Eric LeGrand, Paralyzed Ex-Rutgers Football Player, ‘Hurt’ by Commencement Decision

Eric LeGrand says the university offered to make him commencement speaker on Saturday. On Monday, Rutgers selected Tom Kean for 'political' reasons.

UPDATE: Rutgers has released a statement from president Robert Barchi:

“Eric LeGrand will speak at our Commencement and personally receive his degree from me as a representative of the Class of 2014.

It was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker. We have resolved that miscommunication and are delighted to have him participate.

ORIGINAL: Eric LeGrand is a football player from Middlesex County in New Jersey who played defensive tackle for Rutgers. In 2010, he was paralyzed from the neck down while playing for the Scarlet Knights. He’s since gone on to become a motivational speaker while continuing his rehabilitation.

On Saturday, he says, he was offered a chance to become Rutgers’ commencement speaker. The university had selected Condoleezza Rice to give the commencement speech, but after protests from students and professors — she worked in the Bush administration during the Iraq War, two unpopular things on college campuses — Rice pulled out of the speech.

So Rutgers needed a replacement, and it selected Eric LeGrand. On Monday, he called to confirm the situation. And he says the school decided to go in a different direction.

Rutgers decided to go with former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, a Republican like Rice. LeGrand received the message from Rutgers AD Julie Hermann:

“She told me, ‘I was pushing for you, but President Barchi decided to go in another direction for political reasons. But he wants you to come to the ceremony. He wants to personally give you your degree,’ ” LeGrand said. “I just didn’t know how to feel. I was hurt. They offered me this on Saturday and then they take it back on Monday. I was like, ‘Why?’ “

Barchi, former provost of Penn and president of Jefferson, has been under fire since becoming Rutgers president in 2012. His first year on the job was chaotic. According to the New York Times, he angered teachers, lawmakers, and students, in addition to being “accused of marginalizing needy students, shortchanging major departments and acting detached and even dismissive.” Current and former Rutgers faculty rushed to denounce him.

Then, somehow, he was involved in a sports controversy. Then-Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was shown on video hitting players at a practice, and was eventually fired. Then, after firing athletic director Tim Pernetti because of the situation, he hired Julie Hermann; almost immediately, allegations surfaced of her abuse of players at volleyball practices in the 1990s. New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica even called for Barchi’s firing.

Barchi was hired to oversee Rutgers’ absorption of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; he made hundreds of thousands of dollars on the boards of two firms that Rutgers (and UMDNJ) does business with. Somehow, Barchi is so unpopular Rutgers recently had to postpone a celebration on joining the Big Ten.

Although he donated it back to the school, Barchi got a $90,000 bonus for his first year at Rutgers.

And so, after LeGrand’s story, it’s more trouble for Rutgers and Barchi. People have called for his firing before. Will he survive this time?