Between the egg on its face and the ham-handedness by which it tries to wipe itself clean, Rutgers University is just a glass of OJ and a cup of coffee away from figuring out a delicious breakfast. Unfortunately, Rutgers is the state university, not a roadside diner, and the smell of all those breaking eggs has even the most ardent booster holding a handkerchief to his nose.
The “misunderstanding” to rescind Eric LeGrand’s invitation to deliver the commencement address after he spent the weekend writing one, only to back off and allow him to share the stage with Tom Kean following an enormous public backlash, is just the latest in a series of leadership follies to bedevil the school on the banks of the Old Raritan.
Why does this matter to business? Rutgers has been in the midst of a push to attract more connections with the private sector, to ensure its research goals are aligned with corporate needs. Part of that push coincided with the higher education merger that awarded the school with assets in North Jersey as it consolidated and strengthened its presence in Newark and New Brunswick.
Robert Barchi has a deep list of credentials that make him seem like just the guy you’d want steering the ship at a time of enormous potential for Rutgers. Instead, he’s been completely flummoxed by athletics, an area where he admittedly has no interest. Rather than hearing news of the latest collaborations with industry or how well the school is helping transform Newark, we’re treated to lurid tales of insults and basketballs hurled at players; the forced resignation of a popular athletic director; a new athletic director whose credentials received less due diligence than Bernie Madoff; and now this, the ultimate disrespect to a student who has served as an inspiration to the masses for his resilience in the face of a life-changing injury. You would not expect a man whose passion is antique clocks to leave so many moving parts to chance, but less than two years into his tenure, he’s got the kind of — forgive us — track record that would raise some serious problems elsewhere. How will Barchi’s leadership affect Rutgers as it moves into the big-time Big 10?
There’s a lesson here in executive leadership. When you’re at the helm, you’re responsible for understanding all parts of how your business works, whether they fascinate you or put you to sleep. College sports at a Division 1 school is never the sort of thing that can be swept under the rug. Whatever Barchi’s talents — and he does have them, as Chris Christie has attested to on several occasions — this is a glaring problem that will not go away. The university owes it to itself, its alumni, the state and the business community to ensure its leadership has a full understanding of the school and its priorities, so that the next time it’s featured on ESPN, it’s for success, not scandal. Let’s hope Barchi and his team spend some time this summer developing a new playbook.