What does Rutgers University football have to do with the university’s troubled supercomputer, a $10 million machine that was shut down in January, barely a month after its official launch?
At first (scarlet) blush, nothing much at all—except, perhaps, for the dismal record posted by both this year: 2-10 for football (0-9 in the Big Ten); for the computer, a few weeks of scant use before it had to be turned off to prevent overheating.
But the reality is Rutgers University officials themselves invited close scrutiny into what turns out to be an odd series of connections that bring together confusion, hype, football, business, lots of money—and politics.
Let’s start with this minor but telling move: When Rutgers leaders searched for a public way to boast about its supercomputer, they latched on to an obsessive theme—Big Ten football.
Big Ten football?
Because, now, at Rutgers—everything is couched in terms of the Big Ten. As one Rutgers administrator confided with no small embarrassment, “Policy from on high is that, if you get the chance, mention Big Ten no matter what you’re talking about.”
For example, a statement about the supercomputer issued by the university’s Office of Research and Economic Development (ORED) and echoed by gullible media outlets declared:
Rutgers New Supercomputer Ranked #2 among Big Ten Universities, #8 among U.S. Academic Institutions by the Top500 List
“The updated Top500 global ranking of world’s most powerful supercomputers issued today …ranks Rutgers’ new supercomputer #2 among Big Ten universities…”
Never mind that supercomputing has nothing to do with football. Also never mind that , of the 14 universities in the Big Ten—don’t ask why the Big Ten has 14 members—only five bother to have their computers ranked. (Many universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Cal Tech and Berkeley don’t play that game. Don’t have to).
So the reality is: Rutgers’ supercomputer, named Caliburn, ranks second of five among the 14 members of the Big Ten. When it’s working.
Oh, and that #8 ranking? That’s 8th out of only 15 American academic institutions listed in that Top500, a twice-yearly ranking of the power of supercomputers conducted by a group of professors, a list dominated by Chinese and American government institutions and private companies. Other American universities that have supercomputers—or high performance computing (HPC)—aren’t on the list.
But, ok, that’s just immature, amateurish bragging, unworthy of a serious university. Still, the fiasco of the troubled supercomputer has murkier connections to the politics of football at Rutgers. Connections that raise questions Rutgers University officials won’t answer, at least not for the moment.
Questions beginning with the naming of Rutgers’ very expensive 52,000-seat football stadium. It’s called High Point Solutions Stadium. Seems like an odd name for a football stadium—and a confounding one at that, given there are two separate, unrelated companies named High Point Solutions in New Jersey. Adding to the confusion, they are both computer companies.
The stadium wasn’t named after heroes of Rutgers history—or even of Rutgers football. Not Paul Robeson or Billy Austin or Homer Hazel or even Ozzie Nelson. Not even named for the team, The Scarlet Knights. Or the state—New Jersey. Or anything having to do with Rutgers at all.
Nope. Of the 14 teams in the Big Ten, 12 play in stadiums named for the teams, the state that houses and pays for them, or some notable person in their history. Or, more generally, for veterans and others worthy of remembrance: three are named simply “Memorial Stadium.”
(My favorite is Purdue’s Ross Ade Stadium because the Ade part is named for George Ade, the famous Indiana humorist and an alumnus.)
The two exceptions are the University of Minnesota where naming rights to the football stadium were sold for $35 million to TCF Bank (thus the name TCF Bank Stadium)—and High Point Solutions Stadium at Rutgers where the naming rights were sold for $6.5 million.
But, at least, the TC in TCF stands for Twin Cities.
To be fair, there is a place called High Point in New Jersey. It’s in Montague Township in the same county (Sussex) as the Sparta main office of High Point Solutions—the one that bought the naming rights. And it’s near Wantage where the brothers who founded the company, and still run it, were raised. Their names are Michael and Thomas Mendiburu—and they are graduates of High Point Regional High School, but not of Rutgers.
The name High Point might have nothing at all to do with Rutgers but it does have a lot to do with the Mendiburu brothers.
So what does all of this have to do with the supercomputer that overheated and had to be shut down?
High Point, the same company that, in 2011, paid $6.5 million so that the Rutgers stadium could be rechristened High Point Solutions Stadium, also was identified by the university as the “lead contractor”—Rutgers’ term—on the $10 million supercomputer that is not working at this time.
According to Rutgers public information, High Point partnered with a San Jose/Taipei company named Super Micro Computer, Inc. to build it but, so far, Rutgers refuses to say how much High Point was paid and what exactly it did for however much it was paid.
Rutgers also refuses to say anything at all about the bidding process—from how High Point (or even which of the two High Points) got involved in the bidding, what work it does, how much it gets paid, what its relationship is with subcontractors.
One statement from the university office that commissioned the computer—the childishly or geekishly Star-Warsian named RDI2 (for Rutgers Discovery Infomatics Institute)—refers to the “lead contractor” as High Point Solutions of Bridgewater, N.J. One of the two High Point Solutions does, in fact, have an office in Bridgewater. But another statement from the university’s Office of Research and Economic Development refers to the “lead contractor” as High Point Solutions of Sparta, N.J., an identification confirmed by both the university’s public information office and the other High Point which, for the record, doesn’t have a space between the High and the Point and is called HighPoint Solutions, with headquarters in Pennsylvania.
(But, sadly, Rutgers’ public information office also reported incorrectly that competitive bidding on Caliburn was conducted “in the fall of 2016”—after the machine already was built– so I proceed with caution).
The confusion surrounding even the identity of the contractor and the timing of bidding deepens the mystery surrounding the machine’s shut-down. For the moment, let’s call the company that was general contractor on the $10 million project High Point/Sparta.
While Super Micro Computing, the subcontractor on Caliburn, does have a history of building supercomputers, High Point/Sparta does not. Check out High Point—its website, news stories written about it. In the very specialized field of international supercomputing, High Point/Sparta is just not a name in the supercomputing field. In fact, while the Sparta company is not bashful about touting its relationship to Rutgers football and its leaders, High Point/Sparta itself doesn’t even mention the one deal–Rutgers–that could conceivably make it a player in the big time world of supercomputing, rubbing shoulders with the likes of IBM, Cray, Dell, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard.
But it does mention doing the IT work for the Vernon Township public schools.
In one marketing document, Super Micro brags about its Rutgers deal as a “case study” and “success story” and what vendors it used to build Caliburn—but doesn’t even mention High Point/Sparta, the “lead contractor.”
High Point/Sparta’s founders, especially Thomas, the CEO, are hardly shy and reclusive. Thomas Mendiburu, who lives in Saddle River, is politically active, a donor to Republican causes. Gov. Chris Christie appointed him an alternate delegate on his presidential slate in last year’s primary election—and Tom Mendiburu went to the GOP convention supporting Donald Trump.
Tom Mendiburu also has had a lot to say about how Rutgers runs its athletic program. He was incensed when Rutgers President Robert Barchi fired the university’s athletic director, Tim Pernetti, in 2013, two years after the Mendiburus agreed to pay for naming rights. Pernetti, clearly a good friend of Tom Mendiburu, lost his job in the controversy that followed the national broadcast of a tape showing the university’s basketball coach, Mike Rice, saying unpleasant things during practice.
During the controversy over Pernetti, Thomas Mendiburu—in tweets and public statements—seemed to be threatening Rutgers’s officials unless Pernetti was kept as athletic director. This is one tweet:
@Tommykid1:2013-04-04 04:09 If not for @Tim_Pernetti, this deal doesn’t happen…period. RU has our support with Tim as the AD. @TomLuicci @Record_Tara @StevePoliti
Here was another:
we are approaching our 2nd year of our stadium naming rights deal (which we have an out clause) @tim_pernetti @tomluicci @record_tara— Tom Mendiburu (@Tommykid1) April 4, 2013
Here are more:
Tom Mendiburu @TomMendiburu@SNYRutgers and as I just tweeted, I look forward to sitting down with RU leadership and understanding their direction. Today’s not the day 5:27 PM – 5 Apr 2013
Tom Mendiburu @TomMendiburuI am still confused by what transpired today 5:15 PM – 5 Apr 2013
Tom Mendiburu @TomMendiburuHowever, there needs to be some real healing at the school, and our future relationship does not need to be addressed today.
But, in the end, the Mendiburus did not exercise their “out clause” in 2013 to stop paying Rutgers for the naming rights. Perhaps it was because the Mendiburu brothers recognized the purchase of the naming rights might lead to further business with the university—an institution that, after all, spends nearly $4 billion a year to buy things and pay people.
Indeed, those prospective business opportunities were clearly on the mind of the owners of High Point/Sparta when they cut the deal for the naming rights in 2011.
Here’s how The Star-Ledger reported it:
High Point sees the partnership as an opportunity to forge a relationship with Rutgers and prove itself as it bids for contracts with the university.
“We’re more than willing to compete for the business,” Mike Mendiburu said, noting that no contracts have been guaranteed as a result of the deal. “We want to compete for every penny we earn every day.”
Other media outlets also noted that the sign over the entrance to High Point Solutions Stadium wasn’t just a big billboard seen by 50,000 plus people every game day—but an open door for the company into Rutgers’ business. Here is NJBiz’s take:
While High Point’s chief financial officer, Sandra Curran, said the company hadn’t done any IT work with Rutgers prior to signing the deal, “I expect they’re going to be doing business on Rutgers campus as they competitively bid to get it,” Pernetti said.
Then there is this from Venues Today:
As part of the deal, High Point Solutions will have the opportunity to expand its business relationship with the university, according to Jason Baum, associate Athletic director for Communications.
Future business dealings clearly were part of the negotiations. As the outgoing president of Rutgers, Richard McCormick, said in a formal statement:
“Rutgers looks forward to a very productive relationship with High Point Solutions Inc.”
Clearly, officials from both Rutgers and High Point/Sparta were doing a commercial dance here, with flashes of future business opportunities bouncing off the walls like the lights thrown by one of those spinning disco balls. How–or even if–these big buck mating dances had anything to do with the Caliburn supercomputer and its so far troubled experience can’t yet be known.
Can’t yet be known because Rutgers won’t provide the information.
Questions? Yeah—a lot of them. And, oddly, Rutgers University’s public information office is very reluctant to answer any of the important ones, especially those about the relationship between High Point/Sparta and the $10 million project to build the Rutgers supercomputer.
The usually cooperative public information officials are insisting it won’t release more information except in response to the successful filing of a claim under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). This site has done that, but the process, even for one document, will probably take weeks, if not longer–and Rutgers officials know that. The university should be eager to be transparent but instead it is relying on an OPRA form that would require the filing of multiple requests. Here is what this site requested from Rutgers under OPRA:
Records Requested: Your question re: Type of Records requested is too narrow and limiting. It also includes documents from facilities construction, repair or maintenance, and emails and correspondence–all of which and everything pertaining to the submission of bids for the construction of what was to become known as the “Caliburn” supercomputer, including but not limited to requests for proposals for the construction of Phase I, Phase II and Phase III of the Caliburn and the distribution list of those RFPS; the bids submitted by vendors for all three phases of construction, along with the names of said vendors and the amount of their bids; any and all documents related to the award of all contracts for Phase I, Phase II and Phase III; any and all correspondence of any sort related to the decision to hire said vendors; the award letters and any related documents related to construction; any and all correspondence related to a glycol leak affecting Caliburn and steps taken to repair the leak, any assessment of damage, and any and all correspondence to users explaining the damage and steps taken to finish repairs, including timelines and schedules.
Maybe, in the end, Rutgers–without resorting to legal process–will make public the names of all the vendors who bid on the Caliburn supercomputer and which were chosen—and how much each was paid—to build each of the three phases of the project. Maybe, in the end, it will provide the necessary details to figure out what happened to Caliburn that necessitated its shutdown.
That will be good for Rutgers—and for the taxpayers who support it.