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Rutgers University, Abusive Behavior at School and the Workplace and McCarthyism of the Self-righteous

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Rutgers University's athletic director, Tim Pernetti, became one of several officials to exit New Jersey's largest public university after revelations surfaced about the institution’s former basketball coach, Mike Rice. The coach had, on several occasions, physically abused players and rebuked them with homophobic slurs.

Stanford Professor Robert I. Sutton published a popular essay in the Harvard Business Review, which became the basis for his bestselling book: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Professor Sutton describes the damage done by demeaning bosses and co-workers to the mental and physical health of their colleagues. He documents the ways they undermine learning and organizational effectiveness, as well as the (often hidden) financial costs of keeping them on.

Sutton’s ideas were inspired by the belief of companies like Google and SAS that employees with malicious intent or negative attitudes can destroy a productive working environment and hinder an entire enterprise. Regardless of their individual effectiveness, colleagues who deliberately demean co-workers and who focus their aggression on the less powerful, will poison the work environment, decrease productivity, induce qualified employees to quit and therefore are detrimental to businesses. These concepts apply not only to the workplace, but also to institutions of higher learning like Rutgers.

Rice's firing followed by the resignation of Assistant Coach Jimmy Martelli along with that of Pernetti and interim university general counsel, John Wolf, were all undoubtedly orchestrated by the institution in response to the public outcry over the incident. The dismissal of Mike Rice was the most defensible. Even if the tapes that surfaced were redacted from hours of recordings, Rice crossed the line when he physically and verbally assaulted members of his basketball team. Rice’s behavior was particularly unacceptable in light of the homophobic cyber-bullying of Tyler Clementi, a freshman who ended his life in September 2010, days after his roommate watched live-streamed images of Clementi kissing another man and wrote about it on Twitter.

While Professor Sutton argues that organizations need to take affirmative and aggressive measures to identify and eliminate abusive behavior in the workplace, he also concedes that some difficult people are capable of redemption. Sutton argues that sometimes managers can eliminate mean-spirited and unproductive behavior, while positively channeling some of the virtues of formerly problem employees, to generate a newly productive workplace.

So it was not surprising that after consulting with legal counsel about options, Tim Pernetti recommended that the university censure, sanction and counsel Mike Rice rather than dismiss him. The university’s interim general counsel, John Wolf, likewise, gave the institution legal advice predicated on the legal risks involved in the termination of any employee who works for a public institution.

It was ironic that some members of the faculty, who have largely insulated themselves from termination through tenure, virulently called for the dismissal not only of coach Rice but of Pernetti and Wolf and then university President Robert Barchi. This was their attempt at a mini-reign of terror: McCarthyism of the self-righteous.

The real Reign of Terror during the French Revolution was designed to combat the “enemies” of the new state and to prevent counter-revolution from gaining ground. But most of the people rounded up were not aristocrats, nor guilty of any crime. They were ordinary citizens who could go to the guillotine for making critical statements about the revolutionary government.

McCarthyism was a more benign, modern day, American version of the Reign of Terror.  Fear of world domination by communists gripped the nation in the postwar years. Fears of nuclear annihilation were prevalent since the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device in 1949. That same year, the world's most populous nation, China, became a communist state. Half of Europe was under Joseph Stalin's influence.

Senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on this national paranoia to create an environment similar to the Salem Witch Trials by claiming that Communist spies had infiltrated key government and private institutions. Unfortunately, there were some communist spies in senior positions in government and in some of the nation’s institutions; but when McCarthy trivialized the issue by persecuting innocents, the nation lost its fear and interest.

At Rutgers we witnessed the same kind of human dynamic on a much smaller scale. The fact that lives were destroyed, rightly or wrongly, should not escape us. The faculty that pressed for the termination of Tom Pernetti and John Wolf also wanted the Board of Trustees of the University to terminate the newly hired President, Robert Barchi. He was accused of poor judgment for accepting the recommendation to censure rather than fire Rice. He was also upbraided for having delayed watching the clips of coach Rice hurling balls at players and shouting gay slurs. After unsuccessfully seeking to load the DVD player on his computer during the day that the video went viral, he had to wait until nearly 10 o’clock that night to watch the DVD.

I think it is important for us to recognize that the responsibilities of a president of a major university like Rutgers are not the same as those of a General Manager of an amateur  sports team. Since beginning his tenure on September 1, 2012, President Barchi has been overseeing preparations for integrating units of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He had to connect with critical stakeholders in the state to assure them that he would take their perspectives into account. He has begun work on a university strategic plan (the first in more than 15 years) and was part of a statewide coalition of university, business, and labor leaders working for the passage of a $750 million bond act for higher education.

From 2004 to 2012, Dr. Barchi served as president of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, nationally regarded as a top university dedicated to health sciences education and research. Prior to Jefferson, he was provost and chief academic officer of the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution founded in 1740. There, he had responsibility for Penn’s 12 schools.


In addition to his massive administrative responsibilities at one of the nation’s largest university systems, Dr. Barchi has the opportunity to help the state of New Jersey regain its prominence as a center for research and development and as a center of economic excellence. Throughout his career, he has been active as a teacher and as an NIH-funded researcher in the fields of neuroscience and neurology, and has published extensively in his field. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of his pioneering research on the structure and function of voltage-gated ion channels in nerve and muscle, and on the role these critical molecules can play in human disease.

But it is understandable that during his early months as university President he relied on the advice of his Athletic Director and his General Counsel to censure, sanction and counsel Mike Rice rather dismissing him. Tim Pernetti and John Wolf may have exercised questionable judgment in recommending sanctions that, in retrospect, were insufficient; but neither of these men should have been terminated, especially after Rice was fired.

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