By Loretta Weinberg
I was extremely troubled by the comments made by Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann to a journalism class expressing hope for the demise of The Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in the state. In an exchange with a student, Hermann said it “would be great” if The Star-Ledger died.
The remarks made before a media ethics and law class were highly inappropriate and mean-spirited, made worse by the fact that they were spoken to a group of students who are studying to enter the very field she was disparaging. Most disappointing is that Hermann, who is the face of athletics at our state university, has shown a complete lack of understanding for how a free and open press works and why it’s so important to democracy.
Among other things, The Star-Ledger was responsible for bringing public attention to the increasing costs of college athletics at Rutgers when reporters uncovered hidden spending, no-bid contracts and funding problems connected with the stadium expansion project. The paper has also celebrated the school’s many academic accomplishments and routinely serves as the public’s eyes and ears at board meetings.
Regardless of whether we like what is written, a free press serves as the best defender of our democracy. It acts as a check on public officials and those in power — whether it’s in government, higher education or elsewhere — to ensure that work is conducted appropriately and in the light of day. It ensures that our representatives are doing the people’s work and that those who are not in a position of authority have a voice.
Those who have nothing to hide should have no fear of an aggressive press — or in this case, of diligent and persistent reporters covering athletics at a university that has been plagued by scandal, and who are holding those in charge to account.
Even if you do not take into account the social impact and importance of newspapers, no public official should root for job losses at The Star-Ledger or any other company. The Ledger has publicly experienced financial hardship in recent years resulting in layoffs and other cost-cutting moves, and mere weeks after Hermann’s comments, the paper laid off 167 people. These are people with families, bills and other responsibilities who are now facing incredibly difficult circumstances in a difficult economic climate.
Sadly, in her quest to avoid giving The Star-Ledger headlines in order to, as she said, “keep them alive,” Hermann has created a national story that once again gives Rutgers University and its sports programs a black eye. It’s time for leadership in the athletic department, and that starts at the top.
On her first day on the job, Hermann wrote to Rutgers’ student-athletes, in an open letter on the athletic department’s website, that her “most important job is to create an environment in which you can excel — both on and off the field of play.” She said she would “take the lessons of the past and learn from them.”
Together, she said, they would take Rutgers to new heights. The entire Rutgers University community and the people of this state deserve no less than that now, especially as the college is embarking on a major transition to the Big Ten Conference.
If Hermann is serious about leading the department with integrity, she should apologize to the students, the faculty, the university community and the newspaper for her misdirected criticism. As she has vowed to do, she must use this unfortunate episode as an opportunity to improve, and then she must lead by example.
Rutgers University is the state’s flagship college, and the entire university community deserves leaders in academics and in athletics that are committed to elevating the students and the institution through a model that promotes integrity, openness and transparency. If she is unwilling to do this, I question whether she can serve as an effective leader at the university.
Read the Senate Majority Leader’s editorial on the Star-Ledger website here.