NEW BRUNSWICK N.J. — Rutgers University took steps Thursday to publicly address the fallout from the scandal over its men’s basketball coach, announcing an expected independent review and hiring a respected former state attorney general as the new top lawyer for the school.
The measures, announced at the first board of governors meeting since coach Mike Rice was fired last week, were intended to get the university back on track during a time of transformation. Rutgers is absorbing most parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, including two medical schools, and is working on a strategic plan for how to catapult the school to be among the highest-regarded public universities in the nation.
The meeting centered mostly on those overarching issues, though the dozens of journalists at the meeting and an appearance from the president of the state Senate showed the deep interest in the Rice situation, and questions remained over the fate of one board member.
Rice was suspended, fined and ordered to anger management counseling in December after a former basketball program employee gave school officials a video showing the head coach hitting and kicking players and using gay slurs as he yelled at them during practice.
ESPN reported on the video last week, and Rice was fired, an assistant coach resigned and so did Tim Pernetti, the school’s popular 42-year-old athletic director. Pernetti, who was named last month as one of five finalists for the Sports Business Journal’s athletic director of the year award, said in his letter of resignation that his first instinct last November was to fire Rice. But it’s not clear whether he recommended that action to anyone else.
Gerald Harvey, the vice chairman of the board of governors, said the independent investigation is intended to figure out how the university could have followed proper procedures last year, including consulting with internal and external lawyers, and still decide not to fire Rice immediately.
“The decision seems to have been a very poor decision,” he asked, addressing reporters after the meeting. “How did that happen?”
The university has not announced who will conduct the investigation. Harvey said it should be done quickly, but not rushed.
John Wolf, who was interim senior vice president and university counsel, resigned from his leadership position last week and on Thursday, he and University President Robert Barchi announced he was leaving the university entirely after 29 years.
That opened the door for John Farmer, a former state attorney general and now the dean of Rutgers-Newark School of Law in Newark, to become the new top in-house lawyer for the university. Barchi said he expects Farmer to be on the job on 12 to 18 months, a time full of legal decisions related to taking on the medical schools.
Some intrigue remains about the coming changes in the fallout of the basketball department’s turmoil.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney attended the meeting to ask for one member of the board, Mark Hershhorn, to resign or be removed. As chairman of the athletics committee, Hershhorn saw the video of Rice in December. He has said he called for Rice to be fired. But Sweeney faults him for not taking the matter to the full board.
Hershhorn left the meeting early and did not lead the athletic committee’s closed-door discussion of the situation.
He issued a statement this week saying Sweeney’s positions were “reckless, shocking and were made without any personal knowledge of the facts.”
Another decision for the school is who will lead the basketball team. Several players gathered outside the board meeting Thursday to endorse assistant David Cox for the job, saying he’s held the team together during the last two difficult weeks.
They also said that Rice’s behavior did not bother them as much as it seemed to trouble the rest of the world.
“Even though the stuff on that tape looks bad,” said forward Kadeem Jack, “we never felt threatened.”