Blackwell controversy at Kean heats up

UNION COUNTY, NJ — On Friday, March 4, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, the Senate majority whip from Hudson, suggested that Kean University remove a minister whom the school has hired for an internal investigation and replace him with an outside investigator.

The controversy has continued since November, when Sweeney called a meeting in response to allegations of structural racism and discriminatory hiring made against the university by a coalition of black ministers.

The ministers were outraged, they said, by the decision to conduct an internal rather than external investigation. They were displeased with Kean’s decision to hire marketing consultant Rev. Michael Blackwell to lead it. They believe that Blackwell is aligned with state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, whom they believe has too much influence on the school’s board and is too protective of Kean President Dawood Farahi.

Over the recent weekend, a major newspaper in the state published a lengthy investigative article on Blackwell that detailed numerous alleged run-ins with law enforcement going back 20 years. So far, little comment has been heard from our elected officials on these accusations.

Sweeney’s office is in support of hiring as an investigator former state Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace Jr., of the law firm Brown & Connery.
“We were clear and definitive that our belief in an independent investigation by someone who has the experience and respect is needed to make sure the case is addressed thoroughly and fairly,” stated Sweeney. “We are extremely disappointed that Kean abandoned that commitment.”

Lesniak, however, supports Kean’s decision to conduct the internal investigation.
“The facts will speak for themselves,” he said. “Some people are trying to make this too political.”

Lesniak has gained support from other Union County legislators, who have signed a letter in support of the internal review. Signatories include Sen. Nicholas Scutari, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, Union County Democratic Chairman and Assemblyman Jerry Green, and Union County Assembly members Annette Quijano, Jamel Holley, James Kennedy and Nancy Munoz.

The letter stated that the Union County delegation is confident the review is being appropriately led by the Governance Committee of the board of trustees, under the leadership of trustee Linda Lewis, as well as the external support of Rev. Michael Blackwell.

However, others disagree with the statements made in this letter and are disappointed in the university’s decision.
A statement was released by Sen. Ronald L. Rice,  Essex County, on Kean’s apparent reversal on the agreement for an external investigation.

“The reports of racial discrimination and other problems at Kean University are deeply concerning, and appear to be the result of an environment at the institution that has existed for some time. I, along with the Senate president, clergy and other legislators, met with President Farahi several months ago on how best to address these issues. All participants agreed that an independent examination was necessary and that a third-party selected investigator, endorsed by the Senate president, would be pursued. I am disappointed in the university’s reversal of this agreed-upon course of action. The only way to understand what is taking place and to resolve these issues is to embark on an objective review chosen by an individual who is in no way connected to the university. I urge the university president to initiate an investigation by former Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, as recommended by the Senate president. This is necessary to alleviate any perception of bias or subjectivity in the process.”

Kean officials claim that no decision was actually made to conduct an external investigation. It was simply a meeting held to discuss social justice. Therefore, there is no reason to make accusations that the university has failed to uphold any commitment.

“If Dr. Farahi has a different recollection of prior discussions and does not agree to our suggested course of action, please have him contact the Senate president directly,” a letter sent to Ada Morell of Kean’s Board of Trustees from Kevin Drennan, executive director of the Senate Majority Office, has requested. The misunderstanding has yet to be addressed.

According to Kean University’s newspaper, The Tower, Blackwell told the paper he would be “fair and unbiased.” He also added that he believes the university to be innocent of any accusations of mismanagement and/or structural racism.