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Rutgers Must Do More To Restore Reputation In Wake Of Commencement Boondoggle, Experts Say

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

Rutgers’ Commencement Takes New Twist With Confusion Over Ex-Football Player’s Role

By Hannan Adely, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

HACKENSACK, NJ—In a span of less than 20 hours, Rutgers tried to quell a firestorm about its choice of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker by replacing her with a widely respected former governor of New Jersey, only to find it had created an even bigger, national uproar when former football player Eric LeGrand said his invitation to speak had been withdrawn.

“Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept but they decided to go other ways for political reasons,” LeGrand wrote Monday evening on Twitter, shortly after the university announced that former Gov. Thomas Kean Sr. would be the speaker.

Public outrage against Rutgers was swift.

“Could this get any more embarrassing for Rutgers?” the actor James Woods wrote on Twitter.

By 1 p.m. Tuesday, Rutgers President Robert Barchi announced that Kean and LeGrand, a Rutgers defensive tackle who was paralyzed in a game four years ago and whose perseverance has made him a national role model, would be speaking at graduation.

“It was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker,” Barchi said in a written statement. “We have resolved that miscommunication and are delighted to have him participate.”

LeGrand said Tuesday that he accepted Barchi’s explanation and has agreed to be a speaker at the graduation, where he plans to talk about his personal story, his Rutgers experience, and the support he has been given.

“I do believe his apology is very sincere, and I am very glad I get to speak to the crowd,” LeGrand said.

The graduation blunder was the latest in a string of controversies for the school, which has faced criticism over its handling of a coach’s treatment of basketball players that many viewed as abusive and the withdrawal of the original commencement speaker, Rice, following student protests.

But it was a trying weekend for LeGrand, who said he was thrilled to be asked then felt down and disrespected when he was told the school had chosen someone else. He said he accepted the explanation that it was poor communication.

LeGrand said Barchi’s chief of staff reached out to him Saturday to be the new commencement speaker, after Rice backed out after protest from students over her involvement in the Iraq war. Meanwhile Barchi extended an invitation to Kean and announced Kean’s selection Monday.

Rutgers’ news release announcing Kean’s selection made no mention of LeGrand as an additional speaker.

LeGrand said he did not hear back from school officials and got a voicemail from Athletic Director Julie Hermann on Monday evening telling him the school was going “in the opposite direction” due to “political reasons.”

Greg Trevor, the university director of media relations, said LeGrand had misunderstood what he was offered. He was invited to speak, but not as the official commencement speaker — a billing that would go instead to Kean, the former Republican governor.

“During a conversation, the words commencement and speech were used in the same sentence,” Trevor said. “The misunderstanding was that it was the commencement speech was being discussed.”

Kean will be the commencement speaker, he said, and LeGrand will speak as a special representative for the Class of 2014. LeGrand, he said, will speak first.

“Eric holds a special place in the hearts of the Class of 2014 and the entire university community,” Barchi said. “We are thrilled that he will be joining us on stage to make this special occasion ever more memorable.”

LeGrand suffered a spinal injury in 2010 when he was tackled in a game against Army. It left him paralyzed from the neck down. He has since regained movement in his shoulders and sensation in his body.

He became a symbol of hope because of his optimism and strength as he continued his studies, went through demanding physical therapy, and spoke to organizations about overcoming obstacles. In January, LeGrand said on Twitter he had finished his degree in labor studies.

Although LeGrand accepted the school’s apology, members of the public may not be so willing to forgive.

Students, sports fans and journalists expressed outrage Tuesday morning over how LeGrand had been treated and later voiced skepticism over the explanations provided by Rutgers officials.

“C’mon, this school, you can’t believe anything they say,” Paul Finebaum said on his ESPN Radio show Tuesday afternoon before interviewing the former football player.

LeGrand said he was happy that he would be speaking at the commencement but admitted that some critics had called him a “spoiled brat” for making the commencement speaker controversy public.

“I would like people to live one day in my shoes and say I’m a spoiled brat again,” LeGrand said. “Just take one day of my life and see if they can go through it.”

Others said Rutgers had a public relations problem and a weakness in leadership under Barchi, who has weathered a national athletics scandal, calls for his resignation and a massive reorganization in just under two years as president.

Scandal erupted over men’s basketball coach Mike Rice after a video showed his abuse of players. Barchi also ousted a popular athletic director, and his pick for athletic director had also been accused of player abuse while she was a coach. Despite Barchi’s pledge to cut university support for athletic spending, the sports subsidy soared under his watch in large part to pay for the fallout from the scandal and a move to the Big Ten Athletic Conference.

Screenshot: YouTube

Atheist Family Sues Schools, Calling Pledge Of Allegiance Discriminatory

By Hannan Adely, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — A Monmouth County family is suing a New Jersey school district, alleging that the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance is discriminatory because it asks students to pledge “under God.”

The family, represented by the American Humanist Association, claims that the daily pledge discriminates against atheists and violates the right to equal protection under the state constitution. The association works to make sure atheists are treated equally in society. The lawsuit was filed in state Superior Court against the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District and its superintendent, David M. Healy.

Public schools in New Jersey are required under state statute to have students salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance on each school day. The plaintiffs, parents of a minor who goes to school in the district, said that as atheists they do not accept the existence of a God or gods. They argue that the “under God” part of the pledge maligns their religious beliefs and calls their patriotism into question.

The “under God” language also fuels prejudice against atheists by casting them as outsiders and creating an “official public atmosphere of disapproval” of their religious views, said the plaintiffs, who filed the lawsuit anonymously.

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based American Humanist Association, said public schools should not engage in an activity that tells students patriotism is tied to belief in God.

“The current pledge practice marginalizes atheist and humanist kids as something less than ideal patriots, merely because they don’t believe the nation is under God,” Speckhardt said.

David B. Rubin, a lawyer for the Matawan-Aberdeen district, said the district is following state law that requires the pledge to be said daily. The federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of the pledge in schools, he added, as long as students who object are not required to participate.

“We are disappointed that this national organization has targeted Matawan-Aberdeen for merely obeying the law as it stands,” Rubin said in a written statement.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 and the words “under God” were added in 1954, partly because of concerns about communism. There have been other unsuccessful federal and state lawsuits that challenged the words “under God” in the pledge.

The American Humanist Association is also awaiting a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that challenges the phrasing of the pledge in public schools in that state.

Photo by Donkey Hotey/Flickr

Muslims Concerned After Lawsuit Against NYPD Is Tossed

By Hannan Adely, The Record

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Civil rights advocates said they were troubled by the dismissal of a federal lawsuit that challenged broad surveillance of Muslims by the New York Police Department and feared it would give law enforcement a “green light” to spy on people based on their religion.

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization, filed the lawsuit in June 2012 on behalf of 11 Muslim individuals, businesses and organizations in New Jersey, alleging that the surveillance program violated their constitutional rights by targeting them on the basis of religion. U.S. District Judge William Martini dismissed the lawsuit Thursday, saying the plaintiffs did not show discrimination or injury.

Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates, said the organization planned to appeal the decision.

“We really think the case was wrongly decided,” he said. “If its reasoning were upheld, it would be a dangerous precedent” against equality under the law and religious freedom.

Plaintiff Gary Abdul Karim Abdullah, owner of All Body Shop Inside and Outside in Newark, said he lost customers and income after his business was identified as one under surveillance.

“It had an adverse effect,” he said. “A lot of people called and told me they were afraid to come near the place. Along with the economic situation, it’s been very difficult.”

He said he was disappointed that the judge dismissed the case. “I think they should have heard from the people (in court) what they think about it,” he said.

Martini said the plaintiffs did not prove they were targeted because of their religion and that the “more likely explanation for the surveillance was a desire to locate budding terrorist conspiracies.”

“The motive of the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims,” he wrote.

Even if the plaintiffs had proved injury, Martini said, it would have been caused by “unauthorized disclosure of documents” by The Associated Press, which broke the news about the surveillance program in a series of stories starting in August 2011. The AP series later was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NYPD launched a surveillance program that targeted Muslims at businesses, universities and mosques, including ones in Paterson and Newark, as well as student groups at 16 Northeast colleges, including Rutgers University.

The NYPD allegedly listened in on sermons and conversations at mosques and reported back what they heard. Officers also recorded license plate numbers, mounted cameras on light poles, mapped and photographed mosques, and listed ethnic makeup of businesses in police reports, and they monitored student websites and emails.

News of surveillance caused outrage among Muslims and public officials in New Jersey, who claimed the NYPD did not inform them of their operations in the state. Muslims believed they were discriminated against and said fear of surveillance had put a chill on Muslim life, as people feared speaking out about politics, joining Muslim groups and even praying at mosques.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Police Department maintained that the surveillance program was legal and that police collected information that was publicly available to know where terrorists might go to “lie low.” They noted that 9/11 hijackers had spent time in New Jersey, including men who rented an apartment in Paterson. The police used informants only to follow leads, they said.

The Police Department’s media office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Muslim Advocates was the first to challenge the NYPD’s actions in a civil rights lawsuit. The group claimed that the surveillance cut down freedom of religious expression and assembly, diminished employment prospects and led to loss of business in places identified as targets of surveillance.

The lead plaintiff in the suit was Syed Farhaj Hassan, a Middlesex County resident who is an Iraq war veteran and an active member of the U.S. Army Reserve. Hassan, an observant Muslim of Pakistani descent and a military intelligence specialist, said he was concerned that being associated with a mosque under surveillance would blemish his record and jeopardize his job and security clearance.

A principal who worked at two Muslim girls’ schools in Newark that had been under surveillance said she believed her career prospects had been hurt because of her association with those schools. The Muslim Students Association claimed students did not feel secure joining the group or participating in events or discussions because police had monitored the group.

The Muslim Foundation and Council of Imams in New Jersey also were plaintiffs as were two businesses who said they lost customers because their businesses had been identified as ones under police surveillance.

Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is co-counsel on the case, called the decision “troubling and dangerous.” She said it “gives legal sanction to the targeted discrimination of Muslims anywhere and everywhere in this country, without limitation, for no other reason than their religion.”

Katon said there are plans to appeal the decision in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Other cases are also pending.

A group of New York City residents sued the Police Department in June over the Muslim surveillance program in a civil rights case that is pending in Brooklyn. Civil rights attorneys also filed court papers a year ago alleging that the surveillance program violated the Handshu rules that were imposed on New York City police after a landmark federal case over surveillance of political activists in the late 1960s.

In New Jersey, former Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa concluded after a three-month fact-finding review that the NYPD broke no state laws when it did surveillance in New Jersey, while New York’s attorney general declined to investigate.

Lawmakers and more than 100 organizations have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate; the first request came in September 2011. The department has only said, since then, that it is reviewing the requests for an investigation.

AFP Photo/John Moore

Muslims Concerned After Lawsuit Against NYPD Is Tossed

By Hannan Adely, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Civil rights advocates said they were troubled by the dismissal of a federal lawsuit that challenged broad surveillance of Muslims by the New York Police Department and feared it would give law enforcement a “green light” to spy on people based on their religion.

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization, filed the lawsuit in June 2012 on behalf of 11 Muslim individuals, businesses and organizations in New Jersey, alleging that the surveillance program violated their constitutional rights by targeting them on the basis of religion. U.S. District Judge William Martini dismissed the lawsuit Thursday, saying the plaintiffs did not show discrimination or injury.

Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates, said the organization planned to appeal the decision.

“We really think the case was wrongly decided,” he said. “If its reasoning were upheld, it would be a dangerous precedent” against equality under the law and religious freedom.

Plaintiff Gary Abdul Karim Abdullah, owner of All Body Shop Inside and Outside in Newark, said he lost customers and income after his business was identified as one under surveillance.

“It had an adverse effect,” he said. “A lot of people called and told me they were afraid to come near the place. Along with the economic situation, it’s been very difficult.”

He said he was disappointed that the judge dismissed the case. “I think they should have heard from the people (in court) what they think about it,” he said.

Martini said the plaintiffs did not prove they were targeted because of their religion and that the “more likely explanation for the surveillance was a desire to locate budding terrorist conspiracies.”

“The motive of the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims,” he wrote.

Even if the plaintiffs had proved injury, Martini said, it would have been caused by “unauthorized disclosure of documents” by The Associated Press, which broke the news about the surveillance program in a series of stories starting in August 2011. The AP series later was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the NYPD launched a surveillance program that targeted Muslims at businesses, universities and mosques, including ones in Paterson and Newark, as well as student groups at 16 Northeast colleges, including Rutgers University.

The NYPD allegedly listened in on sermons and conversations at mosques and reported back what they heard. Officers also recorded license plate numbers, mounted cameras on light poles, mapped and photographed mosques, and listed ethnic makeup of businesses in police reports, and they monitored student websites and emails.

News of surveillance caused outrage among Muslims and public officials in New Jersey, who claimed the NYPD did not inform them of their operations in the state. Muslims believed they were discriminated against and said fear of surveillance had put a chill on Muslim life, as people feared speaking out about politics, joining Muslim groups and even praying at mosques.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Police Department maintained that the surveillance program was legal and that police collected information that was publicly available to know where terrorists might go to “lie low.” They noted that 9/11 hijackers had spent time in New Jersey, including men who rented an apartment in Paterson. The police used informants only to follow leads, they said.

The Police Department’s media office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Muslim Advocates was the first to challenge the NYPD’s actions in a civil rights lawsuit. The group claimed that the surveillance cut down freedom of religious expression and assembly, diminished employment prospects and led to loss of business in places identified as targets of surveillance.

The lead plaintiff in the suit was Syed Farhaj Hassan, a Middlesex County resident who is an Iraq war veteran and an active member of the U.S. Army Reserve. Hassan, an observant Muslim of Pakistani descent and a military intelligence specialist, said he was concerned that being associated with a mosque under surveillance would blemish his record and jeopardize his job and security clearance.

A principal who worked at two Muslim girls’ schools in Newark that had been under surveillance said she believed her career prospects had been hurt because of her association with those schools. The Muslim Students Association claimed students did not feel secure joining the group or participating in events or discussions because police had monitored the group.

The Muslim Foundation and Council of Imams in New Jersey also were plaintiffs as were two businesses who said they lost customers because their businesses had been identified as ones under police surveillance.

Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is co-counsel on the case, called the decision “troubling and dangerous.” She said it “gives legal sanction to the targeted discrimination of Muslims anywhere and everywhere in this country, without limitation, for no other reason than their religion.”

Katon said there are plans to appeal the decision in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Other cases are also pending.

A group of New York City residents sued the Police Department in June over the Muslim surveillance program in a civil rights case that is pending in Brooklyn. Civil rights attorneys also filed court papers a year ago alleging that the surveillance program violated the Handshu rules that were imposed on New York City police after a landmark federal case over surveillance of political activists in the late 1960s.

In New Jersey, former Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa concluded after a three-month fact-finding review that the NYPD broke no state laws when it did surveillance in New Jersey, while New York’s attorney general declined to investigate.

Lawmakers and more than 100 organizations have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate; the first request came in September 2011. The department has only said, since then, that it is reviewing the requests for an investigation.

AFP Photo/John Moore