NEWARK, N.J. — Five former New Jersey governors, who served from the 1970s through 2004 representing both political parties, have given the embattled president of Rutgers University a vote of confidence.
The three Democrats and two Republicans appeared at a public forum in Newark on Thursday, where they were asked about the president’s handling of a student athlete abuse scandal that reignited after Rutgers announced the hiring of a new athletic director whose former players later resurfaced to say she was a verbally abusive coach.
The situation comes weeks before Rutgers is to acquire a medical school in a complicated merger with other academic institutions in the state, and has forced Gov. Chris Christie to publicly defend President Robert Barchi for the second time this spring.
On Thursday, a chorus of the state’s top elected officials agreed. They said Barchi should be left to close the merger deal, despite missteps in managing the athletics department.
“It’s unthinkable (to remove Barchi now) because the job Rutgers has is much bigger. Rutgers is transforming itself into one of the 10 best state universities in the country. That’s going to take years, there are about 1,000 laws and regulations that have to be changed,” said former Gov. Thomas Kean, who is also a former university president. “It’s a very difficult job. President Barchi was brought in to do that job, and we ought to let him do it.”
The university, and by extension its president, have been under fire since The Star-Ledger reported over the weekend that new athletic director Julie Hermann’s former volleyball team got together nearly 20 years ago to accuse her of being verbally abusive. When confronted by the team, Hermann quit, according to the reports.
Hermann was hired by Rutgers to fill a vacancy left by Tim Pernetti, the popular athletic director whose resignation was fallout from the abuse of men’s basketball players by their coach. Coach Mike Rice was fired after ESPN broadcast a tape of him hitting and kicking players and using gay slurs as he yelled at them during practice. Under Pernetti, Rice received a lesser penalty a three-game suspension, fine and anger management classes until the tape was shown on national television.
Hermann has said publicly she received assurances from Barchi that the job she is to begin in mid-June is safe. And Christie said he has confidence in Barchi and is not inclined to micromanage university decisions. Others, like Sen. Dick Codey, who was governor for 14 months after McGreevey resigned, have said bluntly that it’s time for Barchi and Hermann to go.
The former governors on the panel disagreed.
“Clearly, decisions could have been made better and more thoughtfully, but that’s not the threshold criteria by which we ought to remove university presidents,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey. “The restructuring will clearly outlast this presidency, and frankly this governorship will determine whether New Jersey is academically competitive in the physical sciences, in medical sciences and in mathematics for the next half-century.”