I’m on two boards at Rutgers—I’m both a trustee and an overseer (which is the board for the Rutgers Foundation). I’m heartbroken over the sequence of events that has occurred at Rutgers and the betrayal of trust that we caused to happen to our LGBT colleagues, faculty, administrators and students, and their allies.
Unlike most universities, our board of trustees is not the governing body. There is a board of governors, which is composed of six politically appointed governors and five governors from among the trustees. However, there are also committees that span both boards. One is the Governors Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics, which is composed of both trustees and governors. I’ve been on that committee for three years—I asked to join it because I’m not much of a sports fan and I thought the committee would benefit by having someone who could give a more objective opinion.
Last December, during a regularly scheduled committee meeting, we were verbally briefed by Athletic Director Tim Pernetti about Coach Mike Rice’s having behavioral problems, and the AD said his solution was a fine, suspension and counseling. We were not told that Eric Murdock—a former Director of Basketball Operations—had compiled a video of Rice’s behavior. We were not told about the language being used or about the inappropriate physical handling of the student-athletes. I found out about the video the same way you did—on mass media, last week. The FBI is investigating how and why the video was released.
It’s hard to watch the videotape of Coach Rice’s slinging the F-word at his players, along with basketballs. If you watched it, you’ll note that he sometimes had a lackey standing by to reload his basketball hand for him. There’s talk in chat rooms about people not understanding the process of building a team—that’s a lot of garbage. I earned my commission in a program run by Marine Corps drill instructors. They did not touch us, nor did they use language like that. From that perspective, my opinion is that Coach Rice’s behavior was completely unacceptable. He should have been fired on the spot.
And that’s apparently what the AD wanted to do. But he was apparently counseled to get a legal opinion, so an outside law firm was engaged to investigate—a firm that does not have the word “diversity” on its website. The report was NOT provided to the board or the athletics committee; in fact, I had no knowledge that there was an investigation or report until it was emailed to me last week. The report was contradictory in a way—it said that Rice did not create a “hostile work environment” (really?), but that there were grounds to fire him. The most legally conservative approach was taken—Rice was given a suspension, fine, counseling and a monitor—and, apparently, his behavior this year was acceptable.
So what can we learn from this?
- Understand your organization’s mission and values. In the wake of the Tyler Clementi tragedy, Rutgers accelerated its already good LGBT policies to be one of the best in the country. The coach’s behavior was completely unacceptable according to our own codified values.
- Utilize your corporate-governance structure. If the athletics committee had been shown the video, I am certain I wouldn’t have been the only one to demand that Rice be fired immediately. The Trustees have good diversity—but it’s useless if it’s not utilized correctly.
- Assume that information will go viral, especially video. Information wants to flow from secrecy to exposure. In this case, the video was an edited compilation, and I’ve heard the opinion that it’s “not fair.” I think it’s plenty fair, but whether or not you agree, there’s enough there to be very, very alarmed. And the point is that there is nothing you can do to stop it, so once you’re aware of potential exposure, treat it as if it is fact and already public knowledge.
- Lawyers are very important teammates in a decision-making matrix. But they are not the decision makers—the president is. The most conservative legal decision in this case may have been legally correct, but it was morally wrong and is a financial disaster that will probably cost the university hundreds of millions in lost and/or delayed personal and corporate donations.
- Ignorance does not abrogate guilt when it comes to public opinion. I accept my responsibility in allowing myself to be bamboozled, and I apologize. Although it’s very difficult for a board member to not be fooled when an organization is determined to be less than forthright, I’m not going to resign because I want to do my best to make sure this never happens again.
- Reaction must be immediate. Senior leaders must have media coaching. The president waited a very long time to respond and the response was not good enough to make anyone feel better—thus compounding the damage done.
- Remediation must be meaningful in order for trust to be rebuilt.
Our former AD, Tim Pernetti, is a great guy who ran one of the academically best athletic programs in the nation. His leadership skills elevated our program to national prominence, and he negotiated our way into the Big Ten. I watch the way people react to leaders—the broad diversity of people he surrounded himself with was very comfortable with him. Our president, Dr. Robert Barchi, was in his first semester as president when all of this was evolving and he’s had no experience with college athletics.
I want to close with what I consider to be the greatest tragedy: The end result of this incident is that we (leadership) betrayed our LGBT students, faculty, administrators and community members, and their allies, who constitute just about all of the Rutgers family. Our campus should be an oasis from oppression—and indeed, that’s what our own values state. No coach, professor, administrator or fellow student has the right to destroy someone’s productivity by spewing hate speech. This has nothing to do with “free speech”; it has everything to do with creating a space at a university where all can come to learn. A sequence of very bad decisions not only let this coach’s horrible behavior go unchecked, but once it came to light, the behavior was papered over and the checks and balances of committee work was circumvented. Especially on a campus where we lost Tyler Clementi just two years ago, this is completely inexcusable and unacceptable.
Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.