big Ten. Even though the school's teams notoriously suck, the finagling into the intercollegiate athletics' star system means big bucks from media contracts, TV coverage and donations from sports-obsessed big-pocket alumni.

Thanks to the university's total fuck-up, Rice will receive $1.0875 million after termination.

This is the second time that Rutgers has made headlines in recent years. In 2011, freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge after his roommate set up a hidden video camera to record his meeting with a male townie. The roommate invited friends over to watch Clementi kiss the man.

The two incidents may not seem related, but they point to endemic problems at Rutgers.

The school has been obsessed with athletics department. As with Penn State, the need to develop pro-level intercollegiate sports teams allowed its coaching staff to reap huge salaries while operating as an independent entity. All Barchi knew or cared about was that Rutgers would be joining the Big Ten, which finally happened only a few days before the Rice tape blew up in their faces.

What's both funny and disheartening is reading comments on the Internet about how the basketball players needed to suck it up, that abuse is part of the game, that they are there to play basketball. At least there's not any pretense that these are "student athletes"; rather, they are essentially unpaid professional athletes.

A very, very few will make the pros. Many of the rest will be let loose into the world with a useless degree. Athletes at such schools are notorious for often taking only the lightest course work and having professors who understand that not giving them a passing grade will only lead to censure and even job loss.

The Clementi scandal showed how wealthy New Jersey students look at Rutgers as a place of privilege. That kind of self-entitlement might work in a hermetically sealed academic environment like the Ivies, where they're only with their own kind. But it as created an academic schizophrenia at Rutgers, which is terminally divided between scholarship and the demands of a large state-owned university.

The school's senior administration, legal counsel and board (which continues to support Barchi) never got it and they don't get it now. Rather than being so aghast at behavior that would have gotten any employee at a private company fired on the spot, they believed that they could sweep it under the rug. And they would have succeeded, had not an embittered former flunky in the athletic department not have spliced together the latest video.

After the Clementi episode, the school made lip service to fighting homophobia on campus and made a few token gestures. This latest flap indicates that not only has no one at Rutgers learned anything; but the school's entire structure ensures that such scandals will only be repeated. Already, Gov. Chris Christie is making noises that everyone put this little episode behind them.

Not everyone agrees, but it seems doubtful that there will be any necessary changes to the university's structure and mindset.

"To me and others, the cover-up matters," William C. Dowling, university distinguished professor of English and American literature at Rutgers and a longtime critic of big-time college sports, said by phone Thursday night. "This is a minor league version of Penn State."

When told that there were homophobic slurs on the tape at the time, Barchi said at a hopelessly botched press conference that he hadn't bothered to watch the tape. Even worse, he said he was told it was "only" a few incidents and therefore not worth bothering himself about.

"To me and others, the cover-up matters," said William C. Dowling, a university distinguished professor of English and American literature, told ESPN. "This is a minor league version of Penn State."

I'd only take issue with that "minor league." The Rutgers tape is in the Big Ten of university scandals. The systemic failure of its administration, however, is in a class by itself.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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