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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn’t turning his back on the president of Rutgers University — for now.
Christie has given the top administrator of New Jersey’s flagship public university his “absolute confidence” following the latest in a series of scandals at the school, which is set to join the Big Ten Conference in 2014. But while Christie said he won’t meddle in university affairs, some other lawmakers have questioned President Robert Barchi’s fitness for the job following allegations that incoming athletic director Julie Hermann verbally abused players when she was a volleyball coach at Tennessee in the 1990s.
"I understand that there are some people that feel differently about it. It doesn't matter," Christie said Tuesday during his monthly call-in show on TownSquare Media. "What matters is: What did the administration at Rutgers believe?"
Christie said he had spoken with Barchi — a neuroscientist brought in last year to turn the school into a medical sciences powerhouse — as well as the university’s lawyer and the chairman of the Board of Governors.
“These are their decisions,” Christie said. “Now they have to deal with the questions that are being raised.”
Christie also warned against a “character assassination” of Hermann, whom he said he has never met.
Christie made similar comments last month when some Democratic lawmakers first questioned whether Barchi, 66, could remain in his post as a cycle of problems began plaguing the university’s athletic department.
Barchi fired men’s basketball coach Mike Rice on April 3, days after a video surfaced of him berating players with gay slurs while kicking them and hurling basketballs. That led to the resignations of the university’s athletic director and its top in-house attorney. Eddie Jordan, who was hired to replace Rice, was then defended as a graduate of the university even though records indicate he is not. Lacrosse coach Brian Brecht was also suspended for two games for verbally abusing players during practice, a revelation that surfaced during the school’s investigation into all of its sports programs after Rice’s termination.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, said Tuesday he would not say whether he thinks Barchi should resign until after he receives more details on Hermann's hiring. Hermann, who was also involved in a sexual discrimination lawsuit while an administrator at Louisville, was hired by Rutgers on May 15 and is scheduled to start on June 17.
Sweeney, however, was not nearly as convinced as Christie that Barchi can lead the university’s transition to absorb parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
“The merger’s going to happen regardless of whether Barchi’s there or not,” Sweeney told The Associated Press.
Barchi has previously been a top administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, but lacks the experience of running a university with a high-profile and ambitious athletic program. Still, the recent problems in the school’s athletic department do not seem so damaging as to derail its entry into the Big Ten Conference, according to the athletic directors at Ohio State and Michigan, the conference’s two most prominent schools.
Some of Hermann’s former colleagues, meanwhile, have come to her defense, including Joan Cronan, woman’s athletic director emeritus at Tennessee. Cronan, in a statement, said she holds Hermann in high regard and that while the former coach’s tensure in the 1990s was a “very frustrating time for everyone associated with the volleyball program, I do not recall it being as abusive situation.”
Marc Gesualdo, a former graduate assistant for Tennessee’s sports information department who attended virtually all of the school’s games between 1994-96, said he never saw anything that could be deemed inappropriate.
“Or just like so outlandish that it was bordering on abuse,” Gesualdo said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.