UNION COUNTY — The Kean faculty had a few choice words for the board of trustees about the purchase of the $219,000 conference table, among other things. However, the question that has yet to be answered is whether Kean broke a little known federal law by doing business with China rather than in the United States.
On Saturday, Dec. 6, the board held their first meeting since news broke that the university had made the purchase of the table from China without going through the usual competitive bid process. However, if faculty expected board members to speak out on the issue, they were wrong.
Despite probing questions about the bad press Kean is getting as a result, board members remained silent. According to sources attending the meeting, board members even refused to answer questions after the meeting was adjourned.
At the meeting held at Kean’s Ocean County campus, David Joiner, chairman of the university senate, had plenty to say about what the controversy over the table is doing to Kean.
“Bad press matters. It hurts our reputation, it hurts our recruiting and it hurts our students and alumni,” he told board members, adding that critics of the purchase have said the table is already “obsolete” because of advancement in wireless technology.
Kean Professor Richard Katz suggested the university focus more on adding tenured faculty and more student parking, while others maintained spending so much money on the table was evidence of the “misplaced priorities” Dawood Farahi has shown since he became university president in 2007.
Tenured Psychology Professor Emily Filardo summed up her feelings about the table, pointing out to the board that this was “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Kean Federation of Teachers Union President James Castiglione also commented about what transpired at the Saturday board meeting, specifically about the trustees not responding to the entire issue of the table purchase.
“The lack of comment by the board raises concerns about whether they are properly exercising their oversight and fiduciary responsibilities,” said the KFT President, who has been very vocal in the past about the university president increasing Kean’s debt to $338 million, falsifying his academic resume and the fact enrollment has declined.
Last week Castiglione pointed out that Kean was a public university and the leadership should be responsive to the public.
“But for the public to try and hold the university accountable, it has to know what is going on at the university,” he said, adding the public has the right to know because they are paying the bills.
Kathleen Henderson, president of the Kean University Adjunct Professors Union is usually a fixture at board meetings. Although unable to attend the last meeting, she made sure her comments were included in the record.
LocalSource received a copy of these comments, which focused on several issues, including the purchase of the $219,000 conference table.
“Given all the negative publicity Kean has taken over the past few years right up to ‘tablegate,’ and to protect both you and the trustees, our benefactors, our faculty, students and alumni and the future of Kean, might the KUAFF respectfully suggest the trustees engage an outside auditing firm to perform a forensic audit,” said the adjunct professor who has taught at Kean for more than 20 years.
Henderson said to her knowledge a forensic audit had never been done.
“It would behoove Kean to voluntarily engage in this proceeding before the state comes in and imposes it on us, causing more rumors,” she said, adding, “We know Kean has nothing to hide but by doing it voluntarily it shows your willingness to be transparent and accountable to taxpayers.”
The purchase of the table continues to raise questions, especially because the university avoided the normal bidding process. But, while university officials continue to strongly defend the purchase, pointing out it is a 22-foot circular conferencing center with electronic components and not just a “table,” the issue of why the table was purchased in Shanghai, China and not in New Jersey has not been addressed.
Efforts to discover why Farahi wanted to get the table from China, where the university Wenzhou-Kean campus is located, have been difficult.
Approximately 800 students are enrolled at this campus, which the university president touted is an example of Kean offering a “world class education.”
He has not, though, addressed the more immediate and escalating problem of inadequate parking at the Union campus on Morris Avenue.
Additionally, questions posed to Kean University spokesperson Marsha McCarthy last week have remained unanswered and calls to her unresponsive.
Some of the questions LocalSource asked McCarthy last week included why the board approved a waiver that allowed the university to avoid the normal bid process required by law; why the table was purchased from a company in China rather than one here in New Jersey or the United States; and whether any companies or businesses have made arrangements to rent the conference room and what rental amount has been set.
Also, McCarthy was asked Monday about a statement in the Sunday edition of The Record, which indicated “Officials have said that the table, produced in Shanghai, is an homage to Chinese culture and was meant to celebrate and strengthen ties to Kean’s campus there in Wenzhou.”
The statement, which refers to the university’s efforts to further cement a relationship with the Chinese government, was supported in October when Kean announced they would be opening a school of architecture at the Union campus. The venture, driven largely by the Chinese government who wanted the same program at the Wenzhou campus, was approved by the board of trustees.
According to Castiglione, in order to provide an architecture program in China, Kean has to create one in New Jersey. The KFT president said at the time that this raised a number of questions including that the Chinese government was determining what academic programs taxpayers in New Jersey were forced to support and the programs Kean would be offering students at the Union campus.
The board of trustees also approved a resolution during the summer naming the new school the Michael Graves School of Architecture. Graves is a world-renowned architect based in Princeton where he has the position of emeritus professor of architecture at Princeton University.
Castiglione also noted that articles appearing in China in June shed more light on the question of what was going on. One article published June 23 mentioned that Chinese Municipal Party Secretary Chen Yixin met with Graves, noting that the Princeton professor planned to build the college of architecture and design at Wenzhou campus and make it “a world famous one so people around the world will come to learn architectural design in Wenzhou.”
“This makes it clear the primary beneficiary is the China campus, not Kean USA,” the KFT president said in October.
If this is true, and Kean purchased the conference table from China to further enhance relations with them, Kean may have already broken a federal law.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 was enacted for the purpose of making it unlawful for certain classes of people and entities to make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business.
Specifically, the idea behind the law was to make it illegal for companies or, any entity or person, to influence anyone with any payments of money. This law applies to anyone who has a certain degree of connection to the United States and engages in foreign corrupt practices in order to obtain or retain business.
Furthermore, this act not only governs over payments to foreign officials, candidates and parties but any other recipient, if part of a bribe is ultimately attributable to a foreign official.
These payments are not restricted to money but may include anything of value, including conference tables.
The university has defended the purchase of the table, saying it will ultimately be to the benefit of the students, but it has been alleged by multiple sources that the creation of an entire school of architecture is of little value to local residents, and is an expenditure of taxpayer dollars for the benefit of Chinese students.
In previous reports, NJIT objected to the creation of the school, saying it did not think there is a need for another state architectural program just six miles away, especially when NJIT currently has 500 students enrolled and room for an additional 250.
“Currently, NJIT and Princeton University have fully accredited architecture programs and both universities are meeting the needs of New Jersey as well as the region,” said NJIT in a statement released in November.
At the time, James Castiglione agreed, saying the architecture school would likely have never been allowed had the state not abolished the Department of Higher Education 20 years ago.
“There is no way they would have approved a program that is less than 10 miles away from an existing one,” he said in November. “It is redundant and costly.”