Rutgers University is facing a growing backlash from gay-rights advocates across the U.S., threatening to keep New Jersey’s flagship school in crisis.
Steven Goldstein, a Rutgers administrator and gay-rights activist, offered last week to help President Robert Barchi and two other administrators handle the crisis over coach Mike Rice’s abuse of basketball players that included homophobic slurs. Goldstein said he never heard back.
An April 4 letter from Goldstein, who founded Garden State Equality, a civil-rights group that successfully pushed for anti-bullying laws, cited Rutgers’s “astonishing lack of sensitivity” to gay, bisexual and transgender students, according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg. Most notable was the 2010 suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi after a video of him kissing a man was streamed on the Internet by his roommate.
“It’s just astounding,” said Goldstein, who was hired from Garden State in January as an associate chancellor on Rutgers’s Newark campus. “One would think the administration would drag me kicking and screaming to help them with damage control and to help make Rutgers the better place it needs to be” for gay students and the entire community.
The controversy put pressure on Barchi and could imperil New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s drive to remake Rutgers, the state’s largest institution of higher learning.
On Friday, Barchi accepted his athletic director’s resignation and voiced what he said had been longstanding support of gay students. Barchi said he wished he had taken action sooner.
Internal and other legal documents showed that there were allegations about coach Rice’s behavior dating to last June, and a law firm’s November internal investigation had said his behavior violated his contract.
Barchi and Ralph Izzo, chairman of the school’s Board of Governors said in a statement today they plan to commission an independent review of the handling of the allegations against Rice.
Izzo also said that he found out April 6 that the head of the board’s committee on Intercollegiate Athletics had viewed a video in December showing Rice’s abuse of players. The committee's chairman is Mark P. Hershhorn. Neither the full committee nor any other member of the Board of Governors had seen the video, Izzo said.
Campus Pride, an 11-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina, nonprofit group focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues at universities, said it supports the 50 or more Rutgers faculty members who called for Barchi to resign for “inexcusable handling” of the scandal, according to Shane Windmeyer, 40, a co-founder of the group.
Windmeyer said he was offended that Barchi, during his April 5 press conference, called himself an ally of gay and lesbian students and understood what it was like to encounter harassment.
If he did, he “would have immediately fired that coach,” Windmeyer said.
Several other groups, including Garden State Equality and the Los Angeles-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, called for an investigation.
Maggie Shiffrar, dean of the graduate school at Rutgers’s Newark campus and a professor of psychology, said the latest events are especially painful because so many faculty had worked to improve the climate for gay students after Clementi’s death.
Rutgers created a new center with its own staff. Psychologists devised ways to help faculty assist students struggling with issues related to sexual orientation. Later this month, Rutgers is holding a lecture on the climate for lesbian, gay and transgender students sponsored by the Clementi family’s foundation. The university also opened gender-neutral housing.
“We’re feeling a little beaten up here,” said Shiffrar, who also noted that the coach had used offensive words referring to women.
Greg Trevor, a university spokesman, declined to comment on the Goldstein letter when reached by phone. Trevor also wouldn’t say whether the university plans a review of how the coach’s firing was addressed or whether the school intends to meet with any groups calling for an investigation.
Today, Barchi plans to hold a town hall meeting with members of the Rutgers Newark campus, where faculty had been especially critical of his plan to reorganize the university, including the merger of Rutgers and state medical schools -- an approach favored by Christie.
A letter from faculty there voiced concern that more money will end up flowing to the New Brunswick campus -- which would get more resources as a research center -- and away from Newark, which has long served more minority and low-income students.
Rutgers, with more than 58,000 students, has three campuses, including in New Brunswick, a 40-minute drive from Manhattan.
The response to the coaching abuse suggests a broader lack of concern for students of diverse backgrounds, said Catherine Lugg, a professor in the graduate school of education.
“It’s this general tone of seeming hostility to diversity,” Lugg said in an interview. “It’s a huge concern.”
State funding for Rutgers fell 10 percent to $262 million in the three fiscal years through June 2012. The school’s subsidy to sports programs was $28.5 million in fiscal 2011, the largest among 54 U.S. public universities in the six biggest football conferences, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
As a result, academic units were forced to cut budgets. The history department stopped paying for faculty telephones and the psychology department chairman issued a directive suggesting professors give shorter and fewer tests to save money on photocopying.
The decision in December by Barchi and Athletic Director Tim Pernetti to suspend and fine coach Rice $50,000 rather than fire him may have been taken in part because of the politics of intercollegiate sports, according to Scott Minto, director of the sports MBA program at San Diego State University. Rice’s suspension came three weeks after Rutgers was invited to join the Big Ten Conference.
In a statement, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Rutgers’s initial response was “insufficient” and a review was under way.
“While we remain interested in the outcome of Rutgers’ review, and will continue to monitor the situation as appropriate, it will have no impact on Rutgers’ transition to, or membership in, the Big Ten Conference.”
Over the weekend, Rutgers was held up for ridicule on the NBC comedy show “Saturday Night Live” as actress Melissa McCarthy played an abusive and foul-mouthed basketball coach who kicks players, uses a Taser and hurls bricks and a toaster.