Dear Middle States, Kean has no standards

By Cheryl Hehl, Staff Writer

UNION COUNTY – An 11th hour letter from the commission that holds Kean University’s accreditation in their hands recently raised red flags about three additional standards that have never been called into question before. One of them specifically deals with political intervention in education.

This all came to the forefront after Kean Federation of Teachers President James Castiglione submitted a 12-page letter June 30 to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that laid out all the problems, concerns and violations related to Kean’s compliance with Standard 6, Integrity.

Kean was put on probation July 2 by Middle States because there was evidence lacking that the university was currently in compliance with four of the 14 standards required to maintain accreditation. Those standards included 6, relating to integrity, 7, institutional assessment, 12, general education and 14, assessment of student learning.

But now, just weeks before the university’s compliance report is due in Middle States’ hands, the commission sent a letter to university president Dawood Farahi questioning issues involving standards 4, 10 and 13 and asking for further documentation, copies and evidence to explain these allegations.

Also, language used by Middle States on its own website updating Kean’s accreditation status hinted that standards 4 and 5, which have to do with institutional governance and management, as well as “equitable and consistent treatment” of faculty, could be in question. This particular issue was noted in the June 28 and July 19 updates.

Standards 4, 10 and 13 now being questioned by Middle States relate directly to board of trustee policies involving the hiring of the university president; policies regarding faculty and staff, including proof that impartial practices are followed in such areas as hiring, promotion, granting of tenure, promotion and disciplinary actions; board policies on integrity in relation to employees, students and board members; and evidence the university is in compliance with the commission’s policy on “Political Intervention in Education.”

Middle States also brought up the new Kean campus in China, requesting Farahi to submit information on the university’s “plans to comply” with the commission’s policy and procedures on any substantial changes made to the university, as required in standard 13.

According to the letter sent to Farahi by Middle States, of which LocalSource obtained a copy, the commission is required by federal regulations to review third party comments it received regarding an institution under review for re-accreditation.

Castiglione’s letter goes into detail about the history of what has transpired involving Farahi’s multiple misrepresentation of his academic credentials in at least eight different resumes over the course of three decades. The letter was obtained by LocalSource through a Kean faculty member. The KFT president also notes that the board of trustee investigation into this was “highly questionable, as it appears to manipulate the process to arrive at a preordained outcome.”

He further informed Middle States that documentation provided by KFT, in addition to initial allegations, were not included in the investigation, despite a request from the investigating attorney that this information would be considered.

Castiglione also referred directly to the fact that the law firm conducting this investigation, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney and Carpenter, had previously been hired by Farahi for the “unusually large retainer of $150,000 in 2009.”

The retainer was again renewed for another $150,000 in September 2011. Castiglione supported this claim with resolutions approved by the board of trustees.

The KFT president also explained in his missive to Middle States that Farahi “misrepresented Kean’s academic integrity policy by noting it “applies solely to students,” even though the policy does, in fact, state academic integrity extends to the faculty and administration.

Also cited in the letter was the fact the board endorsed the vote of one of their members who voted to retain Farahi as the university president even though this board member had been regularly employed by the university as an adjunct professor for the previous seven years.

In addition, Castiglione pointed out in his letter to the commission that fallout from the board’s action in support of Farahi has extended to administrators, students and the board itself.

For example, the KFT president noted the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences was fired for insubordination shortly after the March 5 board of trustee’s meeting when Farahi received the blessing of the board to continue as president. Castiglione said it was “purportedly for refusing to sign a letter supporting President Farahi.”

In addition, the KFT president told Middle States that students participating in protest actions were threatened they would be fired from campus employment or lose financial support. In some cases, students were actually terminated and then re-hired after challenging their supervisors.

Castiglione mentioned in his 12-page letter that a person with ties to powerful Democrat Sen. Ray Lesniak was brought into Farahi’s office and then moved to fill the position of associate director in the university Office of Accreditation and Assessment.

“The individual does not have a background in assessment and was not on the first list of recommended candidates from the search committee for the position,” he said.
Further supporting this political connection was that an individual who worked for several years as an attorney for Weiner-Lesniak, Lesniak’s law firm, was hired by Farahi in the spring for the newly created position of special counsel in the office of the president. This position paid $130,000 at a time, Castiglione said, when the university was under severe budget constraints.

Additional examples of potential political interference, conflicts of interest and questionable political concerns were also pointed out, including references to Anne Evans Estabrook, Farahi’s girlfriend.

Estabrook, widow of former board of trustee chair Ken Estabrook, was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie a year ago as one of the five members of the governor’s Higher Education Council. Her biography on the Kean website notes that she is “currently a member of the Kean University President’s Council and the China Council.”

Castiglione pointed out that transparency and integrity requires that documentation about that role should be available to students and faculty yet neither were aware of the existence of either of these councils and no mention has been made to them in reports to Middle States. And there was more references about Estabrook.

“Ms. Estabrook also accompanied President Farahi on his trip to China for the groundbreaking of the Wenzhou-Kean University campus in March,” he added.

Damaging is a resolution passed by the board of trustees in March, Castiglione said in his letter to Middle States, confirming the board signed a $90,000 contract for the law firm DowLohnes PLLC along with a second resolution for $150,000 in June.

The KFT president said this contract is significant because the administration recommended the retention of the firm specifically because “it is staffed by former members of Middle States and that the firm has ongoing connections to the commission.”

Probably the most significant recent example of integrity violations cited by Castiglione, though, involved threatening comments made by Farahi to faculty about a Middle States visit in the spring. Following is an excerpt from those comments forwarded to Middle States by the KFT president.

“That requires that you understand that those who do not follow these rules and those who do not update their skills and their syllabi and what needs to be done for students, to create a structure that does the best for students would be taken out of the classroom, they will be put into a different location, they will be sent for retraining, they will be subject to insubordination if they fail to do that,” the university president told faculty members.

Castiglione also told Middle States that searches to fill faculty and administration positions have been “dogged by multiple violations of cronyism.”

Also cited was the lack of integrity in budgeting matters, including a $17 million deficit for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. A deficit that disappeared shortly thereafter.

“Twenty-six employees were laid off including 12 professional staff members of the KFT,” Castiglione said in his letter, adding that later a university audit showed that instead of a $17 million deficit, the university actually had a $17 million surplus. Savings for laying off the professional staff was estimated by Castiglione to be $300,000 and “resulted in serious shortcomings in student and professional services.”

The KFT president also wrote that there has not been a single performance based promotion for professional staff since Farahi came aboard nine years ago. There a has also only been one promotion for librarians in the past 20 years and none in the last six years. Tenure also is at question.

“Arbitrary and capricious decision making by university leadership in the appointment, reappointment and tenure procedures of faculty has drained these procedures of any credibility and left academic departments adrift and unable to properly plan for the future needs and or growth,” Castiglione noted.

For example, Dr. Eric Boehm received unanimously positive votes from department colleagues for five years, including last year, his tenuring year,” said the KFT president, adding that even though he was the only untenured faculty member in the department, he was denied reappointment with tenure.

Another faculty member, Dr. Jeffrey Fasick was denied reappointment with tenure this year despite having nine papers published in peer-reviewed journals during his five years at Kean.

However, other faculty members with lesser publication records were given tenure, Castiglione said.

Most disturbing, the KFT president said, because it represents a direct challenge to the Middle States accreditation process itself, was the termination of former associate and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Ken Sanders.
This faculty member, who was the co-chair of the self-study steering committee that wrote the 2011 self-study report for Middle States, believed his termination was a direct consequence of the warning that resulted after the re-accreditation process began last year.

Third party comments will be forwarded by Middle States to the team that will be visiting Kean Sept. 12 and 13, along with the university’s response to these allegations.

Farahi has until Sept. 1 to respond to the latest questions posed by Middle States, in addition to those regarding standards 6, 7, 12 and 14, prior to an on-site visit from the accrediting commission Sept. 12 and 13.
In November, Middle States could ask Kean to “show cause” why they should not lose the accreditation they have held since 1960.

However, the university remains accredited until Middle States announces their status has changed.

Interestingly, while Middle States requires ample time be provided by the university for student and faculty input involving the status of re-accreditation, which should be included in the report due to the commission Sept. 1, no effort by Farahi was made to schedule this public meeting prior to summer break.

A meeting for this purpose, though, has been scheduled for Aug. 30, the day before Kean’s report on accreditation responses has to be handed in to Middle States.