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Rooting for Rutgers

I have not always rooted for Rutgers University. In fact, for an extended period I hated the college I attended for four long and very tumultuous years. I did not graduate because of a combination of my own bad and misguided behavior and, I feel, my radical student politics and activities. Indeed, nothing quite prepared me for life at Rutgers in the Reagan-Bush 1980s.

I was a first-generation college student, freshly plucked as a native son from one of Jersey's urban outposts, Jersey City, and at the state university, as it is called, as one of the "disadvantaged" students, there only because of something called the Educational Opportunity Fund. I felt like an underdog from the moment I set foot on that campus, and my entire college career was a purple haze of dorm and classroom battles, anti-apartheid and antiracism rallies and sit-ins, middle fingers at the school's administration and, yes, a lot of parties.

But I also cannot lie: Rutgers transformed me forever. I started as a socially awkward teenager terrified to speak above a mumble and departed as a political activist with a very loud voice and as a writer with professional credits. Rutgers was not only a place I protested but also a safe space where I discovered on its library shelves books I'd never heard of, about history, about black history, about a mythical Rutgers scholar-athlete named Paul Robeson. I came alive at Rutgers University in a way I could not have imagined, the seeds of a love and concern for truth, for justice, for equality, born on that sprawling campus cut in half by the teeth of the Raritan River.

Since those difficult and strange years of my youth I have forgiven myself and I have forgiven Rutgers. Over the past decade I've done numerous speeches there, advised faculty and staff on issues of diversity and have even attended football and women's basketball games. Part of me has always rooted for the bottomless possibilities and potential of Rutgers, what it could be with the right kind of leadership.

Yet always in the back of my mind has been a sense that something is not quite right with this university that remains such an integral part of my being to this day. That feeling intensified when RU student Tyler Clementi, the victim of gay bullying, killed himself by leaping from the George Washington Bridge in 2010. And that feeling has been exacerbated by the scandals and blunders connected to, first, the men's basketball coach and athletic director, and now the replacement process.

Like many large American universities, Rutgers has always wanted to be a big-time school. We've forever been in the academic shadows of our neighbor Princeton, and the unlucky stepkid to sports juggernauts like Penn State, St. John's and Syracuse. Even though my pride swelled as Rutgers' football team slowly went from a bad joke to annual bowl contender, not lost on me were the rumblings on and off campus about how we were losing our university mission to the almighty dollar bill.

And the truth is this: when money, power and prestige become more important than integrity -- academic, athletic or otherwise -- you create a culture of dysfunction where bad and unethical behavior, seen and unseen, becomes the norm. That explains how and why a basketball coach, Mike Rice, is not properly vetted and can run amok, verbally abusing his players until caught on video. It explains how his assistant coach Jimmy Martelli can become mini-me and do likewise. It explains how former athletic director Tim Pernetti could know of these foul actions and let the coach keep his job after a three-game suspension and $50,000 fine in December -- a slap on the wrist in the context of what top-level coaches are making. And it explains how the school's president, under pressure from all angles to make Rutgers big-time, could say he hadn't watched the tape, and we do not know if he is telling the truth or lying.

Because the only truth that matters here is the windfall of cash destined to fall Rutgers' way as it makes its power move to the Big Ten Conference very soon.

I cringed when random people texted or tweeted me disrespectful comments about Rutgers in the aftermath of the tape becoming public in April. But now, given that similar allegations are surrounding Julie Hermann, the new athletic director, and her past behavior, I am simply in disbelief at the charade that has passed as a search committee, as academic and athletic leadership, at Rutgers. A charade that did not even bother to confirm whether new basketball coach Eddie Jordan had a degree from Rutgers (it was listed on his résumé and official bio, but the registrar's office says he never received one).

We are in trouble, big trouble, whether Julie Hermann resigns or is forced out or not. Whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie weighs in or not. Whether Robert Barchi, the president of Rutgers, steps down or not. At issue is the soul of Rutgers University, and which way and how we can go forward. This is a public and humiliating series of embarrassments, and much of it was born in a college sports culture gone mad, at least at dear-old RU.

I think the school's board of governors needs to look at itself in the mirror, then take charge. That means we need Rutgers to be a university that comes clean, owns its mistakes and says very clearly, without blinking an eye, that we will never again hire anyone for any position without properly vetting that person, top to bottom, and making sure she or he is in line with the mission and vision of our school.

That means we are an institution, a culture, that will not tolerate abuse or hate in any form, nor will we hire anyone who has done so if they do not have the courage to own up to their past even as allegations are swirling around them.

And it means that Rutgers, my Rutgers, needs to think long and hard about this mad dash into the matrix of sports glory. Especially if it is going to open us up to more controversies in the future.

What we do not want, what we should not want, we who love and are Rutgers University, is for the soul of our school to be as half-empty as the football games I attended when I was a student at RU back in the day. I would take a half-empty stadium any day over the madness we are stuck in right now.

Kevin Powell is a public speaker, former Democratic congressional candidate in Brooklyn, N.Y., and author or editor of 11 books including "Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays." Email him at kevin@kevinpowell.net or follow him @kevin_powell.