A string of embarrassments in Rutgers University's athletic department has brought calls for the ouster of the school's neuroscientist president, but for many looking at the institution's future, there's a bigger concern: helping it seamlessly absorb two medical schools and other institutions in coming months.
The integration, which was pitched by Gov. Chris Christie and approved by lawmakers in hopes that it would be a key step toward making Rutgers into a medical science research powerhouse, is to be formalized next month. Making sure it stays on course is one reason Christie and others have given for standing behind President Robert Barchi.
"Clearly, decisions could have been made better and more thoughtfully, but that's not the threshold criteria by which we ought to remove university presidents," former Gov. Jim McGreevey said at a forum of his counterparts last week in Newark. "The restructuring will clearly outlast this presidency, and frankly, this governorship will determine whether New Jersey is academically competitive in the physical sciences, in medical sciences and in mathematics for the next half-century."
Once the merger happens, Barchi, 66, will be left with two more main tasks: fully integrating the operations of the medical schools into Rutgers, something expected to take as long as two years. He's also planning to deliver a strategic plan by December laying out the university's next steps in increasing its profile.
The athletics problems came to light in April when a video was made public showing then-basketball coach Mike Rice berating players with gay slurs, throwing balls at them, and kicking and shoving them during practices from 2010 to last year. Barchi had him fired within days after the video came to light. The same week, the university's athletic director and top in-house lawyer resigned, under pressure, for not getting rid of Rice last year when they first saw the footage. Instead, Rice was suspended and ordered to anger management counseling at the time.
Julie Hermann, a top athletic department official at the University of Louisville, was named the new athletic director May 15.
But last week came the revelation that players on the University of Tennessee volleyball team she coached in 1997 complained she had been verbally and emotionally abusive. They said in a letter at the time that she called them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled." Hermann has denied that and said that she had not heard of the letter until last week.
Barchi said last week that Hermann would still start at Rutgers as scheduled June 17.
State Sen. Barbara Buono, who is expected to win the Democratic nomination for governor in a primary election Tuesday, said last week that she has "lost all confidence" in Barchi. While some other members of her party have also called for Barchi to lose his job, one prominent Democrat, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, stopped short of that after a private meeting with him Friday.
Last month, during the first wave of scandal in the athletic department, Christie said the university would be "hurt drastically" if Barchi left. Last week, he said that it is not the governor's job to micromanage the state university.
Barchi is a neuroscientist who served as president of Thomas Jefferson University, a Philadelphia medical school, and before that was a top administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. He was hired last year as lawmakers were hashing out the details rearranging the state university system.
The public universities considered the best in the U.S., including the universities of California-Berkeley and Michigan, have medical schools. Officials in New Jersey hope that taking on medical schools in Newark and New Brunswick that are now part of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey will help improve research, something they see as particularly important for Rutgers because of its proximity to many pharmaceutical firms.
The hope is that a combined school will bring in more research money and attract top professors. The merger, which Barchi has called the biggest of its kind, is to take effect July 1.
More than 80 percent of the hundreds of tasks dealing with the integration have been completed, Rutgers spokesman E.J. Miranda said.
Remaining details, such as integrating payroll and finance computer records and some arrangements with University Hospital in Newark, still need to be worked out.
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