UNION COUNTY, NJ — On a highly visible stretch of Morris Avenue alongside Kean University’s main entrance, state lawmakers, civil rights activists, faculty members and a smattering of students marched with the coalition of black ministers calling for Kean President Dawood Farahi’s resignation, chanting slogans like “no more fear” and “Farahi must go” as thousands of cars and students passed by.
More than 70 people joined the rally at one point or another, from those who want to end “structural racism” on Kean’s campus — including the coalition’s leader, Rev. Ronald Slaughter of Newark’s St. James AME Church — to faculty and students who said they feel disenfranchised with the university’s administration.
“Kean says it offers world class education. How can you offer world class education when you have more adjunct professors than tenured professors? How can you offer world class education when the minorities, which are the majority, reside in fear?” said Slaughter, speaking to the crowd through a megaphone. “This culture of fear must be run out of this institution. And the only way to get rid of it is to get rid of president Farahi.”
The coalition of 25 black ministers, which Slaughter says started with only three members, is no longer alone in demanding the departure of Farahi, who has survived several high-profile controversies in his 13-year tenure at Kean.
Farahi was accused of lying on his resume in 2011. Since then, Farahi has also overseen an accreditation crisis, a grading scandal that led to NCAA probation for athletic teams, and the purchase of a $219,000 conference table, an issue which Farahi’s detractors zeroed in on at the rally.
At the end of the protestors’ march down Morris Avenue, for example, Slaughter pointed to the Green Lane building where Farahi “spends a lot of time,” saying that the “infamous” $219,000 table rested inside.
Earlier, NAACP President Richard Smith told his fellow protestors about an exchange between Farahi and a reporter, using the anecdote to highlight the activists’ demand for an independent audit — if not an internal investigation, he said, which may be biased — to seek out any racial issues at Kean.
“Farahi told the staff writer who interviewed him about the purchase of that table, that it was ‘small-minded’ to focus
on the purchase of a table. Well the staff writer said ‘why’d you buy it? Why’d you buy it, Farahi? And he said, ‘why not,’” said Smith. “Well, president Farahi, and you, too, Sen. Lesniak, we want you to have the same response as we stand here today demanding that a comprehensive, independent investigation occur at the university. Tell us what you told the reporter: Why not?”
Joining Smith as the rally’s most vocal participants were Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress; State senator Ron Rice, who said issues of race at Kean are “nothing new” to him; and James Castiglione, the president of the Kean Federation of Teachers, the school’s full-time faculty union.
Castiglione used his turn with the megaphone to decry the decline of full-time faculty, academic advisors and support services, such as the EOF and PASSPORT programs. These deficits at Kean prevent students, including at-
risk minorities who are accepted in great numbers, from succeeding in a collegiate environment, according to
The faculty size at Kean has declined by 35 percent over 10 years, added Castiglione, and the school has the worst student-to-faculty ratio of “any of our sister institutions in the state,” even as the university threatens more layoffs that will “disproportionately affect women and minorities.”
“The Kean AFT has long decried and protested these very issues,” said Castiglione. “Our students are generally working-class students, we are a majority minority, and many of them are first-generation students. Many of them have inspirational stories to tell, and inspirational career paths they want to follow. And we know that they can succeed, if they are given the support that they need.”
But the university is “structurally aligned against the interests of these students,” continued Castiglione, a sentiment which the students who attended the rally could agree on. Many Kean students didn’t show up, according to Slaughter, because they don’t want to “bite the hand that feeds them” and feared retribution from the administration, but those who did expressed solidarity with the coalition and its cause.
“I heard of the rally at the last moment. The minute I did, I knew I wanted to be involved,” said Wilman Vano, a freshman computer science major. “To me, it’s really corrupt here: The money not going back to the students, it’s making it harder for students to get an education.”
One of Vano’s teachers had brought up the coalition’s calls for Farahi’s resignation, prompting a class-wide discussion in which the students agreed that Farahi should step down. And “almost everyone” that Vano knows at Kean feels the same way, he said.
“I had to show my support for this,” said Vano. “There could be more students, but I believe that once the word gets around that more students will get involved.”
The coalition of black ministers first called for Farahi’s resignation in late November, when an anonymous Twitter user made death threats against black students at Kean. An alleged lack of a response by the administration, along with financial settlements Kean made with former minority professors, convinced the coalition to go public with their beliefs that Farahi presides over a racist campus culture.
Police arrested the woman they believe to be behind the Twitter death threats, recent Kean graduate and activist Kayla-Simone McKelvey, and the Union County Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement saying the threats had been a hoax from the beginning. But that hasn’t stopped the coalition from gaining momentum in the following weeks.
Along with the new supporters, such as Castiglione and the Kean faculty, the ministers have added more demands, which they say originate from students they’ve spoken with: The minor of Africana Studies should become a major, for example, and race sensitivity discussions should occur by the students at least twice a year.
And, of course, “Farahi must go,” along with anyone who treats Kean like a political tool rather than an educational institution, said Slaughter, like state senator and longtime Farahi supporter Raymond Lesniak.
“Senator Lesniak and his coalition, from the legislators for Union County, with their arrogance, make us believe Union County runs Kean University,” said Slaughter. “Kean University is not a county institution, it is a state institution. It is time for the coalition of ministers to let Lesniak know that no one is afraid of him anymore.”
A statement issued by Kean on the day of the rally rejects the comments from protesters, saying that “the people here today are not our students, that is clear, and they do not reflect the reality of campus life at Kean.”
In past statements, the Kean administration has characterized the coalition as acting politically and without proper knowledge of the university’s 11,500 students.
“Kean University embraces diversity and seeks social justice and equality for all – in society, in the workplace and in education. We have been recognized as one of the nation’s most diverse college campuses, and we will continue to support progressive dialogue and action on these issues,” reads the statement. “As we’ve said before, those who continue to carry on their campaign against the university president and are threatening to disrupt the lives, livelihoods and education of Union County residents and Kean students are misguided and misinformed.”