By David Jones
NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Nearly 40 Rutgers University faculty members have signed a letter voicing support for the school's president, who has been under fire since video footage emerged of former basketball coach Mike Rice abusing and berating his players.
Robert Barchi has drawn heavy criticism for his apparent lack of action in handling the situation since firing the Scarlett Knights coach for his behavior - shouting homophobic slurs at the players on the men's team and hurling basketballs at their heads during practice session over a two-year period.
"We just felt we wanted to let people know that we retained confidence in Barchi's leadership," said Roger Jones, chair of the university's chemistry and chemical biology department.
The letter, released late Friday, is the first sign of support from Rutgers faculty amid rising calls for Barchi's resignation.
The academics cited efforts by Barchi to boost the school's profile as a research institution and to get its fiscal house in order. They also praised him for overseeing the integration of the struggling University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers, which supporters say will boost the school's prestige as a medical and scientific research center and teaching institution.
"As scientists and as faculty members, we support Dr Barchi's vision and his leadership," the letter said. "We believe that we will see enormous new opportunities to excel in the medical, dental and health sciences, bolstered by our existing strengths in basic health science research capabilities."
In a letter sent to the Rutgers Board of Trustees on Wednesday, 31 Rutgers University faculty members demanded Barch's resignation, and the New Jersey state assembly speaker Sheila Oliver proposed public hearings into the abuse of players by Mike Rice.
On Friday, a wrongful termination lawsuit was filed against Rutgers by former director of player development Eric Murdock, who alleges that he was dismissed in retaliation for having complained about Rice's tactics to then athletic director Tim Pernetti.
At a news conference earlier on Friday, Barchi announced the resignation of Pernetti, who suspended Rice for three games without pay and fined him $50,000 in December, after reviewing hours of practice video provided by Murdock's attorneys.
Barchi said on Friday he did not ask to see the videos at the time, and that he would have likely fired Rice if he had watched them himself.
Ralph Izzo, who chairs Rutgers' board of governors, expressed support for Barchi at the news conference.
Linda Stamato, a Rutgers professor and vice chairman of the school's presidential search committee that selected Barchi, said the president may have ruffled a few feathers initially with an ambitious agenda, but insisted he has not been given enough time at the school to judge him one way or another.
"This is not a job for the faint hearted," said Stamato, who is also co-director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers. "First he hit the ground with the train running. You run risks when you don't do the things people expect you to do."