UNION COUNTY — Although Kean University President Dawood Farahi recently kicked off the 2014-2015 academic year with a rousing speech touting the school’s many achievements, Union Mayor Clifton People was not feeling it.
Farahi began his speech to incoming students and faculty by thanking the board of trustees for their “unwavering leadership” and support for Kean’s “Vision 2010.”
“I am pleased to report that we begin the new academic year with a strong wind at our backs and our eyes on the horizon,” he said. “Enrollment is growing. Our financial outlook is strong and stable. Fundraising is on the rise. Our campuses are thriving and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education last year reaffirmed the university’s accreditation.”
However, according to information gathered over the last year, Farahi’s information was less than truthful.
Kean’s record’s over the last several years actually show falling enrollment, $338 million of debt according to Moody’s Investor Services, mismanaged federal aid, NCAA suspensions, a lousy bond rating and a very costly satellite campus forged with China.
Although Kean maintained they did not have accurate fall enrollment figures yet, last year’s enrollment continued downward, following a trend that began in the fall of 2013 when the number of registered students sank to 14,700, compared to 15,300 in 2012.
Despite this decline, Farahi insists in all public speeches that enrollment is up, but has not backed it up with actual documentation. Sources at the university, though, have indicated that they learned freshman enrollment was under 1,000 students, which forced the school to accept students who previously were rejected in the spring. This is the second year the university opted to follow this route.
Declining enrollment, among other things, was the reason U.S. News and World Report did not even list Kean in their rankings last year. In 2012 the school was ranked 133, which raised concern among faculty at the time. That concern was still evident as the 2014-2015 school year began.
Professors, many of whom preferred not to be identified, said Kean was quickly losing their reputation, something the school did not need especially after the bad press that surfaced in 2011 and 2012 when it became clear that Farahi falsified his academic records.
One professor, who has taught at Kean for nearly 30 years, said “we have become the laughing stock of the educational community and our president stands up there and acts like we are rated number one.”
Audits of the university also revealed financial aid has been mismanaged.
Records obtained earlier this year from the state revealed 40 percent of undergraduate students receive Pell grants, which are federally financed grants for low-income students. According to audits, Kean owned $255,920 in federal aid that was awarded without proper documentation.
The average Kean student receives a Pell grant amounting to close to $5,000, which is filed by the university. Records indicate Kean awarded too much money to students in eight out of the 30 cases investigated by the U.S. Department of Education. Over two years the DOE found Kean improperly awarded close to $800,000 in loans.
Kean faculty members point out that Kean has one of the lowest graduation rates of the state’s four-year public colleges, with less than a quarter of students graduating on time.
Farahi, who at last check was earning close to $300,000 a year, continues to receive the support of the Kean board of trustees, regardless of what transpires. The Kean Federation of Teachers, though, has come out publicly against the university president, citing the fact that millions have been diverted from core education programs, which resulted in lower admission standards and failing graduation rates.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of the fall 2014 semester Farahi continued to promote the China campus and its success.
“Once again, thanks to teamwork, Wenzhou-Kean University earned the stamp of approval from Middle States Commission and the Chinese Ministry of Education. We are now the only public university in the United States operating a full-scale university in China,” said Farahi in his speech to students and faculty.
“Opportunity is part of our mission. That is nothing new. What is new is the breadth and quality of the opportunities now available at Kean,” the university president added, noting that Kean “now delivers some of the most innovative academic programs in the nation. And we do it with academic and research facilities that are second to none.”
University faculty objected strongly to that, pointing out that programs and classes have been slashed since last year, while Farahi continues to add on to the campus and has plans in the works to acquire the 50-acre Merck property fronting Morris Avenue.
The Union mayor bristled at the university president’s speech, wasting no time putting out a statement to express how both he and the township committee felt about Farahi’s opening day speech.
First and foremost, though, Mayor People wanted students and faculty to know they stand firmly behind them.
“Today’s annual opening day address is a tradition that signals the start of another school year and, with that, the promise of students setting off on a path that will change their lives forever. As some of Kean University’s biggest backers, the township committee and I look forward to the great possibility each new school year brings and take pride in the partnership we have forged with university leadership that has helped propel the school down the path to prosperity,” said People in a written statement.
But that is where the pleasantries ended.
“Unfortunately, we are now faced with the prospect that our partnership has become a one way street and that Union Township taxpayers are being taken advantage of by Dr. Farahi and the board of trustees,” said the mayor. “Recognizing that today’s speech by Dr. Farahi is about the hope and promise of a new school year and an incoming freshman class, I am still disturbed by his continued false public claims that enrollment is up this year and even further disheartened by his ongoing refusal to accept the agreement on the table from Russo Development regarding the Merck property that would provide $5 million in new taxes to the township.”
People went on to explain that without this agreement, township taxpayers will have to pay $220 per household to fill the gap left behind.
“Yet, Dr. Farahi and the board of trustees continue to pursue various legal avenues to block the contract while also refusing to provide any information to the public on what their plans are for the land,” the mayor said.
People said Farahi had the opportunity on opening day to explain how he and the board of trustees can justify fighting a contract that would provide millions in tax relief for residents, particularly while the university is dealing with decreased enrollment and lowered bond ratings.
“Instead, he chose to paint a picture for today’s attendees inconsistent with all available data. Now the question remains for Dr. Farahi and the board of trustees to answer: why should Union Township and county residents be expected to fill the hole left by Merck’s departure when there is an agreement in place that would provide much needed revenue that they are refusing to accept?” asked People.