UNION COUNTY, NJ — Following what some in the Kean University community characterized as an inadequate response to Twitter death threats against black students, in addition to the publication of financial settlements with former professors, a coalition of black ministers called for embattled University President Dawood Farahi to step down from his position of 13 years.
The eight ministers, led by Rev. Ronald Slaughter of Newark’s St. James AME Church, said that Farahi has presided over chronic racial injustice at Kean, which includes laying off a dozen employees in 2011 — none of whom were white males — and recently culminated in death threats against on-campus students, from an anonymous user of the Twitter handle @keanuagainstblk.
“I will kill every Black male and female at Kean University,” the account wrote at about 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17. The message was published as student activists hosted a forum on Kean’s campus in Union, trying to raise awareness about racial discrimination in colleges while showing solidarity with students at the University of Missouri.
At the same time, Kean students in dorm rooms began to yell racial slurs such as “monkeys” at the activists on-campus, according to leaders at the rally. Other students derided them on Yik Yak, a popular anonymous social media app, according to Rebecca Panico, a Kean student and the co-editor of the university’s student newspaper, The Tower.
“On Yik Yak, people sounded really annoyed, saying ‘there’s someone around my dorms screaming black lives matter,’ and telling them to shut up, stuff like that. And one of the rally’s organizers mentioned that people were screaming at them all of these racial slurs,” said Panico. “They were telling them to shut up and yelling profanities at them.”
On the University of Missouri’s campus, widespread protests have prompted a national discussion about race and led to a pair of administrative resignations at the school.
It’s a precedent which Slaughter believes should follow suit at Kean.
“I said ‘how could I remain quiet and silent on this, when we have our very own University of Missouri here in New Jersey at Kean?’” said Slaughter, whose cousin is the backup quarterback at Missouri. “The tipping point was the overwhelming facts of those who have been terminated. When we look at it, it was women and women of color. That began to raise my eyebrows and I alerted the coalition of some of the findings. The NAACP got involved and their education task force began to uncover so many more concerns about gender discrimination and racial discrimination.”
According to statistics from the university’s website, Kean had 398 full-time employees as of 2014, with an almost even distribution of males and females on the payroll. Of those employees, 34 were black, which represents about 8.5 percent of the total, compared to 276 white employees, or 69.3 percent.
That’s why in laying off minority employees, including those who are part of programs that assist minorities in graduating — the EOF program, for example, which was “one of the best in New Jersey” under former Kean employee Beverly Baker, said Slaughter — Kean has failed to accurately represent for diverse student population, which is 18.4 percent black, 23.4 percent hispanic and 35.3 percent white, the coalition contends.
And the lack of a response following the Twitter death threats, said Slaughter, was the final straw for the coalition. Classes at Kean were held as normal the day after the incident, albeit with more members of Kean security on-campus and fewer students in desks than normal.
“A lot of people stayed home on Wednesday and Thursday. But the students who I spoke to on campus, they said it was totally a thought in the back of their mind,” said Panico, referencing the Twitter threats. “By Friday, it seemed like more students were going back to class, like things were back to normal.”
The University released a slew of statements throughout the week, first in response to the initial Twitter threats and later to the coalition’s call for Farahi’s resignation. In one statement, posted to its website shortly after the Twitter threats, the university announced it was operating on its regular schedule, even as many students decided to stay away.
“The campus is not on lockdown but I urge students that live on campus to stay in their residence hall, and not travel through the campus,” Tweeted Nigel Donald, Kean’s Student Body President, on the night of the death threats. In another tweet, Donald added “let us not allow hatred to dictate our life, for this person and these words will face the consequences of justice.”
For longtime Kean observers and student, groups calling for Farahi’s resignation isn’t necessarily novel. In 2012, Farahi came under fire for factual inconsistencies found in his resume, errors which Farahi said were made by university staff.
Other high profile controversies in recent memory, such as the university’s purchase of a $219,000 conference table, have put Farahi in the spotlight.
“The furor about his resignation is nothing new,” said Ana Pincaro, a 2014 Kean alum and member of the activist group Occupy Kean University. In Pincaro’s time at the university, it was always one issue after another, she said. “This just adds to the pile of nonsense.”
A police search for the user behind the now-suspended Twitter account @keanuagainstblk continues, at time of writing, by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which is leading an investigation “around the clock,” according to a statement by Farahi. The president added that he’s in daily contact with lead investigators, and that recent events at Kean can bolster the university’s strength as a community going forward.
“The events of this past week have prompted much healthy discussion on campus about diversity, communications and safety,” said Farahi. “The Office of Student Affairs, under the leadership of Vice President Janice Murray-Laury, has been meeting regularly with student leaders to fully understand their perspectives, and to identify opportunities to enhance initiatives in all three areas,” “These ongoing dialogues will ensure more effective communication and community engagement throughout our campus.”
In total, Farahi released four statements before press time encouraging the resolve of the Kean community. And on Wednesday, Nov. 18, the president sat with a crowd of students outside of Kean’s student center, listening to questions and concerns.
Other members of the Kean administration joined in the public dialogue throughout the week, including Linda Lewis, Chair of the Kean University Board of Trustees Governance Committee. Lewis, who has been on the board since 2003, gave a sharp rebuttal to the coalition’s criticism, saying that it was capitalizing on controversy.
“I am offended that this group would issue such an inflammatory statement without knowing anything about Dr. Farahi or Kean University,” said Lewis. The coalition of black ministers, she added, lacks “scrutiny,” and has never approached the board for a conversation about issues of race. “I take it as a personal insult. Dr. Farahi is dedicated to diversity and the advancement of students, faculty and employees from all racial and cultural backgrounds.
Another statement issued by Kean on Wednesday, Nov. 18, echoed Lewis’s thoughts, saying “it saddens us that Rev. Slaughter’s group is trying to politicize the important issues of social justice and inequality.”
“These are baseless accusations. This group is relying on information from disgruntled employees without checking the facts. Kean University embraces its mission of access and opportunity for students from all backgrounds,” reads the statement. “Our focus remains on the safety of our students and their success.”
In an effort at ensuring student safety, Kean heightened security on-campus following the threats, which many students have said has had a visible impact, according to Panico.
And in a statement on Saturday, Nov. 21, Farahi said police from neighboring communities as well as Union County are lending their support to the Kean University Police Department, which is regularly checking in with University Center and resident hall staff.
For Slaughter’s part, the Kean administration proved in their “retaliation” that “they are the kind of people who try to intimidate, that’s what they’ve been trying to do, and that’s what their statement was,” he said, highlighting the content of Lewis’s statement as evidence of “a culture of intimidation.”
Similarly, members of Occupy Kean University, including Pincaro, didn’t agree with the administration’s dismissal of the coalition. Just because Slaughter’s group has the loudest voice and the most access to the media, she said, doesn’t give their sentiment any less credibility, especially since many students agree with the underlying point. For proof of that, said Pincaro, just look at the various Youtube videos — one titled “Kean University against campus racial injustice” — that made the rounds on social media last week, showing bands of students protesting against racial discrimination and Kean’s reaction to the death threats.
“The ministers being from Newark certainly doesn’t have a bearing on their credibility. Furthermore, all week, students that go to the school and alum are on-campus in groups, protesting and trying to get their voices heard,” said Pincaro. “It’s not like this group is making a mountain out of a molehill. This is an actual issue that students and alum very much care about.”
The Twitter death threats aren’t the only act of racial controversy to come out of Kean in recent years, either, with the most recent case being a $75,000 settlement with former Kean employee Sherrell Holderman, who was the director of the university’s PASSPORT program. The settlement, in which Kean admitted no wrongdoing, was finalized in September after Holderman alleged she was coerced into retirement in 2011 due to her race, age and gender, according to The Tower. Holderman was among 12 employees laid off at the time, seven of whom were black.
That litigation is just the tip of the iceberg, according to the coalition of black ministers.
“The deplorable death threat against black students on the campus of Kean University did not happen in a vacuum,” said Slaughter. It “arose from a climate of racial intolerance that has been allowed to fester for years under this president’s watch.”
On Monday, NJ.com reported that Farahi, Sen. Stephen Sweeney and the coalition of black ministers were to meet on Monday night to discuss the ongoing issues, according Slaughter. The article also stated that Sen. Ray Lesniak was also slated to attend.