Pages Menu
TwitterFacebook
Categories Menu

Posted in Future of Undergraduate Education | 5 comments

Good Enough For Rutgers: President Barchi Aims at Foot, Blows Off Head

Did you catch that news conference Friday? The one following the firing of RU men’s basketball coach Mike Rice and the resignations of RU Athletic Direction Tim Pernetti, RU interim chief counsel John Wolf, and Jimmy Martelli, assistant basketball coach? Kind of a big deal ’round these parts.

It began quite oddly. There’s President Barchi, who just days earlier had issued a statement that he and Tim Pernetti, RU’s Athletic Director, had “jointly decided to terminate Mike Rice’s employment at Rutgers,” an announcement that suggested either that they were a team or that he needed Pernetti’s permission to fire a coach who was videotaped over a two year period kicking, shoving, and verbally intimidating his players. And now, there’s Barchi announcing Pernetti’s resignation. Not his firing, mind you, but his resignation. 

So, in a way that only Rutgers can do, Barchi stands in the national spotlight and chooses to use the opening moments of the conference to serve as Pernetti’s ventriloquist and apologist by somberly reading aloud Pernetti’s letter of resignation in its entirety. Out of the president’s mouth, we hear the following: 

As you know, my first instincts when I saw the videotape of Coach Rice’s behavior was [sic] to fire him immediately. However, Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel. Following review of the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal. I have admitted my role in, and regret for, that decision, and wish that I had the opportunity to go back and override it for the sake of everyone involved.

Are you following? 

The president is voicing the AD’s new claim that he wanted to fire Coach Rice last November, but that he was prevented from doing so by the consensus of other university specialists. The president’s defense of his own inaction and Pernetti’s defense of his previous actions blend: together, they blame the Rutgers staff, administration, and its top legal counsel for overriding the athletic director’s moral instincts. Pernetti’s got the moral compass; the university’s got a bunch of bumbling, cowardly, nameless bureaucrats.

This may or may not be true: the point is, why would the university’s own president chose to give credence to Pernetti’s explanation–an explanation which had already been posted front and center on the Scarlet Knight’s home page and had been distributed to news agencies around the country? Pernetti’s got his soap box and his digital megaphone; why’s the president still doing his bidding after he’s resigned and  no longer works for Rutgers?

Or to put this another way, why stage the conference as a wake for the athletic director instead of as the occasion to announce that the AD was being fired for gross incompetence and that the president was launching a full scale investigation into how this catastrophe came to pass?

Why didn’t this happen? 1

Because the gross managerial incompetence is not Pernetti’s alone, but rather is shared by Rutgers’ senior administration and the Board of Governors and the Governor. Lamenting Pernetti’s sad fall from grace is just a way to keep everything focused on the relatively trivial matters of individual coaches, individual administrators, and individual words when the real issue is systemic incompetence. The Board itself has played a central role in fostering and promoting a structure of mediocrity at the university in ways that the news conference, as it continued to spiral out of control, put on display for all to see.

 *

As soon as Barchi finishes reading Pernetti’s letter, there’s the question–the predictable one, the one that was and is on everyone’s mind, the one that made this hastily organized news conference necessary: was Barchi going to resign? It is a question that will get asked a number of times over the course of the next forty minutes.

How had Barchi’s team prepared him for this question?

His first response:

As you know, I serve at the pleasure of the board. I do not have a contract with any term. My term is at their will and I’ll leave that [as a] question you can ask them.

Um, that’s not exactly a full throated endorsement of the president’s own commitment to the university. Rather, Barchi has chosen to depict himself as essentially powerless, so powerless that the question of his own resignation is not something he could initiate on his own: whether he continues on or not is an expression of the Board’s will, not his.

  *

His second response to the same question, some ten minutes later:

“I consider resigning every single day when I wake up. Let’s be honest here, I don’t have a contract. I serve at the discretion of the board.” 

Did he really say that? Out loud?

*

The third time the question gets asked it is directed to Ralph Izzo, head of the Board of Governors:

That’s an easy one. The answer to both those questions [i.e, should Barchi be fired or resign] is no. Dr. Barchi was brought on here eight months ago with two primary objectives. Number one was to build a strategic plan for this university for ten years going forward to lead us to academic success and academic greatness. Number two–an enormous challenge of integrating a medical school with this university.

I would say bundling these two objectives creates a job that no single person could ever hope to accomplish. As Barchi mentions later in the press conference, Rutgers is going through the biggest merger in the history of higher education as a result of the governor’s insistence that it be joined with UMDNJ. This project involves tens of thousands of employees, two different kinds of institutions, and a tangle of personnel decisions that it would take a dedicated team of hundreds of people to carry through effectively. Barchi is probably the person to do that job, but he’s not the person who should be overseeing the development of the plan for what directions the university should take over the next two years, let alone the next ten. He’s not qualified to do the second job and, as the press conference documents, he’s not someone who inspires confidence at a moment of crisis.

Who put Barchi in a position to fail so spectacularly?

The Board that Mr. Izzo oversees.

*

So, having been at Rutgers for eight months, what is Barchi’s assessment of the university as a whole?

 

We’re trying to move this university through two decades of change in two or three years. This university has been relatively fallow for a long time. As we’re doing our strategic planning–and we have questioned and surveyed upwards of 10,000 people in our family, from our trustees to our faculty to our students to our alumni, one of the questions we’ve asked is how much change do we need on a scale of 1 to 5?

Relatively fallow? For a long time?

This may or may not be true, but why say this out loud at this moment?

Not a great strategy for gaining the hearts and minds of the folks who have spent their working lives here.

*

A reporter asks if this is the last “interval” (I think he means “installment”) of this saga or if there will be more to come. 

Barchi reaches to straighten his tie, then he overplays the gesture, which gets a laugh, and so he continues, making it seem as if the noose is tightening. There’s more laughter. And the question remains unanswered.
 

A voice in the audience provides the caption for Barchi’s moment of mime: “They’re coming to get you next!”

*

It’s hard not to feel for Barchi during this excruciating experience. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy. He’s just in way over his head and how and why he got there is not his story, but rather the story of a much deeper problem at this university.

Why wasn’t there a plan for when to end the spectacle? 

This question leads to the events that brought national attention to the sorry state of affairs of management at Rutgers.

Why was Tim Pernetti out defending his initial decision to suspend Rice on Monday night on ESPN. Surely, the AD’s actions on national television about such an immediately inflammatory issue required consultation with the university president? The AD’s team? Somebody? Why didn’t anyone prep Pernetti to lay off the argument that Rice had been disciplined and admonished and that was all the situation called for? That was just gasoline on the fire.

Why hadn’t the president’s staff made it possible for the president to see the DVD sometime prior to Tuesday morning? The president says he had the DVD in his possession that morning while he was in transit to Newark, but that his computer couldn’t read the DVD. Giving up on the technology, he waited till all his meetings were over and he could go directly to the AD’s office Tuesday night to watch it with him. By that time, of course, the video had been viewed millions of times by people around the world.

How is this possible at a flagship university? How did the president’s handlers let him end up in such a vulnerable position?

How is it that Barchi watched the video and in “five minutes” came to a conclusion that the Athletic Director, human resource managers, university lawyers, and the outside law firm all failed to reach over the many months preceding the airing of the video on ESPN?  

*

Who told Barchi it would be a good idea to describe his response to the video in the following terms:

What I did see [in addition to what he had been told to expect] was evidence of pervasive behavior over a period of time which clearly and immediately went beyond any threshold that I would have and gave me a very different impression of what was going on.

There are two aspects of this response that I believe will spell lasting trouble for President Barchi and the university. First, if the 30 minute video is excerpted from hundreds of hours of practice tapes, how could Barchi reasonably reach the conclusion that what he was seeing amounted to “pervasive behavior”? My guess is that this is a claim that will have legal consequences. If I were Coach Rice, I’d have my lawyers drawing up papers for a yet bigger settlement. 

Second, if Barchi stands by his assessment, then it seems to me that he has no other option but to fire the entire basketball staff and all the HR specialists and other members of his legal council who, given months to examining the evidence, couldn’t see what he could see in the blink of an eye.

Shortly after making this statement, Barchi makes certain that everyone present understands that he didn’t fire Coach Rice for cause; he “just fired him.”

What does this mean?

It means that, because Rice had been suspended and had met the terms of his disciplining, he had to be fired in a way that let him take over 1.4M out the door with him.

In other words, Barchi couldn’t fire Rice for cause because of how the university had assessed the video evidence originally. He “just fired him” because he had no other option. So, Rice was “fired” in the sense that he now gets the full payout of the remainder of his contract without having to do anything for it at all.

Would that we could all experience the luxury of such a firing.

Similarly, Pernetti couldn’t be fired for cause. He’d done what everyone in the system said was legally defensible. So, he resigned in a way that let him take 1.2M with him, a car allowance, health insurance, his computer, and weirdly, his iPad. That last detail is pretty revealing: take everything that isn’t nailed down, including a $300 piece of technology, when you’ve been making 450K/year.

So, Barchi acted decisively, paying two people top dollar to leave.

Got it? That’s what authority looks like around here.

Just like that: 2.6M gone.

*

Is it really true that the university couldn’t have fired Rice for cause when his behavior first became known? Is that really believable?

The claim that is voiced in Pernetti’s letter of resignation and that was repeated in the news conference is that this was “a failure of process.” The outside evaluator’s report tied the university’s hands, internal counsel offered bad advice, the dog ate the homework.

It is true that the report of the outside investigation talks out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, it states that there is not grounds to fire Rice for having created a hostile work environment. On the other hand, the report states:

In sum, 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, Section 60.1.13. Furthermore, due to the intensity with which Coach Rice engaged in some of the misconduct, we believe that AD Pernetti could reasonably determine that Coach Rice’s actions tended to embarrass and bring shame or disgrace to Rutgers in violation of Coach Rice’s employment contract with Rutgers.7 III.

So, Rice could have been fired for cause, because his contract stipulated that he could not “embarrass or bring shame or disgrace to Rutgers.” But the consensus decision of the administration and the Athletic Director was to discipline Rice instead.

Presumably, Pernetti had the same clause in his contract.

Did he bring shame and embarrassment to Rutgers based on his performance on the ESPN show, where he claimed that Rice was punished for his actions and then defended his decision to keep Rice on as head coach. Pernetti is saying this on national TV after Sandusky, mind you, and after Tyler Clementi’s suicide brought national attention to homophobia at the university.

How, with the report of the outside counsel, could anyone have concluded that Rice should stay on?

*

Has Barchi brought shame and embarrassment to the university? 

*

Has the Board brought shame and embarrassment to the university?

*

Earlier in the year, the Rutgers Foundation, the university’s fundraising arm, rolled out its latest gambit for reaching the elusive goals of Rutgers capital campaign. 

This odd, baffling image accidentally captures how Rutgers is being run these days. If you cut your head off, you can show your pride in Rutgers without regret.

Who thought this up? Why was there no one around to say, “Wait. Stop. This is a terrible idea”?
 
It takes awhile for the image and the words to make sense.
 
Don’t show your pride with a giant tattoo. You might regret that someday.
 
Show it by giving money to the foundation. You’d never regret that. 
 
But how could you regret anything? You don’t have a head. 
 
Our prouds alums. Holding their necks high. 
 
*
 
In the aftermath of Barchi’s cringe-producing news conference, a partial explanation emerged for his weary performance and the repeated statements of praise for Pernetti. 
 
Daniel Wheeler, a member of the school’s Board of Overseers, is quoted in the press as representing many deep pocketed donors who are considering closing their checkbooks because of the decision to fire Pernetti:
 
I won’t say numbers, but I’ve given over seven figures, and like a lot of people who have done the same I support Tim Pernetti. We all stood up for Tim and the school ignored us.

How can I write Rutgers another check? I have a big one due in June. How can I write that when they completely ignored us?

And Tom Meniduru, co-owner of High Point Solutions, the company whose name is hanging off the stadium, is reconsidering that commitment:
 
I’m not sure what we’re going to do, because our relationship was with Tim Pernetti . . . . That’s the reason we signed this deal. We’ll have to look at things and decide. But it’s very disappointing to see this happen to Tim Pernetti.
 
Barchi certainly had to be aware of such complaints, so he had to swaddle Pernetti and insist that he was deeply saddened to accept the resignation of a man who couldn’t anticipate the inevitability that a video that reflected very poorly on Rutgers would go public. A video made from tapes that were made available in the first place by an open records request that anyone could have made at anytime. A 30 minute video that is a compilation of information that the university itself was required, by law, to provide to a disgruntled former employee who was either suing or trying to extort the university. 
 
Is it really that hard to see that the video would eventually go public? And that, once it did, in a matter of days, Rutgers would secure its place as home to handlers who are indifferent to student welfare, blind to violence, deaf to intimidation? 
 
People in high places, however, are stunned by all of this and don’t see how Pernetti’s handling of this situation materially contributed to creating the situation where this had to become a national disgrace.  And so, Barchi has to mollify those who are committed to managerial incompetence and mediocrity, even as he is trying to strike the pose as a decisive leader.
 
What he can’t say, but might well be thinking is this: keep your money. Smaller giving means a small athletic program and less outside influence. That’s a win-win and, hey, we’re all about winning here.
 
We do it by losing.
 
*
_______________________________
1On the Monday following the press conference, the university community received an email from the president and the chair of the Board of Governors announcing that they would be commissioning an independent review of the circumstances surrounding the report of inappropriate behavior by the coach of the men’s basketball team. And independent review of the previous independent review.
 
The email also includes a statement by Izzo that: “In continuing our lesson learned efforts, I was able to confirm on Saturday, April 6 that the chair of the Board of Governors Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics reviewed the video in early December. The video was not seen by the Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics or by any other member of the Board of Governors.”
 
The email ends there. But the sound you hear is another domino falling.
 
Then, Monday afternoon, the announcement of the formation of a search committee for a new AD and the appointment of an interim AD. 
 
Still no news on the search for the dean of the university’s largest academic unit. 
 
This isn’t leadership; it’s cleanup detail.
 
______________________________________________
 
 
 
The press conference in its entirety may be viewed here.
Quotes from the deep pockets may be found here

5 Comments

  1. I’m almost speechless–almost, but not quite. You’d think someone who made it to this level of academic administration would have better self-censorship skills. The saddest thing is that Rutgers is not unique. Is it even possible to be an effective upper-level administrator of something as immense as a flagship university? Too big to lead?

    • I love your play on the “too big” angle. I was discussing this situation with some advanced grad students who have been confronting the crushing realities of the job market and they are in disbelief that so much money can be dedicated to anyone in public higher education. We ended up with another variation: “too big to fire.”

      I do think RU is too big to be run on the old model of the single commander in chief who must be everywhere at once and thus is never really anywhere. Would you believe that yesterday, after all this, we got in relatively quick succession, three emails from our president: the first announcing an independent council to investigate the previous independent council; then the announcement that a new AD search was underway and an acting AD had been hired, and then….an email about the dance marathon at RU over the weekend. Yo: they shoot horses don’t they?

      • Bigger organizations have been governed effectively…

      • So, why did you stop referring to yourself as an “intellectual bureaucrat”? Too unbelievable?

        • When I wrote “As if Learning Mattered,” I really believed that the way to bring about educational reform was through the use of the office–the bureau. Nothing in my historical research suggested that meaningful change could be initiated from above or from outside: if it was going to happen, it would happen because people who had rich, deep experiences with the life of the mind wanted to find a way to make that experience more broadly available. There are a number of questionable assumptions in there. My research also showed me that all reform is always local: it depends on who is in the room, where the room is, what other rooms are around that room.

          I’ve resigned my office. My new room will be out on Mine Street at my request. Out the window of my room, which is at the back of the building on the second floor, I can look out and see girls riding on the shoulders of frat boys, each set pumping their fists, each set with a beer in the free hand. The music’s bumpin’. From this office, it is clear, no institutional change is possible–and there are no context cues to trigger the illusion that change might be possible.

          So, I did my best to be a scholar-administrator, though I think few could find a way to take my pre-hyphen appellation all that seriously. (The former director of the WP at Georgetown called me an “anti-intellectual” on one panel where we were discussing the future of higher ed; “anti-theory” is a phrase that shows up in print; and then there was the Syracuse Stalker, who stood after my talk and accused me of being a “fascist.”) Next stop artist-teacher.

          Consistency is over-rated. As is endurance.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Rebranding the University in the Age of Willful Self-Incrimination: Rutgersfest, Delafest, and the Big Dudfest | text2cloud - [...] in Decline. The series begins here with a discussion of the Mike Rice debacle and continues here with a discussion of …
  2. The Video Will Out: Reflections on the Mike Rice Debacle | text2cloud - [...] Next installment: Good Enough For Rutgers: President Barchi Aims at Foot, Blows Off Head [...]

Let me know what you're thinking

%d bloggers like this: