UNION COUNTY, NJ — As the start of the school year begins to feel routine for many of the students at Kean University, most are likely unaware of a brewing controversy that could have a profound effect on their academic endeavors. The Board of Trustees and President Dawood Farahi have given notice of their intent to lay off up to 30 academic support staff members while raising tuition by 3 percent.
While no layoffs have taken place yet, more than two dozen are expected as the Board of Trustees voted to increase tuition and fees by 3 percent last June and gave the university president authority to reorganize due to a “shortfall” caused by reduced state funding.
The layoffs are expected in the Center for Academic Success, the Educational Opportunity Center and the school library, but rest assured that the Kean Federation of Teachers took notice, as well as the CWA and the IFPTE195, the three biggest unions on campus representing faculty and staff at the school.
“We think it’s an extremely bad idea for a number of reasons,” said KFT president James Castiglione. “It would harm our students, specifically hurting their ability to progress to graduation. Laying off support staff will reduce student retention and graduation rates.”
Castiglione is confident in this claim, specifically citing research that has been conducted showing that these types of academic support members are very valuable to a school community.
According to a New York Times article published Jan. 8, 2014, called “How to Help College Students Graduate,” American college students are “enrolling in college in record numbers, but they’re also dropping out in droves.”
“There is a remedy at hand, though,” the opinion piece by David L. Kirp in the New York Times reads, “and it’s pretty straightforward. Nationwide, universities need to give undergraduates the care and attention akin to what’s lavished on students at elite institutions.”
Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and is most recently the author of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System.”
The data Kirp cites in the New York Times comes from a CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs that has garnered media attention for its “comprehensive financial resources, student support systems and impressive graduation rates.”
According to Kirp in the New York Times, seven years ago, “CUNY decided to confront the high dropout rate at its community colleges with the ASAP initiative. The results are stunning: 56 percent of the first two cohorts of more than 1,500 students have graduated, compared with just 23 percent of a comparable group that didn’t have the same experience.”
While this program was geared toward community college students and Kean is a four-year school, Castiglione says these academic support staff members slated to be let go are the exact type of resource this study provided to their students to raise the graduation rates.
“In this program, they spent extra money to provide students with direct aid and provide additional dedicated counselors who check up on them regularly,” Castiglione said. “If we can see that increasing student services results in a dramatic increase in graduation rates, than the reverse is almost certainly true.”
Castiglione and the KFT, along with the other unions that are affected, are not the only ones that took notice of the impending layoffs. They have drawn the attention of Trenton, with Assemblywoman Mila Jasey sending a fairly scathing letter to Farahi and the board of trustees.
In the letter, dated Sept. 14, Jasey says she writes to “express my concern about pending layoffs of professional staff employees that is slated to be announced by Kean University in the coming days,” and the assemblywoman notes that “lack of adequate professional staff in our public colleges and universities” is among the top complaints she hears from students, faculty, administration and alumni in her role as chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee.
“At a time when tuition has skyrocketed – I understand Kean raised tuition 3 percent this year – and students genuinely struggle to attend Kean, denying the most needy students the access to the very employees who are responsible for every facet of learning and support outside the classroom seems not just unconscionable, but contrary to common sense and damaging to Kean’s particular mission,” states the letter by Jasey.
Margaret McCorry, the director of media relations at Kean University, was asked to comment on the pending layoffs.
“The Kean Board of Trustees has approved a reorganization of the library, the Exceptional Educational Opportunities Center, and the Center for Academic Success to allow for the implementation of a more efficient and results-oriented service model to improve academic support for Kean’s students. While the reorganization will result in the elimination of positions, we have not yet determined the exact number of people who will be affected.”
Castiglione takes direct issue with this statement, even calling it a “transparently false” reasoning for the layoffs.
“That is code for we are planning on laying people off,” he said. “The problem is the university is already a bare bones operation. As things stand, we need more professional staff providing academic support and student services. The idea that the university can provide better services with fewer personnel is transparently false.”
Castiglione went so far as to offer up a different reason for the layoffs.
“The university, under President Farahi, has become dramatically in debt,” he said. “To maintain their bond rating in the face of declining enrollment, they have chosen to cut costs by reducing personnel.”
In fact, the school laid off around 50 maintenance, housekeeping, and groundskeeping employees about five months ago and outsourced that work, LocalSource reported last spring.
“Another way to see that their rationalization is false is to note that at no time has the university consulted the employees in the very offices where they are looking for efficiencies,” Castiglione said. “If you were looking for efficiencies, the first people you would ask are the people that do the work. And they refuse to do so. This clearly shows their rationalization is disingenuous.”
In her letter to the board, the assemblywoman also suggested Kean’s reasoning was suspect.
“I genuinely understand that state aid has been stagnant,” said Jasey in her letter, “but my research indicates that in addition to Kean’s healthy surplus, no other institution of higher education in the state is threatening layoffs other than yours.
“These dedicated and hardworking professionals are an invaluable asset to the university and to the students that so ably serve,” the letter from Jasey continues. “They are integral to a successful academic environment and their dedication and expertise should be celebrated. Instead, they and their families face financial hardship during times that are still difficult here in New Jersey.”
When asked specifically about the timing of the raise in tuition coinciding with the proposed layoffs, a statement released by McCorry did little more than confirm the increase.
“We have raised tuition 3 percent for the past three years in order to address rising operational costs and the continued decrease in state funding,” McCorry said via email. “Despite the tuition increase, Kean remains one of the most affordable comprehensive universities in the state, as it has been for many years.”
Again, Castiglione is not happy that the responses from Kean have appeared ignorant of the facts.
“It is outrageous that the university approved a 3-percent tuition and fee increase, the largest in the state among public universities, and at the same time cut services for students,” he said. “Students are paying more for less.”
Data shows only New Jersey City University and Kean University raised tuition and fees by as much as 3 percent. The schools are tied for the highest increase, and since 2008, The Star Ledger reported in May, 4-year college tuition overall in New Jersey has increased by 23.7 percent.
But Kean University is correct when they say state aid has declined. Taking inflation into account, The Star Ledger also reported that aid from the state has declined by 22 percent since 2008.
A much more dramatic result of this decrease in aid, Castiglione says, is that while Kean is expected to layoff academic support staff that is needed most by at-risk students, they are lowering their admission standards and accepting far more of these types of students to combat declining enrollment.
“Under President Farahi,” Castiglione said, “the university has lowered its admission standards, and under prepared students need more support, not less. Over the past five years, the university’s acceptance rate went from 50 percent to 80 percent. I can also tell you that of the freshman class of fall 2014, only 40 percent of the students were regular admissions.”
The other 60 percent of the 2014 freshman class was under the category “special admits,” castiglione said, and are accepted at lower admissions standards. Coupled with the layoffs of support staff and rising tuition, Castiglione said that “heading in this direction is heading in exactly the wrong direction and potentially very damaging to our students.”
Assemblywoman Jasey ended her letter to the board and president sharing a similar sentiment.
“I urge you in the strongest possible terms to rescind your threatened layoffs of Kean University’s professional staff,” Jasey said in her letter, “and instead find cost saving measures and alternatives that will neither raise tuition nor deprive Kean’s students of professional staff who improve the quality of their academic experience in so many ways.”