Chris Christie’s Rutgers Problem

Lesson for leaders: A problem in one part of your regime raises questions about the other parts.

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Julie Hermann, left, sits with Rutgers president Roberet L. Barchi as they listen to a question during a news conference where she was introduced as the new athletic director at Rutgers University on Wednesday, May 15, 2013, in Piscataway, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)
Julie Hermann, sits with Rutgers University president Robert Barchi during a news conference where she was introduced as the new athletic director May 15 in Piscataway, N.J.

If you want to see precisely how not to handle a reputational crisis – and how mishandling such a crisis can widen it to the point that it might even affect a likely U.S. presidential candidate – then cast your eyes to the banks of the New Jersey's Raritan River in New Brunswick and the campus of Rutgers University. There you will see something that is stunning on multiple levels, including one of the most bizarre arguments from an attorney you are ever likely to read.

You may recall how a few short months ago, Rutgers was embroiled in a controversy over the abusive behavior of its men's basketball coach Mike Rice toward his players. The school's mishandling of the case was so awful that once Rice finally lost his job, the school's athletic director and general counsel handed in their resignations. The case also damaged the reputation of the university's president Robert Barchi, who seemed strangely detached from the controversy. Barchi claimed it took months before he bothered to look at a video of Rice's outrageous behavior, but that once he did it took him only five minutes to know the coach needed to go – which was a decision nobody else at the university seemed able to reach.

Although I argued in a blog post that this delayed decision was a failure of ethical leadership by Barchi and his administrative team, I expected the school would have been so embarrassed by all the national notoriety they had received for weeks that they would have made significant changes to how they moved forward. Instead, things might have gotten worse.

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Rutgers launched a nationwide search for a new athletic director and settled on Julie Hermann. But then women who had played for Herman when she coached their volley ball team at the University of Tennessee 16 years ago started telling reporters how she used to hurl insults at them in behavior that sounded a lot like former-coach Rice. 

Barchi says all the proper steps were taken in Hermann's hiring process and last week he got an important endorsement from Gov. Chris Christie. Then insiders at the University began telling how the hiring process was a sham and that Hermann hadn't been properly vetted.

If all this isn't enough to make you wonder what's going on in the administration halls, consider the pretzel logic the school's new general counsel, John Farmer Jr., offered in defense of Hermann on Sunday. In a guest column in the Star-Ledger, Farmer likens Hermann to Bill Clinton when Clinton got cute and claimed he hadn't smoked marijuana as a student because he "didn't inhale." And this column was in defense of Hermann. Farmer's point seems to be that although Clinton had a problem with the truth, he went on to be a successful political leader. The problem with that analogy is that, as everybody – except apparently Farmer – remembers, Clinton also went on to be continually plagued with problems related to his truthfulness. This is not the sort of argument one expects to hear from one's own attorney.

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The mind boggles.

This is a much bigger issue than a debate over how an athletic director was vetted and whether the allegations now raised are valid. Rutgers is in the midst of complicated merger of medical programs in a move that was engineered by Christie to strengthen the university. There is a lot of speculation that Barchi, who is a neuroscientist, has been focused on the merger, regarding it as much more important than the controversy in the school's athletic department.

The problem Barchi has failed to grasp – and this is a lesson for other leaders – is that a crisis poorly handled in one part of your business can derail other critical parts of that business. In this case the controversy over Hermann raises the question that if the school can't seem to manage the hiring of an athletic director smoothly, what else is it missing?

Christie has voiced his unqualified support for Barchi, but if the university president continues to stumble through this crisis, one has to wonder if there will be any fallout for the governor who has his eye on a possible presidential bid in 2016. Barchi might think this matter is too small for his attention, but I'll bet the man who lives in Drumthwacket doesn't think so.

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