By Hannan Adely, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)
HACKENSACK, NJ—A phoned-in apology to Eric LeGrand may not be enough to quell criticism of Rutgers University, where officials allegedly disinvited the former football player as graduation speaker and later blamed it on miscommunication, spurring the latest in a series of controversies at the school.
The university must take decisive steps to make amends, to improve communications, and to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated, public relations experts said. Although they disagreed on how damaging the graduation situation was — with opinions ranging from tepid to devastating — experts did agree that Rutgers should have done a better job at finding and securing a graduation speaker.
“They have to take extraordinary measures to make sure they don’t step into trouble again and again,” said Scott Sobel, president of Media and Communications Strategies, based in Washington, D.C. “Because every time they make a mistake it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
To critics of the school administration, the snubbing of LeGrand, who was paralyzed four years ago in a university football game, was further proof of poor leadership and communication under the university president, Robert Barchi.
In his two years as president, Barchi failed to act promptly on complaints that a men’s basketball coach was abusive to players; hired an athletic director, Julie Hermann, who had been accused of verbally abusing players in the past; and increased subsidies to the athletics department by two-thirds to nearly $47 million to cover costs of the basketball scandal and joining the Big Ten Athletic Conference.
Then on Monday night, LeGrand tweeted that he had been uninvited as graduation speaker “for political reasons,” sparking outrage among readers, sports fans and commentators. At first, the school planned to have former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak at the May 18 commencement, until she backed out following protests over her involvement in the Iraq War.
LeGrand said Barchi’s chief of staff called and invited him to speak Saturday. Then he heard it announced Monday that former Gov. Thomas Kean would speak and he got a voice mail from Hermann saying the school was going “in an opposite direction.” He said he was told it was for political reasons.
Barchi said it was a misunderstanding and apologized by phone Tuesday morning to LeGrand, whose perseverance has made him a local and national role model. Barchi said that Kean and LeGrand will speak; LeGrand will be the student representative from the class of 2014 and Kean the commencement speaker.
Bob Oltmanns, president of OPR Group in Pittsburgh, said the situation was understandable because of the pressure to lock in a high-level commencement speaker. “When you lose a speaker in the eleventh hour, the scramble to try to fill that is frantic,” he said. “So it’s not hard for me to imagine how something like this could have occurred.”
Still, he said the school should “take the temperature of stakeholders” to begin with before picking a speaker and that the whole situation “could have been handled better.”
“I don’t know if they anticipated the pushback on Condoleezza Rice or not,” he said. “It’s certainly a black eye when you change direction twice on the course of a weekend.”
Oltmanns said he did not think the mishandling of the LeGrand invite would be a major blow to the school’s reputation, because it doesn’t “rise to the level of severely impacting an institution’s education.”
But members of the New Jersey State Senate, who have been critical of Barchi in the past, said the problem was indicative of greater problems at Rutgers and called for changes in leadership.
“They’ve lost all credibility with alumni and with the public,” said Richard Codey, a former governor and current state senator. “It’s just one embarrassment after another.”
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak said he was concerned that Barchi “is bowing to political interests” and had doubts in his ability to lead.
Greg Trevor, senior director of media relations at Rutgers, said the administration did demonstrate leadership, identifying Kean and LeGrand as speakers within hours of Rice’s withdrawal. Kean was chosen, he said, because he is an outstanding public servant in the state’s history.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the controversy over the Rutgers graduation speaker, but said a year ago following a scathing scandal in the athletics department that he had “full confidence” in Barchi.
Rutgers’ image and faith in leadership at the school will take a hit, said Jack Deschauer, vice president of the Levick public relations company.
“There is no way to explain a voice mail message left with a former football player who was paralyzed,” Deschauer said. “There is just no communication plan that is going to undo the way this is making people feel.”
Public opinion won’t change as long as Barchi and Hermann are still in their positions, Deschauer said. Still, he said there were ways for the school to address problems now.
Barchi and Hermann should meet in person with LeGrand to apologize and make a donation to a medical organization that works on spinal cord injuries, he said. Deschauer said the school should also find a permanent position for him with the university, such as a consultant or adviser in the athletic division or in fundraising, so he can continue to be an ambassador for the school.
Sobel said the school could also benefit from the appointment of a communications ombudsman who takes an independent and daily look at issues at the school that touch the public and who can give a critical point of view on those issues.
Photo: Rutgers Newark via Flickr