The Christie Implosion: Why Rutgers Is Trapped in Scandal and Crisis

The Christie Implosion: Why Rutgers Is Trapped in Scandal and Crisis

The Christie Implosion: Why Rutgers Is Trapped in Scandal and Crisis

Hiring new athletic director Julie Hermann—without looking into her own bullying past—is symptomatic of school leadership that needs to be replaced.


Julie Hermann speaks at a news conference introducing her as Rutgers's new athletic director. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

We can all agree that it would have been a very bad idea for Penn State to hire a former child pornographer to coach its football team following the ouster of Joe Paterno amidst the Sandusky juvenile abuse horror show. This is Scandal Management 101, otherwise known as the law of opposites. If your last leader was an amoral cad who resigned in disgrace and also happened to be bald, you hire someone with integrity, ethics and, by all means, hair. The next coach of the New York Jets after Rex Ryan will probably make Tony Dungy look like John Belushi.

That’s what makes the goings-on at Rutgers University so maddening. In looking to move the school forward following the scandal that cost bullying former basketball coach Mike Rice and athletic director Tim Pernetti their jobs, school president Robert Barchi hired former Louisville assistant athletic director Julie Hermann. After the homophobic, misogynistic invective that will define the Mike Rice era, appointing an extremely competent woman must have seemed savvy. Unfortunately, in aiming to get beyond a bullying scandal, the school hired an athletic director with a history of bullying. In attempting to show that the athletic department is not a haven for misogynists, they hired someone with a history of misogyny. And worst of all, in boasting about the depths of their research into Hermann’s past, they missed a series of incidents that a Google search followed by ten minutes of follow-up phone calls could have revealed.

One doesn’t have to go far into the past to see what makes Hermann so clearly the wrong choice for this job. In 2008, she was at the center of a sex-discrimination lawsuit at Louisville. Five years ago, track and field coach Mary Banker approached Hermann to tell her about the alleged sexist actions and “discriminatory treatment” by head coach Ron Mann. Banker then took her complaints to human resources. According to Banker’s subsequent lawsuit, “Hermann called Banker into her office and flat-out told her, ‘You should not have gone to HR.’” Banker then testified that Hermann said, “I don’t know how you’re going to work downstairs after this.” Banker was fired within three weeks.

The older transgressions involve two incidents from 1994–97 when Hermann was the volleyball coach at Tennessee. It was here that her players accused her of verbal and physical abuse, calling them “alcoholics”, “whores” and “learning disabled” as a form of motivation. It was unbearable enough that it pushed students to do something that hadn’t been seen in the NCAA since the student revolts of the 1970s: student-athletes standing as one against their coach. The entire team signed a letter that read in part, “We feel that to continue this program under the leadership of Julie Hermann is crippling mentally, physically, and most importantly to our success as a division 1 volleyball team. The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable.” They confronted her collectively in the athletic director’s office and, according to numerous witnesses, Hermann saw the letter, looked at her players, would not acknowledge any of their complaints and said simply, “I choose not to coach you guys.”

Then there’s the video. At the 1994 wedding of one of her assistant coaches, Ginger Hineline, Hermann was caught on camera telling the bride that her job would be in jeopardy if she became pregnant too soon after marriage. Sure enough, Hineline did lose her job after becoming pregnant and eventually received a court settlement for $150,000 in 1997.

As with any scandal involving “past indiscretions,” efforts to dissemble, cover-up and lie are often more damaging than the crimes. The school has careened back and forth from saying they had “no idea” about Hermann’s past to saying they knew but it wasn’t an issue because of Hermann’s “entire record of accomplishment.” As for Hermann, she has yet to comment about the sexual discrimination case from 2008 and claimed to not remember the group confrontation with her entire Tennessee volleyball team. As for the wedding video, she said, “There is no wedding video,” followed by the public release of the video.

How could this possibly happen? There is an old expression that “the fish rots from the head.” In Rutgers, the rotting head belongs to Rutgers president Robert Barchi, a man who truly needs to go. After interviewing multiple members of the Rutgers community, a portrait emerges of Barchi as a corporate bureaucrat whose slogan might as well be, “The buck stops anywhere but here.”

Barchi’s roots are as a physician and number cruncher specifically brought in by Governor Chris Christie in September 2012 to oversee the merger of the New Jersey School of Medicine and Dentistry under the Rutgers banner. This merger decision was approved by the state legislature without the funding to see it through. Barchi’s time is spent perpetually trying to “increase revenue streams” at the school to underwrite the merger. This goal, however, is profoundly at odds with the day-to-day mission of a state university that prides itself on diversity and research.

“Many of us have been horrified since he arrived,” said Professor Beryl Satter, who teaches at the school’s Newark campus. “The scandals in the athletic department are the logical outgrowth of his indifference to both students and the community. President Barchi came here with no interest in the student body and no interest in research. What does that leave? Money. He has been profoundly blinded by the corporate process, a fact that’s been obvious to us from the very beginning. Someone indifferent to the welfare of students should have no place running a university.”

This ham-handed indifference has been sharply displayed in how Barchi has starved funds from the school’s diverse Newark campus to subsidize the majority-white New Brunswick campus. The idea is to lure out-of-state students, with their luscious out-of-state tuititions, to New Brunswick and turn Newark into a secondary feeder institution. As Satter and Belinda Edmondson wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Months before the current basketball scandal blew open the lid on Barchi’s scorn for diversity, his administration set out to downgrade the Newark and Camden campuses to second-class status by describing the three campuses as representing separate specializations: ‘research’ (New Brunswick, the wealthiest campus), ‘service’ (Camden, the smallest campus) and ‘diversity’ (Newark, the brownest campus). So. The rational head will be white; the laboring body will be brown. Isn’t this what the caste system is all about?”

These aren’t just words by Barchi. He proposed closing the Graduate School in Newark and transferring all programs to New Brunswick. Called “institutional racism at its most baldest,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Barchi’s mere presence on the Newark campus spurs protest.

The problems on Rutgers campuses could be much worse, but faculty and students have been fighting Barchi every step of the way. The only sphere in the sprawling Rutgers system without a pool of people standing up to his agenda has been the athletic department. As Satter said to me, “It’s so clear. When you have Robert Barchi wthout faculty resistance, you have a national shame.”

This same athletic department is poised to enter the Big Ten conference, which ideally—if you think schools should hitch their economic viability to unpaid teenage labor—should be a financial boon to aid the medical school merger. Now, however, member schools are grumbling that the invitation should be yanked. As Andy Baggott of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote, “If the Big Ten Conference is going to continue to stand by its plan to bring Rutgers into the fold next year, then its members must be gluttons for ridicule. In the aftermath of scandals at two of its signature institutions—Penn State and Ohio State—Big Ten administrators, coaches and alums are watching Rutgers answer to another round of forehead-slapping ineptitude.”

Governor Chris Christie has the power to force Barchi’s resignation. We can note the attendant irony that Christie—who delights in being a bully and picking on the weak, the indigent and all those who can’t fight back—would be the one to finally clear the decks at Rutgers. We can note the irony, but it still needs to happen. Christie appointed Barchi because they both are agents of austerity with the charm of a couple of bulls in a china shop that also happen to be passing kidney stones. But Barchi is becoming a liability for Christie and not because he is harming the New Jersey residents trying to get an education. Barchi is a liability because he now carries the stench of incompetence. For the students of Rutgers, this is a protest moment: President Barchi has got to go, and he can take Julie Hermann with him. If Governor Christie won’t act, then it’s time to mobilize to force in hand.

Across the country, students are mobilizing against racial and economic injustice. Read more at StudentNation.

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