UNION COUNTY — After years of controversies that posed a financial threat to Kean University, taxpayers of New Jersey, the school’s teachers and students, it would appear that finally someone is paying attention.
When the state university was handed crippling sanctions by the NCAA, no one seemed to care but the teachers. When the president of the school admitted to lies on his academic resume, no one seemed to care but the teachers. When the school was placed on academic probation by the national accrediting agency, no one seemed to care but the teachers.
The list goes on to include a teacher-tenure rate at its lowest since the 1980s, rising tuition, improperly dispersed scholarships, rising student debt, an on-campus five-star restaurant, and a complete failure to provide ample parking for the commuter-heavy institution, among more controversies. And all the while, no one seemed to care but the teachers and a small handful of students protesting online.
And now, finally, thanks to an article first published by The Record about a $219,024 conference table, taxpayers are finally starting to pay attention. And James Castiglione, president of the Kean Federation of Teachers, is relieved to hear the public is finally listening.
“We are a public university,” said Castiglione. “And so, ultimately, the leadership of the university should be responsive to the public.But for the public to try and hold the university accountable, it has to know what’s going on at the university. Fundamentally, the public has a right to know. They are the ones that are paying the university’s bills. And, the information that gets released, whether it’s positive, or negative, depends upon the perspective of individual readers. But if the information released demonstrates a problem, then the answer is to fix the problem, and to improve the university.”
For the first time in his long senatorial career Sen. Ray Lesniak decided last week to criticize university president Dawood Farahi and Kean University. Lesniak has had close ties to the university since 2003 when he recommended Farahi for the university’s president position. Since then, he has continued to support both the university and Farahi, despite the bad press Kean received over the last three years.
When Lesniak recommended Farahi, Kean’s debt was $124 million. Eleven years later that debt service had jumped to $338 million, according to Kean spokesperson Marsha McCarthy.
The past ten years have been riddled with one incident after another that did little to help students achieve, or teachers provide, the “World Class Education” Farahi promotes. However, the controversies have occurred while the state university has sunk further into debt.
One of the problems in recent years has been enrollment, although the university president has denied there is a problem at all. However, in September 2013, documents obtained by LocalSource confirmed enrollment that year continued a downward spiral that began the previous fall.
For example, in 2013 the number of students sank to 14,700 compared to 15,300 in 2012 and 16,100 in 2011. The university did try to increase its enrollment, though, by accepting students that were rejected in the spring.
Declining enrollment, among other things, was the reason U.S. News and World Report did not even list Kean in their rankings in 2013 or 2014. In 2012 the university was ranked 133 in this report.
In 2013, the university also canceled 500 classes at the 11th hour, later reinstated 130, leaving students and professors scrambling to figure out what to do before the spring term began a few short weeks away.
At the time, Castiglione was baffled because these highly specialized classes were required for students to graduate. He was concerned that, in the long run, students could even lose financial aid if they could not take certain classes.
“You have to be a full-time student in order to qualify for student aid and if a student can’t take the required classes, they become a part-time student,” said the president of the KFT.
There were signs prior to this that Farahi and the board of trustees were not looking out for student’s interests. In 2006, just three years after taking over the reins as president, Farahi initiated efforts to buy Liberty Hall for $5.1 million, then turned around and leased the estate back to a foundation tied to the Kean family for $1 a year, while taking on the yearly $200,000 upkeep.
It was also Farahi’s idea to construct the $2.5 million on-campus gourmet restaurant, Ursino’s, even though Kean has no culinary program and few students who can afford to eat there.
Along the way there were other signs the University was having dire money problems and yet the spending went on.
For instance, audits of Kean books in 2013 found that financial aid had been mismanaged. Records obtained from the state by LocalSource revealed approximately 40 percent of undergraduate students received Pell grants, which are federally funded grants for low-income individuals.
According to these audits, Kean owed $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 also indicated that Kean awarded too much money to students in eight out of 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 voiced serious concerns that the university was veering far from the “World Class Education” Farahi projected. In fact, the faculty union noted Kean has one of the lowest graduation rates of the state’s four-year public colleges, with less than a quarter of graduating on time.
But, regardless how bad things have been, or how low enrollment dropped, the university has not adequately addressed an increasingly bad parking situation. With more than 14,000 students at the commuter-heavy school, the 4,300 spaces available have not been nearly enough, according to many online complaints from both teachers and students.
Farahi, as president, makes around $293,550 a year at last count. The board of trustees has also continued to support any effort he brings forth, ignoring pleas from faculty, students and the public. The board of trustees even gave Farahi a vote of confidence in 2012 after he admitted to inaccuracies on his resume.
The KFT has battled for change at the university, bringing out that millions have been diverted from core academic programs, which resulted in lowered admission standards and failing graduation rates, as previously noted.
Castiglione, while usually tempering his comments about Farahi, blasted the university last year about the school’s downward trend.
“New revelations show that Farahi used taxpayer funds, student tuition, fees and massive bonding to fund ill-conceived and misguided initiatives that do not help students,” the KFT president said September of 2013.
It took 11 years, a mountain of debt, an alarming drop in enrollment, Farahi lying on his academic resume, Middle States putting the university on academic probation, Moody’s Investors Services reaffirming Kean’s negative outlook yet again, the announcement that a new architecture school was in the works as a result of Chinese influence and countless other controversial issues to surface before Lesniak raised an eyebrow.
When he finally did, his critical comments about Farahi buying the 22-foot circular $219,000 Chinese-made conference table bookended a compliment.
According to the Star Ledger’s Nov. 25 editorial, Lesniak said Farahi “should state the justification for the expense. Kean University has developed exponentially under his leadership, but every expense of tax dollars must be justified.”
The board of trustees also approved the purchase of the conference table and by-passed the competitive bidding process, while spending 10 times what other state colleges spend for similar furniture.
Furthermore, the board later approved an additional $70,000 for adjustments to the table because it was too big for the top floor of the new $40 million Green Lane building designed to fill “the university’s need for a world-class corporate meeting space.”
This is the same building that will house the new architecture school, which generated controversy in early October because the New Jersey Institute of Technology has a well-respected, but under-enrolled, public program just six miles down the road.
Meanwhile, Farahi responded to the media outrage that flung the state university into the headlines once again by responding to the purchase of the table, stating, three times according to The Record, “Why not? Why not? Why not?”
Critics maintained the purchase of the 22-foot circular oak table with cherry veneer from a Shanghai company reflected misguided priorities, possible financial improprieties and a university president overtly concerned with vanity projects.
“Whether or not this is legal, it’s certainly not ethical and it’s a waste of taxpayer money,” said Assemblyman Joe Cryan, adding “and it’s an added insult that they didn’t go to an American vendor.”
The assemblyman also called for an investigation into the purchase.
McCarthy said the purchase of the furniture fell under the category of professional creative services and bids were not required in this particular instance. Specifically because public bidding laws have exemptions for the acquiring of “artifacts or other items of unique intrinsic, artistic or historic character.”
Kean attempted to justify the purchase of the table this week, with university Vice President of Operations Philip Connelly issuing an “open letter to the Kean community.”
In his missive that showed up on the university’s website, Connelly pointed out that the new Green Lane Academic building and its 6th floor conference room represented “a strategic investment to further develop Kean as an epicenter for world-class education.”
“Recently there have been reports in the media about Kean University’s new conference center with a specific focus on the center’s table without emphasis to the high-tech electronics that were included in the purchase price,” he said, going on to explain that the table was able to connect people at 25 locations and around the world for remote conference calls and to record meetings.
He explained that Farahi’s “Vision 2020” outlined Kean’s strategic plan to provide a global experience to students, with the conference center supporting some of the plan’s goals.
“Students exposure to world-class meeting spaces that include cutting edge technology better positions students for success in today’s corporate marketplace,” the vice-president of operations said, but did not mention how students would utilize this technology, table or room.
Connelly also explained that the university “is committed to remaining the most affordable, comprehensive public university in New Jersey.”
“Even with our affordable tuition, to ensure there is no additional cost burden to our students, Kean plans to offset the cost of the new conference center, including the table and its electronic components, by renting the facility to corporate and community organizations through Kean’s Office and Event Services, all the while making this cutting-edge technology available today and for years to come to the benefit of the Kean community,” he added.
Connelly noted that prior to purchasing the multi-media table, students had to travel to the state house in Trenton on a class field trip “to gain access to such a rich educational experience.”
According to McCarthy, the new Green Lane Academic Building is home to Kean’s new Global Business School, the Robert Busch School of Design and the pending Michael Graves School of Architecture.
To date, Kean hosted several high-profile events including a roundtable where a state senator led a discussion on the state’s growing heroin epidemic. McCarthy did not say whether or not this event generated a rental fee.
Meanwhile, there has been no love lost between Union and Kean. The two continue to battle in and out of court, and the purchase of the table just raised the ire of officials even more.
Following the national outcry in the aftermath of Kean University’s table expenditure, Mayor Clifton People issued a statement Tuesday calling upon Farahi and Kean’s board of trustees “to drop their claims of ownership on the 50 acres of land that previously housed Merck on Morris Avenue.”
“The purchase of a $219,000 conference table is just the latest financial debacle being perpetrated upon Union township taxpayers and middle class taxpayers everywhere,” said the mayor.
“While Dr. Farahi and the board of trustees try and defend the indefensible in order to spin tales around the supposed necessity of a table that costs as much as many homes in the area, the reality is that their actions continue to harm the very people that have always placed a priority in the success of the university,” said People, adding that Kean’s leadership “has overseen skyrocketing tuitions, plummeting bond ratings and drastic decreases in enrollments while they continue to display misplaced priorities as it relates to students, their families and the surrounding communities.”
“It’s safe to say they can’t return the table they bought from China and get a refund, but they certainly can drop their legal efforts to grab the land on Morris Avenue and provide taxpayers with a well-deserved break,” the mayor added.