Faculty members divided on Bernie Fine investigation

Some Syracuse University faculty members approve of the administration's role in the controversy surrounding the former men's basketball associate head coach. Others want to know more.

Brenda Wrigley hasn’t slept well in weeks. Her stomach is in knots each day as she walks down her driveway to pick up the paper. She dreads what she’ll see on the front page, as Syracuse University makes daily headlines with controversy surrounding Bernie Fine.

The firing of SU men’s basketball associate head coach on allegations of sexual abuse received extensive national attention. The university underwent public scrutiny for its actions since then, even from its own staff. Many faculty members are alumni, taking to heart the current image of SU’s reputation.

Faculty and staff straddle the fence when it comes to the steps taken by the university’s higher administration, with some praising Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s measures and others still looking for answers to what they see as a series of unending questions.

Wrigley, chair of public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, is a self-proclaimed expert in crisis communications. The statements released from Chancellor Nancy Cantor have been appropriately worded and carry the right tone, she said, but she would like to see more done to directly address the public.

“There’s been no kind of news conference from the chancellor,” she said. “Sooner or later, that’s got to happen. You must be willing to be asked tough questions if you’re going to be viewed as really transparent. If you get it out there and get it behind you, then you can move on, the campus can move on, the faculty and students can move on.”

Cantor quickly addressed the impact of the allegations on the SU community through her emails to students and faculty. Walter Broadnax, distinguished professor of public administration at the Maxwell School, said he believes the university is on the right path in protecting its students and community.

“Given the size of the university, I think they have responded very well and I think as the leadership have gotten deeper into this the performance continues to rise.”

Martha Hanson, bibliographer at Bird Library and member of the University Senate’s Athletic Policy Committee, said she was impressed with the chancellor’s decisions.

“I don’t know when it’s right to terminate somebody, but in my heart of hearts I feel that it was right to do,” Hanson said. “I’m proud of how we’re handling it so far.”

Criticisms of the university’s past fueled the fire. An article in The New York Times raised questions on the administration’s reactions to another sexual harassment case in 2007. David Potter, a former associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences who was involved, was quoted in the piece, saying he was “wary of Syracuse’s internal workings.”

Hanson said she had her doubts about the internal workings during the 2007 case involving a student attending the university at the time.

"I know I didn't feel the same kind of way back then. I felt that there may have been more going that met the eye," she said. "Now I feel really good about the communication the chancellor has had."

Moreover, critics targeted the school for measures taken in 2005 during their initial investigation of the allegations against Fine.

Faculty members such as Joseph Lore, Athletic Policy Committee senator and director at the Department of Recreation Services, are supportive of the university’s past actions.

“I am confident the university conducted a thorough and comprehensive investigation in 2005,” Lore said. “Without a doubt they have gone about the claims it investigated and its approach to the recent additional claims and phone conversation in a most appropriate manner. I think it sends a strong message as to our sensitivity to and commitment to awareness of sexual and physical abuse.”

Others like Wrigley have more questions for the administration and would like to see information made public.

“I think the university should have turned over its investigative materials to the police or the district attorney,” she said. “How extensive was it? Who were the people involved? We don't have answers to those questions and I think that's where the skepticism comes, that's where the perception of some kind of cover-up or secrecy begins to take form.”

Many faculty members consider transparency to be a key factor in the way the university is handling the situation, particularly with the involvement of private law firms leading the internal investigation.

“Nobody’s said what this is going to cost,” Wrigley said. “I really would like to know.”

Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, said he is unsure of the purpose of the law firms and the general SU community will not know because of the “behind the scenes elements.”

Most agree it is too early to tell what impact this will have on the university as a whole. Despite feelings of uncertainty, they are sympathetic to the daunting circumstances the administration faces in the coming weeks.

“It's a difficult situation and just as it takes a toll on students, faculty and staff, I’m sure it takes a huge toll on the top administration of the university,” Wrigley said. “I’m sure it’s been very, very difficult for them just as it has been for the rest of us and I feel bad about that.”

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