NEWARK, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday that he has "absolute confidence" in the president of Rutgers University even as some lawmakers have called for Robert Barchi to step down amid a string of embarrassing revelations for the university's athletic department.
Christie said he doesn't want to micromanage the university and won't say whether incoming athletic director Julie Hermann should start at the school as scheduled on June 17.
"Not my call," he said Tuesday during his monthly call-in show on TownSquare Media. "I'm confident in President Barchi's judgment."
Since Sunday, there have been revelations that volleyball players at Tennessee complained that Hermann abused them verbally and emotionally when she coached there in the 1990s and that she was involved in a sexual discrimination lawsuit while she was an administrator at Louisville.
"Let's not engage in the character assassination that's going on here," said Christie, who said he does not know and has not met Hermann. "I understand that there are some people that feel differently about it. It doesn't matter. What matters is: what did the administration at Rutgers believe?"
Some lawmakers, including likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Barbara Buono, have questioned whether Barchi is fit to lead the state's flagship university.
"I have lost all confidence in President Barchi's ability to effectively guide our state university," Buono said in a statement Tuesday.
The earlier episodes from Hermann's career are particularly troubling for Rutgers, which hired her after former basketball coach Mike Rice was fired in April for physically and verbally abusing players and former athletic director Tim Pernetti was forced to resign for his handling of the problem. The university's top in-house lawyer and an assistant basketball coach also resigned during the fallout.
The New York Times first reported on details of the Louisville suit which Mary Banker, a former assistant men's and women's track coach, filed against the University of Louisville Athletic Association, saying she was let go in 2008 after she brought allegations of sex and gender discrimination to Hermann and then human resources. Hermann was the executive senior associate athletic director for Louisville at the time.
Hermann testified at a 2010 trial in the case. A jury found in Banker's favor, awarding her $300,000 for mental and emotional distress. But the university appealed and the Kentucky Court of Appeals overturned the verdict in February.
The appellate ruling said that, "even in a light most favorable to Banker," Louisville proved Hermann and the head track coach, Ron Mann, "had contemplated, if not decided, not to renew Banker's contract prior to Banker's complaint to HR."
The case is now before the Kentucky Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to take it.
In addition to news of the sex discrimination lawsuit, a member of the Rutgers' athletic director search committee said she was dumbfounded that the firm hired to vet potential candidates for the athletic director's job never uncovered allegations by former Tennessee women's volleyball players that Hermann verbally abused them while she was their coach. The Star-Ledger reported the claims for Sunday editions.
"One of the primary reasons for using a search firm is that they're supposed to completely vet a candidate for a senior management position, so I'm a little mystified as to why this comes from the press and not the search committee," said Susan Schurman, dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, who was on the search committee but out of the country for much of the process.
Yet the embattled athletic director also found some allies. A retired Tennessee official and a former graduate assistant each voiced support for Hermann during her tenure with the Vols.
Joan Cronan, women's athletic director emeritus at Tennessee, said in a statement that she holds Hermann in high regard, and that while the ex-coach's tenure in the 1990s "was a very frustrating time for everyone connected with the volleyball program, I do not recall it being an abusive situation."
Hermann denied having knowledge of a letter players say they submitted to the school. She acknowledged she made mistakes, but says she has matured and believes she is qualified to lead Rutgers.
"I believe she is well-prepared for her new role at Rutgers University," Cronan wrote. "After Julie's sixth season as the head volleyball coach, I decided that a change was needed, and I moved Julie to a position in athletics administration."
Marc Gesualdo, a graduate assistant for the Volunteers' sports information department from 1994-96, said he didn't see any instances of abuse while handling media inquiries for the volleyball program under Hermann. He attended virtually all of Tennessee's games during that stretch, but he wasn't at all practices.
"Never did I see anything that I would deem as inappropriate or just like so outlandish that it was bordering on abuse," Gesualdo said. "I can't say I saw anything at all that bordered on abuse."
Still, the Louisville lawsuit is bound to bring greater focus on the hiring of the 49-year-old Hermann. On Monday, Hermann said that she has no plans to resign and Barchi later said the university was standing behind her.
Whether Hermann stays or goes, the past two months have been a huge embarrassment for Rutgers, which was celebrating an invitation in November to join the Big Ten Conference in 2014.
After Rice was ousted and Pernetti was forced to resign, the university said new basketball coach Eddie Jordan had a degree from Rutgers when he didn't. There was additional controversy when men's lacrosse coach Brian Brecht was suspended for verbally abusing his players following a university-wide investigation into all Scarlet Knights coaches. Brecht missed the final two games of the season.