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Rutgers Learns Numbers Don't Replace Knowledge

INTERVIEW EDGE • MAY 2013

Rutgers University's new athletic director, Julie Hermann, sparked nationwide outrage, and Rutgers’ selection process should serve as a cautionary tale about the risks of taking a CYA, by-the-numbers approach to executive selection.

Hermann was hired in May after her predecessor, Tim Pernetti, resigned under pressure. Pernetti's grievous error was not firing Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, who was videotaped physically and verbally abusing players. It was understood that one of Hermann's main jobs would be to restore Rutgers' damaged reputation.

But within days of signing a four-year, $1.6 million contract, stories about Hermann's own abusive behavior surfaced, including accusations of mental cruelty leveled by volleyball players she coached at the University of Tennessee.

The revelations, unrevealed during the hiring process, created an uproar that reached the New Jersey governor's office and threatened the career of Rutgers president, Robert L. Barchi.

In what appears to be a case of “syndicating the risk,” Barchi appointed an unwieldy 28-member search committee to find Pernetti's replacement. This is an outrageous committee size. One wonders how could 28 tenured, senior or professional people agree on anything at Rutgers?

That search process itself was flawed from the outset, according to committee members. They say the vetting process, which started with a field of 63 candidates, was "rushed and secretive." Some complain they received the names of the two finalists late Sunday evening – less than 12 hours before Monday morning interviews – making it difficult to “prepare intelligently for the interviews.”

"It was not enough time," says Ronald Garutti, a member of the Rutgers Board of Trustees and a search committee member. "I'd like more time and more transparency in the process." There was also "little or no time in the interviews to ask follow-up questions or probe deeply," he states in a grievance letter.

These last two issues, not asking follow-up questions or probing deeply, indicate key practices of an effective interview were not followed. Was the committee really interviewing candidates or just asking them to audition?

This contradicts Barchi's description of the search as "deliberative at every stage of the process." Some elected officials accuse Barchi himself of being less than honest and question how much he actually knew about the new hire and when he knew it. At the very least, he badly mishandled things from the start.

Appointing a large search committee means that no one member has the opportunity to spend much time questioning candidates or asking follow-up questions. And, it means members may not be particularly invested in the process. There is no individual accountability. And this means no one is ultimately responsible when major mistakes occur because any risk in the interview and hiring decisions was syndicated across a huge group.

Hermann has resisted calls to step down, and Barchi continues to back her, so Rutgers may survive yet another scandal. We just hope other employers learn from the university's mistakes. In hiring decisions, a huge number of individuals on a selection committee never replace knowledge and judgment gained from trained interviewers using effective techniques.