Latest Rutgers athletics controversy highlights leadership gap


(Mel Evans/Associated Press )

Rutgers University is again facing controversy over its athletic leaders. Less than two months after management changes following revelations that men's basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abused his players, the athletic director brought in to clean things up has come under the microscope for claims she was verbally abusive to former players herself.

New Jersey's Star-Ledger newspaper reported Saturday that Julie Hermann, the newly named athletic director at Rutgers following the Rice embarrassment (and a former women's volleyball coach at the University of Tennessee during the 1990s), allegedly managed her team at Tennessee "through humiliation, fear and emotional abuse," the paper reported.

The Star-Ledger spoke to 11 former players, several of whom were among a group of student athletes who, at the time, wrote a "scathing" letter about Hermann's coaching style. "The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable," the paper reports the letter stated, as well as including claims athletes were called names such as "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled." (In a statement, Hermann said she was never notified of the letter and called the allegations "heartbreaking": "For sure, I was an intense coach, but there is a vast difference between high intensity and abusive behavior.")

Since news of the 16-year-old accusations erupted, Rutgers has come under fire for its seeming inability to vet its future leaders. (In between the Rice scandal and the Hermann controversy, the university named Eddie Jordan as the coach to replace Rice, calling him a Rutgers graduate although he fell short of receiving a degree.) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has said he plans to speak with the university this week. And some state officials are questioning whether Rutgers president Robert Robert Barchi should be out of a job.

But as of Monday, Hermann appears to be keeping hers. Rutgers released a statement of support for Hermann from President Barchi, saying she was vetted by a "thorough background check," that "Rutgers was deliberative at every stage of the process," and that she "was one of 63 individuals initially considered by the search committee" and has "a strong commitment to the well-being of student athletes."

The most interesting line from the statement, however, is this one: "Since the announcement of her selection, some media reports have focused on complaints about aspects of her early career. Looking at Julie’s entire record of accomplishment, which is stellar, we remain confident that we have selected an individual who will work in the best interests of all of our student athletes, our athletics teams and the university."

What Barchi appears to be saying is that a leader's "entire record of accomplishment" can forgive a mistake from "her early career"—a mistake that, if true, and no matter how far removed it may be, is the same problem she was brought in to help address. Is that really the message Rutgers' leaders wants to be sending at this particular moment? Where's the comment in the statement about how seriously it will consider complaints of this nature? Where's the offer to speak to these former players about their experience? Where's the inclusion of a zero-tolerance statement for verbal intimidation from any coach toward any student athlete?

Hermann may be an experienced athletic administrator with an impressive resume. Former colleagues, from assistant coaches to her boss at the University of Louisville, have been quick to come to her defense. But if the controversy is indeed true, what Rutgers needs is not just an accomplished leader, but the right one to help it move beyond its embarrassing recent past.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Mike Rice, Tim Pernetti and the leadership madness at Rutgers

Report: New Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann once accused of abusing players, too

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | May 24, 2013