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Izzo talks about Rice scandal as Rutgers hires crisis communications firm

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Ralph Izzo, left, and Robert Barchi at the head of the table during a November 2012 Rutgers board meeting.
Ralph Izzo, left, and Robert Barchi at the head of the table during a November 2012 Rutgers board meeting. - (Aaron Houston)

Rutgers University has hired Hill & Knowlton to handle crisis communications during the ongoing fallout and media scrutiny from former basketball coach Mike Rice's abusive treatment of players, Ralph Izzo told NJBIZ Friday.

Izzo, chair of the university Board of Governors, did not know how much Hill & Knowlton was being paid but said the money would be well spent.

"It's the reputation of the university," said Izzo.

Izzo's comments about Rutgers' recent missteps came during an NJBIZ edit board meeting related to his role as PSEG chairman and CEO.

Law firm hired for independent review

Rutgers also announced Friday the appointment of Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP to conduct an independent review of how the university has handled the basketball scandal. The review will begin immediately, but no timetable was set for its conclusion although Izzo said in a Rutgers release he anticipates "thorough but speedy" action.

In its independent review, Cahill Gordon, which has offices in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and London, will also make recommendations on any actions that should be taken by the Rutgers administration and the university's governing bodies. The results of the review will be made public.

"It is incumbent upon my administration and the Board of Governors to understand fully how this transpired, to learn from it and to take such actions necessary to ensure that our athletics program meets our expectations for integrity as well as success," Rutgers President Dr. Robert Barchi said in the release.

Izzo said Friday the Rutgers Board of Governor had decided to wait for the results of the independent review before taking any possible action on Senate President Stephen Sweeney's demand that Mark Hershhorn resign from the board. Hershhorn reportedly did not alert other board members after he watched video of Rice hitting and kicking players and yelling homophobic slurs at them.

Izzo said the Board of Governors could not oust Hershhorn because he is a Board of Trustees designee to the Board of Governors; Hershhorn's removal would require an act of the Board of Trustees.

Izzo said he had removed Hershhorn from the Board of Governors athletics subcommittee, of which Hershhorn had been chair. Izzo also noted that full-time employees involved in the handling of Rice's abusive behavior had been removed or resigned from the positions they held as the scandal unfolded: Rice, as coach; Tim Pernetti as athletics director; John Wolf, as Rutgers' interim senior vice president and general counsel (Wolf later resigned from the university after first being moved to another attorney position within Rutgers at the same salary). Izzo said the feeling was that full-time staff should no longer occupy the position they held when they saw the Rice video.

Asked about the Rutgers human resources employee or employees who were reportedly involved in discussions with Pernetti and Wolf about Rice's fate, Izzo said he did not know the names of those staff. Izzo said the human resources staff recommended the hiring of an outside firm to investigate the Rice matter; Connell Foley was hired and issued a report.

The negative attention for Rutgers continued Friday with the university's announcement that the men's lacrosse head coach had been suspended, with pay, pending completion of an investigation by the Rutgers University Police Department. The department is investigating allegations of verbal abuse, according to the Rutgers release. Izzo said the university has been checking videos and talking to students who play for "coaches who are fiery" to assess if any behavior was abusive.

Barchi said in the university statement about the suspension of Brian Brecht, "As I stressed earlier, we will be looking closely at all intercollegiate athletics at Rutgers going forward. If we find problems, we will address them."

Barchi still right leader at right time

Barchi has been criticized by some for not being forthcoming enough about Wolf's initial move to another job within the university, saying he had been "removed from his leadership post."

Asked if Barchi will survive the continuing uproar, Izzo answered, "Absolutely."

Izzo said Barchi was hired to "bring Rutgers to the next level academically." He talked about the opportunities available to Rutgers as it implements a historic university realignment with UMDNJ and Rowan, and prepares to enter the Big 10 conference where Rutgers will be associated with schools like the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin that are members of the Association of American Universities.

Izzo said before the basketball program maelstrom, Barchi had been praised as the right leader at the right time.

"That didn't change. That didn't change," said Izzo.

Izzo said he was saddened to see the basketball program become a focal point for questioning unrelated areas of the university.

"We seem more interested in who we can tear down than who we can build up," said Izzo. "When we stub our toe, we seem more interested in removing the leg than fixing the digit."

Asked if the basketball scandal would deter companies from partnering with Rutgers on research and other matters, Izzo said it would not.

Asked how he was handling the Rutgers scandal, Izzo said, "It's been a challenge. There's no two ways about it."

Izzo, whose Rutgers chairmanship expires in June, said he has been relying on an excellent team at PSEG. He said his heavier time commitment to Rutgers during the Rice turmoil "is not something I could do on a sustainable basis."

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