UNION — These past few years have been difficult years for Kean University. Falling enrollment, $350 million of debt, a president that falsified his academic records, mismanaged federal aid, academic probation, NCAA suspensions, a lousy bond rating and a very costly satellite campus forged with China are all problems that have plagued the university. But all this turmoil has not prevented Kean from trying to create a “World Class Educational Community,” as the school likes to call it.
But is it working out for the students and teachers, or just the contractors that benefit from the school’s massive expansions and upgrades?
According to sources at Kean, enrollment for the fall semester continued the downward spiral that began last fall, with the number of registered students sinking to 14,700, compared to 15,300 in 2012 and 16,100 in 2011. The university did try to increase its freshmen enrollment, though, by accepting applicants rejected in the spring. Something one tenured professor said was “deplorable.”
Declining enrollment, among other things, was the reason U.S. News and World Report did not even list Kean in their rankings this year. Last year the university was ranked 133, and faculty in the Kean Federation of Teachers union are more than concerned.
“That means we have been demoted,” said KFT President James Castiglione last week. Other professors said they feared Kean’s reputation took a hit from all the bad press that surfaced in 2011 and 2012 when it was discovered that Kean President Dawood Farahi falsified his academic credentials.
Much of this information surfaced because the KFT investigated and disclosed that Farahi falsified his records, and these tenured employees do not deny the university would be far better without him.
“We not only are losing our reputation as a university; we have become the laughing stock of the educational community,” said a professor who has taught at Kean for 28 years. “Take a look around campus. It’s deserted.”
The decline in enrollment was quite visible on campus in September. Notable was that Dougall Hall, a freshman dorm, only housed students on the first floor of the building, leaving the remaining three floors unoccupied. This certainly has not stopped Farahi and the Kean Board of Trustees from moving ahead with plans to build three more dormitories and a four-story parking deck on the corner of Green Lane and Morris Avenue.
In December the board entered into a public-private partnership with The Michaels Organization for the development, financing and management for these new campus residence facilities, with the hopes that the financial burden would be assumed by this partner organization. But this latest development project on campus first has to pass muster with the state before it can break ground at the end of this year.
Audits of the university have also revealed that financial aid has been mismanaged. Records obtained from the state reveal that 40 percent of undergraduate students receive Pell grants, which are federally financed grants for low-income students. According to audits, Kean owed $255,920 in federal aid that was awarded without the proper documentation in 2001 and 2003. The average Kean student receives a Pell grant amounting to close to $5,000, which is filed by the university. Records indicated Kean awarded too much money to students in eight out of the 30 cases investigated by the U.S. Department of Education. Over two years, the DOE found that Kean improperly awarded close to $800,000 in loans.
Kean faculty members always point out that Kean has one of the lowest graduation rates of the state’s four-year public colleges, with less than a quarter of students graduating on time. Figure in the average SAT score is below 1,000 for reading and math and this university is far from achieving the world class education designation that Farahi desires. Regardless of how bad things are, or how low enrollment drops, the university president still pulls in a salary of $293,550 a year and the board of trustees has continued to support his efforts. Regardless of the human cry from students, tenured faculty and adjunct professors, Farahi remains the Kean leader.
The KFT has battled for changes at the university, bringing out that millions have been diverted from core academic programs, which resulted in lowered admission standards and failing graduation rates. Castiglione, while tempered in his comments regarding Farahi, did not hesitate in the spring to blast the university president publicly in a press statement.
“New revelations show the Farahi used taxpayer funds, student tuition, fees and massive bonding to fund ill-conceived and misguided iniatives that do not help students,” the KFT president said, adding that “this mismanagement has left the university with rising debt service costs and declining enrollment.”
Actually, Kean’s debt has almost tripled, going from $124 million in 2003 to $353 million this year, according to Moody’s Investor Services, which downgraded its bonds.
The China Campus, which opened last fall, with about 200 students enrolled, has been a money pit for the university. The tab for sending Kean officials and employees to fine tune things there has been expensive. For example, according to information obtained by LocalSource, Kean has spent over a half million for these trips and more are planned in the coming months.
But before any of these more recent problems came to light, in April 2012 all 13 of the university’s NCAA Division 3 athletic teams were put on probation until 2016 after it was discovered that basketball player’s classes and grades were fabricated, a clear violation of NCAA rules.
In a 26-page report by the NCAA further illustrated how the university lacked institutional control, failing to monitor its women’s basketball program and providing financial aid packages and extra benefits for its student athletes. The report also found that while student athletes made up 4 percent of Kean’s student body in 2010-2011, they received 17 percent of financial aid during that period.