It's been just an awful 13 months for Rutgers, from the Mike Rice mess to the failed vetting of new coach Eddie Jordan and new AD Julie Hermann to Hermann's expressed wish that the local paper go out of business. In the grand scheme of things, offering Eric LeGrand the chance to deliver the commencement address, then rescinding the invite two days later without explanation, is fairly minor. In PR terms, it's another dagger.
Four years after getting paralyzed in a game, the former Scarlet Knights defensive tackle has become one of the most prominent public faces of the university. But more than the speaking engagements and media appearances, he's stuck around campus, this past January completing his education and earning a degree in labor studies.
So it was to LeGrand that Rutgers initially turned when Condoleezza Rice pulled out of giving the May 18 commencement speech, in the face of growing political protests on campus against her appearance. On Saturday afternoon, LeGrand received a phone call from Greg Jackson, chief of staff for school president Robert Barchi.
"Saturday I get a call from Greg Jackson and they offered me the job to give the commencement speech," LeGrand said. "I was like, 'Wow, thanks for the opportunity,' and he said, 'Let's touch base Monday and talk about it.' So I was telling my friends and my family, everybody was so excited."
Before LeGrand flew home yesterday, he spoke briefly with Jackson, who gave him no indication that anything had changed. LeGrand was already planning out his speech.
"You have no idea how much I've been thinking about it," LeGrand said. "I was thinking all weekend long about what I could share with the students, my experiences. I was going to take them back before when I was getting recruited by Rutgers, what made me come here, and the things I learned here, and, of course, my injury and how great it's been since then."
Unbeknownst to LeGrand, the university had already publicly announced its new commencement speaker: former New Jersey governor Tom Kean.
Upon arriving home, LeGrand received a phone call from Hermann. He says she told him Barchi had "decided to go in another direction for political reasons," whatever that means. LeGrand says it's the lack of communications from Rutgers that really gets him. "I wish somebody would have given me a call tonight and explained to me why. Then I can understand, but don't just leave me hanging."
"I just feel like I was offered something and it was taken back and I don't know the reasons why," LeGrand said. "I wasn't told the reasons why. I thought I was a good fit for the position to do it. I thought I could do the job, but I guess they thought different."
The university hasn't said much on Kean's selection, aside from an administrator telling the Asbury Park Press that his name came up "quickly" after Rice pulled out, and that Barchi pushed it through without formal board approval.
Barchi has invited LeGrand to the schoolwide commencement, and has offered to personally present him with his degree. LeGrand, who plans to attend the School of Management and Labor Relations graduation ceremony, says he's unsure if he'll take them up on the offer.