July 17, 2013
When it rains, it pours, as the expression goes. And, in the public arena, it sometimes rains for more than the biblical 40 days and nights. That’s the case for Rutgers University, which finds itself in a bad news monsoon.
There are many lessons that professionals in academia and business can learn from New Jersey’s state university. Their story says a lot about the price of mishandling communications and the failure to involve trusted PR counsel before a situation becomes a crisis.
Rutgers hired a crisis communications firm to dig the university out of a hole that a series of missteps created. A less expensive and better course of action would have been to avoid being there in the first place.
Here’s what happened, based on newspaper accounts.
Last fall, a video surfaced showing Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice striking his players, pummeling them with basketballs and screaming vulgarities at them, including homophobic slurs. Athletic Director Tim Pernetti saw the video and reported the incident to university President Robert L. Barchi.
Barchi chose not to look at the video and instead suspended the coach for three games, fined him $50,000 (14 percent of his salary), gave him a warning and ordered him to take anger management counseling. Then, in December, Barchi approved the renewal of Rice’s $700,000 contract. But in April, when the video went public, the university fired Rice.
The president of the university also dismissed the athletic director, replacing him with Julie Hermann, an official from athletic programs at the University of Tennessee (UT) and the University of Louisville.
Almost immediately, a letter written in 1996 and signed by all 15 members of that year’s UT Lady Vols volleyball team that she coached surfaced. The players said that their coach had inflicted the kind of “mental cruelty” that caused them “unbearable suffering.” They accused her of calling the entire team “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.” Tennessee removed Hermann as coach shortly after that letter went to university authorities.
The bad news continued. A former assistant coach claimed that Hermann fired her because she was pregnant. A jury later awarded her $150,000.
Regardless of the revelations that put Rutgers in an unfavorable national spotlight, Barchi said that he was sticking by his newly named, scandal-scarred athletic director.
On June 5, ESPN.com columnist Ian O’Conner wrote: “That’s a reason to jump to the obvious conclusion Julie Hermann might be the worst possible person for this job.”
That’s enough trouble for any institution. However, as they say in those late-night TV infomercials: “But wait, there’s more.”
During all of this turmoil, the beleaguered Barchi named Gregory Jackson, an assistant English professor, as his chief of staff. Four former campus employees filed a lawsuit against Rutgers and Jackson in January. They said that Jackson bullied them, intimidated them and forced them out of their jobs because of their age.
The Rutgers name, which previously stood for solid academics and a high level of integrity in athletics, was suddenly the object of national scorn.
Journalists uncovered facts that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. For example, would anyone have detected that the new basketball coach, a former on-court Rutgers hero named Eddie Jordan, had falsified his résumé to say that he was a graduate of the school when, in fact, he had never completed his degree work? Apparently the university didn’t fact-check the claim and listed him as a Rutgers graduate on its athletics website.
New Jersey politicians were quick to berate the university’s leadership and call for dismissals, including Barchi’s. They will likely continue to make statements that will put them in the headlines and further worsen the school’s image. There are also plans for public hearings on these issues that will result in more reputational damage for the school.
Rutgers mishandled the situation from start to finish. The president should have looked at the video and then fired the basketball coach, meanwhile thanking the athletic director for bringing the situation to his attention. The university should have carefully vetted the people it put in key positions. In addition, the school’s public statements on various issues that arose were consistently inadequate and defensive, and were not 100 percent forthcoming.
Faculty members have accused the administration of a cover-up, saying that the school should have informed the students and the public of the men’s basketball abuses when they surfaced.
I think Rutgers should have fired the coach and then made a public statement explaining why, sending a strong message that university programs will not tolerate this type of abuse. Instead, President Barchi hedged his bet, apparently hoping that the whole thing would quickly blow over. He lost.
Few university administrators or business leaders are completely capable of weighing the impact or reputational ramifications of critical decisions like this. That’s why they need PR counsel. These events provide further evidence that PR professionals always need to be present when executives and top officials discuss critical decisions and policy matters.
And that’s why Rutgers could be a PR and management case study for years to come. Here are some points to remember from the crisis:
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. He is president of Virgil Scudder & Associates, based in Miami Beach, Fla.
Email: virgil at virgilscudder.com