Rutgers’ Leadership Team Must Have Skipped Ethics Class

Perhaps Rutgers’ leadership should have audited some ethics courses.

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Rutgers University President Robert Barchi addresses a town hall meeting Monday, April 8, 2013, in Newark, N.J., Barchi announced Monday that Rutgers officials are reviewing practice videos of all sports to see if any coach engaged in behavior like the type that cost men's basketball coach Mike Rice his job, and the university is planning to hire a consultant to do an independent review of how the university hired Rice.

A failure of ethical leadership is at the heart of the Rutgers University coaching scandal. The matter has grown from the awful behavior of a basketball coach into a full-blown crisis for the school and its president, Robert Barchi. And it is a lesson for other leaders in how not to handle such challenges themselves.

One of the great ironies of this situation is that Rutgers is home to the prestigious Institute for Ethical Leadership (IEL). Only days before the scandal became widely public with its disturbing video of coach Mike Rice hurling basketballs and homophobic insults at his players, the IEL announced a $2.6 million grant from the Prudential Foundation to support its efforts to reach organization leaders and students.

If only now-resigned Athletic Director Tim Pernetti and the roomful of lawyers and HR administrators who seemed to be asking themselves what to do for the last several months had audited a few IEL lectures, perhaps things would have been different.

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Instead, for months the athletic director and perhaps others heard complaints from students (for that is what the players are) and at least one assistant AD about Rice's bullying and belligerent behavior. What was the reaction of Rutgers' leadership? Some apparently ineffective counseling and a short suspension to the coach and then a defensive legal crouch. 

Rutgers retained outside legal counsel to investigate the risk of legal liability to the university. This study reportedly arrived at the conclusion that the coach's behavior did not present a "hostile work environment," and so no further action was required.

Now, it is a pretty good idea in a situation like this to analyze one's legal risk. But it's pretty lousy leadership to decide that meeting the minimal legal requirement is the most you are willing to do. And this is recognized on the Rutgers campus, where the IEL mission statement proclaims, "ethical behavior drives good business and that merely operating a business within the legal confines of compliance can fail to address the complexities that constitute ethical conduct and considerations."

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Ethical behavior is often categorized in three broad levels:

The first and most basic level is compliance with rules: The child doesn't eat the cookie off the dessert plate before dinner because he is afraid of getting caught. One expects to achieve this level of reasoning with most four-year olds. 

The second level is driven by an emerging sense of social fairness: The child doesn't eat the cookie off the plate because then there would not be enough for everyone for dessert tonight. Parents hope their children will develop at least this far by the time they are adolescents.

The third and highest form of ethical behavior is the principled response: I will not eat the cookie before dinner simply because it would be wrong to do so. The cliché is that integrity is doing the right thing even when you think no one is watching.

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At a practical level, you simply cannot have a rule for everything and expect everyone to know what the rules are. If you do, you are in real trouble. Tacitus is said to have observed "The more corrupt the state, the greater the number of rules."

So, there is a growing movement to teach organizational leaders to think at the most mature ethical level, as evidenced by the proliferation of ethical studies programs receiving multi-million dollar grants.

President Barchi told reporters last week that although he hadn't bothered to look at the Rice video for months, it took him only "five minutes" to decide firing Rice was the right thing once he had. Well, bravo for Barchi. How come everybody else in his leadership team seems to have gotten stuck at the level of a four-year-old ethicist? And how come Barchi only became so decisive once he knew everyone was watching?

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This is the fundamental leadership failure that has caused so many other organizations in crisis to lose the confidence and respect of their respective stakeholders. The result damages fundraising from alumni, recruitment of talent, shareholder equity and can cause the entire leadership regime to fall.

Rutgers' IEL has another fine sentence in its mission statement: "Leaders must be prepared to deal with the more complicated and subtle critical thinking and decision-making processes required to create an organizational culture where ethical practice and behavior become habit."

All organizational leaders need to ask themselves what they are doing to encourage their colleagues to make better, more ethical decisions in the future. Robert Barchi might start by taking his leadership team on a walk across campus to spend some quality time at the IEL.

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