April 9 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seeking a second term amid record popularity for his handling of Hurricane Sandy, is on the defensive for backing Rutgers University President Robert Barchi after disclosures that the state school’s former men’s basketball coach abused his players.
The 50-year-old Republican, aiming to transform the eighth-oldest U.S. college into a top research institution with an annual budget of $3 billion, said critics should “move on” after the abuse cast Rutgers into a media spotlight on bullying.
Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey have until July 1 to fulfill what Christie has called the largest public-university merger in U.S. history. Further review of the scandal, as some lawmakers and gay-rights advocates have demanded, risks “reputational damage to Rutgers,” he said.
Democrats control both the Assembly and the Senate, and voters will determine the occupants of all 120 seats in both later this year. An Assembly budget committee held a hearing today on the Newark campus of the Rutgers law school. The panel oversees the university’s allocation of state funds, $262 million in fiscal 2012, which ended in June.
“I find it hard to believe that a full set of facts is available to him at this point,” Brigid Harrison, who teaches politics at Montclair State University, said of Christie’s remarks. The governor may be miscalculating by backing Barchi “in such a definitive and decisive way,” she said.
The former coach, Mike Rice, who had 15 wins and 16 losses in the past season, was fired last week after video showed him kicking players and throwing balls at them while hurling epithets, including gay slurs. His boss, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, resigned shortly afterward. Christie defended a $1.2 million-plus payout for Pernetti, which Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg called a “financial reward for bad behavior.”
Pernetti, in his resignation letter, said the university decided not to fire Rice. “I have admitted my role in, and regret for, that decision, and wish that I had the opportunity to go back and override it,” Pernetti said.
In September 2010, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman, committed suicide after his roommate broadcast video of him kissing a man. Clementi’s death led Rutgers to establish a center to help students, particularly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual, cope with the demands of college.
Garden State Equality of Montclair, a nonprofit group that successfully pushed for anti-bullying laws in New Jersey, called for an independent investigation of how administrators handled the Rice matter.
Barchi has said that while he was aware of the Rice recording in November, he heeded a university lawyer’s opinion that he didn’t need to view it, and watched only after he and Christie discussed its contents on April 2.
As Barchi led a town-hall meeting yesterday on the Newark campus, five students held signs demanding his dismissal.
“Barchi needs to go, the same way Coach Rice and the athletic director did,” Christian McFarland, 36, a graduate student in jazz history, said in an interview. “The way we see it, it’s two down and one to go. He covered up for it.”
Christie is the first Republican elected governor of the Garden State since 1997. He’s running for re-election with 74 percent voter approval for his handling of Hurricane Sandy, the Oct. 29 storm that devastated shore areas, according to Quinnipiac University polling before Rice made headlines.
“My guess is that Governor Christie will not be caught in the net of this scandal,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, said by telephone. “I think it’s limited to Rutgers. Most voters see the governor as being separate from Rutgers.”
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Center for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, said voters are more interested in New Jersey’s 9.3 percent unemployment rate.
“Christie’s opponents are going to try to use this to embarrass him and to get themselves in the paper, because this is a national story that’s being covered on CNN and jokes are being made about it on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Dworkin said by telephone. “Anybody who wants national attention is going to jump on this story and keep it going for as long as they can.”
Christie said Barchi erred by not immediately viewing the video when it was first available, though he didn’t consider that to be a “fireable offense.” The governor made the remarks at a news briefing yesterday in Trenton, the first since the scandal broke April 2, while he was vacationing in Jamaica.
He called Pernetti’s resignation “both necessary and appropriate.” He recounted speaking with Pernetti from Jamaica “as a friend” rather than governor: “‘My advice to you is to get rid of him and get rid of him right away.’”
While dismissed, Rice is getting $1 million, or 75 percent of the salary remaining on his contract, plus a $100,000 bonus for completing the basketball season, according to the Associated Press. Pernetti is getting $1.2 million in pay, a $12,000 annual car allowance through next year and health insurance and pension payments until October 2015. He also gets to keep his university-issued laptop computer and iPad.
“A payout of $1.2 million, plus a car allowance, extended health insurance and the continued use of a Rutgers laptop and iPad is a perverse way of holding the athletic director accountable,” Teaneck Democrat Weinberg said in a statement. “It would be more cost effective if he was given another job to perform at Rutgers, such as teaching others about civic responsibility and civil behavior.”
Barchi and Ralph Izzo, chairman of the school’s Board of Governors, said yesterday in a statement that they plan to commission an independent review of the Rice matter.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney of West Deptford, the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, sent letters today to Izzo and Board of Trustees head Dudley H. Rivers Jr., calling for the resignation of Mark Hershhorn, the leader of the board’s athletics committee. Hershhorn had seen the Rice video and didn’t bring it to the full board’s attention.
“Why under any measure of fairness should Hershhorn remain?” Sweeney said in the letter.
“Until Rutgers cleanses itself of those who were complicit in allowing Mike Rice to continue to sit in a position of authority over young people, this scandal will continue to taint every action, every move, and every decision made by the university,” Sweeney said.
In a statement reported yesterday by the Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, Hershhorn, a longtime board member, said he first viewed the video in December and sought Rice’s dismissal.
Greg Trevor, a Rutgers spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to a telephone call and an e-mail seeking comment on Sweeney’s demand.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at email@example.com