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Fighting Too Many Fires

June 3, 2013

When Rutgers University hired Robert Barchi as its new president last fall, the experienced university leader and accomplished neurosurgeon was hailed as just the man to oversee a complicated merger and strategic planning process that would transform Rutgers – which for many years has struggled to crack the upper echelons of universities – into a research powerhouse.

The first year was supposed to be the most challenging, culminating in the official July 1 merger of Rutgers with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a separate educational institution with four campuses, eight academic units, a staff of more than 12,000 and about 8,000 graduate and professional students.

And this year has proven quite challenging for Barchi, though not for the reasons many expected.

At a time when Barchi had enough on his agenda for any university president, he faces an athletics scandal that he – like many presidents at universities with big-time athletics – seems ill-prepared to handle. It comes less than a year into Barchi’s tenure and on the heels of several other controversies related to his management of the institution that have weakened his support among faculty members. He is seen by some as ignoring the Rutgers campuses in Newark and Camden, and has made comments that some faculty say make him appear insensitive on issues of diversity.

“We want the president to succeed. We don’t want him to fail,” said Adrienne Eaton, a labor studies professor at Rutgers and president of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the faculty union. “But we’re not feeling too great about the prospects at this point. There’s a sense of demoralization about the university’s leadership.”

Barchi now faces a “perfect storm” of challenges, and local media outlets have gone so far as to ask the state’s governor, Chris Christie, whether he still has confidence in Barchi’s ability to run the university. While Christie expressed support for Barchi, other state lawmakers called for his resignation.

And Barchi's limited exposure to athletics issues means that he may have struggled with problems more seasoned presidents could manage. "I don’t think there’s anything in his professional experience that prepared him for running a public university involved in big-time athletics,” said Robert W. Snyder, director of American studies at Rutgers-Newark who runs a blog that has been critical of Barchi’s vision for the Newark campus.

The university’s administration has issued several statements over the past few weeks related to the current scandal but has generally declined media requests. Barchi and a spokesman for the university did not return a request for comment for this story. Members of the university’s governing board and Christie, who appointed that board, have expressed support for Barchi’s continuing leadership of the university.

The situation at Rutgers, on the heels of athletics scandals at other universities, again raises the question of whether big-time athletics present too much of a challenge to university presidents. Since the scandal, Rutgers faculty members, outside university administrators, and search consultants have wondered aloud whether experience with athletic issues should be weighed more heavily when universities with high-profile athletics departments search for presidents, whether universities do a good enough job training lower administrators to deal with such issues, or whether, as some university leaders have argued recently, the entire administrative structure of public universities should change to free presidents of the burden of managing athletics.

A Blind Spot?

Over the past few months, revelations about administrators in the athletics department have raised questions about whether Barchi has given proper oversight to the department. In April, a  video released by ESPN showed the then-basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing players, including throwing balls at their heads and using anti-gay slurs. The university fired Rice, and when it became public that the university's athletics director had seen the video in December and had not acted on it, Barchi fired him. The incident raised questions about why it took so long for the university to act and whether Barchi was giving proper oversight to athletics.

There was hope on campus that the coach and athletic director's replacements would help the university move past the scandals, but that has not been the case. Rice's replacement, a former Rutgers basketball player, was found not to have completed his bachelor's degree, contrary to previous assertions by the university. While that is not a requirement for the job, faculty members and the public wondered whether naming someone who hadn't graduated showed too little concern about athletes' academic lives at a time when the university needs to repair its image.

The new athletic director, Julie Hermann has proven even more problematic. After she was named athletic director, some of her former players at the University of Tennessee alleged that she verbally abused players. Hermann was also the target of a sex discrimination lawsuit as athletics director at the University of Louisville. The revelations raised a number of questions about whether Rutgers and Barchi had done their due diligence in the search and, if they knew about Hermann's previous problems, why they would select her at a time the university could ill-afford bad publicity.

An article Sunday in The Daily Record reported that Rutgers is trying to deal with its problems in part by paying Hill + Knowlton $150,000 for help with public relations. But the same article quoted experts as saying that the university has not handled the publicity well. "Most people around the country could not name Rutgers’s athletic director. Now from Maine to California everybody knows that at best, Rutgers makes a lot of mistakes and it’s like the Keystone Cops, and at worst they turn a blind eye to some damaging behavior," said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick, a crisis communications firm that has advised universities and companies. "This creates problems up and down the line for the school."

These days, lack of experience dealing with big-time athletics issues is proving to be an Achilles’ heel for public university presidents, most of who come up through the faculty and academic administration. In the past two years campus leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Pennsylvania State University have left their jobs amid scandals originating in the athletics department. Other university administrators, such as the presidents of Ohio State University and the University of Miami, have faced intense media scrutiny because of athletics scandals.

In several speeches over the past few years, Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, has identified “the dominating influence of intercollegiate athletics” as one of five major challenges major university presidents face, on par with political struggles, diminished state funding and “corporatization.”

Rawlings declined to comment on the situation at Rutgers. Rutgers is a member of the AAU.

Even aside from scandals, intercollegiate athletics can be a time suck for administrators. Conference realignment, which has been happening at an increased pace, is a process that involves the president. Rutgers announced this year that it would be joining the Big 10.

Rutgers for years has struggled to break into the top ranks of intercollegiate athletics, particularly football, and derive more money from the department, and has spent a lot of money in pursuit of that goal. Institutional subsidies make up 40 percent of the athletic department’s budget, more than any other public institutions in the six largest football conferences. In 2010, the department spent $64 million but only generated $37 million in revenue. The deficit spending has long been a sore point with faculty members, who have questioned the athletics push for years.

Before being named president at Rutgers, Barchi was president of Thomas Jefferson University, a private health sciences university that does not participate in intercollegiate athletics. Prior to that he was a faculty member and administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution that does not emphasize sports to the degree Rutgers does.

Rutgers faculty members, search consultants and other administrators say Barchi’s lack of experience dealing with big-time athletics could be contributing to the university’s continued struggles.

 “When you’re a major university and you compete in the BCS, the person that is your CEO needs to understand the importance and the risks that big-time athletics brings,” Jed Hughes, vice chairman of executive search firm Korn/Ferry, told The Courier-Post. “I think the president has an incredible background in the medical profession. He was the provost at Penn, he was the president at Thomas Jefferson. And then he comes to Rutgers and I’m sure his exposure to big-time sports was nonexistent. So all of a sudden he's thrust into a very challenging situation of an environment that he’s never really been trained in.”

In that sense Barchi resembles other otherwise-successful university presidents who struggled to manage problems emanating from athletics departments, including Graham Spanier, former president of Penn State, and Holden Thorp, outgoing chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Thorp has been outspoken about the need to change the relationship between university leaders and the athletics department. “If you’re running a school that has big-time sports, if there’s a problem, it can overwhelm you,” he said in an interview with The News & Observer. Thorp declined to comment on the situation at Rutgers. Thorp said in multiple interviews that “half his time” was spent dealing with the scandals.

A Full Plate

The time-consuming sports scandal comes at an inopportune moment for Rutgers, which is in the process of merging with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Faculty members and others at Rutgers say the merger has dominated Barchi’s agenda since he took office in September.

“With all the attention that he’s giving that, there’s a sense that he’s not paying too much attention to the rest of the university,” Eaton said.

When Barchi was named president last year, his experience running Thomas Jefferson and serving as chief academic officer at the University of Pennsylvania were touted as reasons why he would be the right person to oversee the merger.

State lawmakers, including Christie, were the primary champions of the merger, which they claimed would revolutionize medical education in the state and help raise the academic and research profile of Rutgers. Many faculty members objected to the various iterations of the plan. The legislature approved the measure in June 2012, with the expectation that the merger would be effective July 1 of this year.

On any time frame, the merger would be a difficult undertaking. Similar mergers by other institutions, including the merger of the University of Toledo with the Medical University of Ohio, which began in 2006, and the 2012 merger of Georgia Health Sciences University with Augusta State University to create Georgia Regents University Augusta, have proven to be complex endeavors, requiring the merger of two faculties, technology systems, administrations and identities.

Mergers also present a financial struggle. On Thursday Moody’s Investors Service announced that it was downgrading Rutgers’s credit rating to Aa3 from Aa2 and gave the university a negative outlook, citing the proposed merger as a major factor.

“The negative outlook incorporates the complexity of the merger of two large organizations and the potential for additional credit pressure if sustained operating deficits erode already thin liquidity or if borrowing exceeds near-term expectations without offsetting revenue and financial resources growth,” the ratings agency wrote.

In a statement release Friday, Rutgers’s administration said the ratings revision was not a cause for concern, particularly because UMDNJ had a weak credit rating coming into the merger. In its statement, university’s administration highlighted the potential positive aspects of the merger, such as the potential to bring in increased research revenue.

Alongside the merger, Rutgers is also launching a strategic planning process that will determine the direction of the merged university over the next 10 years. Faculty members say that process has also consumed a large chunk of Barchi’s time.

Challenges on All Sides

While faculty members say their impression is that most of Barchi’s time has been devoted to those two issues, and now the athletic scandal, they note that he is also in the middle of resolving other issues that cropped up in his first two semesters at the university.

Faculty members at the university’s Newark campus have been expressing increasing discontent about Barchi’s leadership, saying his vision for the university marginalizes the campuses in Newark and Camden, which serve a more diverse, less affluent undergraduate student body, in favor of the main New Brunswick campus.

While faculty members at Newark and Camden have traditionally had higher teaching loads, Snyder said the three campuses have historically viewed themselves as one institution. Faculty members at all three campuses go through the same tenure process. “We see ourselves as legally equal,” he said. “We’re all full citizens of the university.”

That discontent came to a head in April at a town hall meeting at the Newark campus. At that meeting, Barchi said he envisions the New Brunswick campus – the largest of Rutgers’s campuses – as a “flagship” research university. He said the Newark and Camden campuses are “diversity” and “social service” institutions.

Faculty pushed back, questioning why the campuses were being funded at different rates, with Newark and Camden receiving less per student. Many faculty members said that they were frustrated that Barchi was not listening to them, and this video shows how the session played out:

 

 

President Barchi also angered minority groups when, at a meeting with a Latino faculty advisory group, Barchi said he could sympathize with a faculty member's concerns about being a “female of color” at Rutgers --because he experienced hardships as a white man in academe, since departments wanted to hire minorities. That remark prompted a letter of protest signed by about 100 faculty members.

Barchi has since said the remark was meant as a joke.

The combination of those issues, now joined by the athletics scandal, means that a large portion of Rutgers’s faculty has expressed some form of discontent with Barchi’s leadership. Multiple faculty members said that the athletics scandal, if it happened on its own, wouldn’t have been so bad. But the compounding of so many issues, and what they perceive as a botched response to the athletic scandal, make them skeptical going forward.

Too many problems arising simultaneously have proved challenging for other presidents. The vote of no confidence against New York University President John Sexton earlier this year by the faculty of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences reflected several strains of discontent about international expansion, local development and Sexton’s leadership style. Multiple complaints also factored into the vote of no confidence against former Harvard President Lawrence Summers in 2005.

Rutgers faculty members say that the common thread that runs throughout the controversies has been Barchi’s unwillingness to engage various stakeholder groups in university governance. Faculty members say their interactions with him are formulaic, that he doesn’t appear to understand their concerns and that his decision-making processes are too centralized.

“There’s a sense that the planning process is very top-down,” Snyder said. “Much of it amounts to big committee meetings designed to reach a desired end, and the structure of the meeting is just going to march us there. There’s not much concern for faculty voices.”

 

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