Sen. Ray Lesniak likes to say that his door is always open to address any concerns of his constituents, but his door was decidedly closed when about 75 people marched back and forth in front of it, chanting, waving signs and calling for the firing of Kean University President Dawood Farahi on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Ironically, the senator’s door was perhaps closed because he was not there, and instead was receiving a lifetime achievement award for keeping Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive from the United Youth of New Jersey. Those marching past his door on that bitterly cold morning most certainly do not agree with the senator’s most recent actions, and instead find them antithetical to the spirit of MLK. Looking only at his most recent statements and actions surrounding Kean, LocalSource finds the award misplaced.
The senator, to be sure, has a long history of being a champion for minority groups. He spearheaded campaigns to bring marriage equality to gays and lesbians; has championed the concept of recovery high schools in the county and the state – the only one currently bears his name; and lobbied for the removal of the death penalty and for drug rehabilitation centers in lieu of jail sentences for certain criminal offenders.
Those listed above, and others, are noble causes. But the senator’s actions at Kean University, are most certainly not. In fact, his history of support for at-risk populations only makes his blind faith in Kean leadership more suspect. Why, in the case of the school, has Lesniak gone against his lifetime of achievements?
President Farahi has been in office for more than a decade. In that time his legacy has been described as a “crucible of controversies” by the Star-Ledger, and the pages of LocalSource have, without question, not been friendly to the president. To his credit, the president has managed to survive dozens of controversies, but he does not remain unscathed. Farahi has become a banner of distrust for students and faculty in the know and is an icon of cynicism for the political system which reigns unchecked.
Whether Farahi’s tenure as the school’s president continues or comes to an untimely end, it matters not. Lesniak will, without a doubt, be considered the man pulling the strings on a marionette built off the backs of student debt, high tuition, low graduation rates, and low paid faculty. Lesniak has seen to it that, for better or for worse, he will be forever tied to the scrupulous hands that have rocked Kean’s cradle.
Most recently, in response to protests calling for an end to Farahi’s tenure, Lesniak has responded by touting a letter signed by the entire Union County leadership delegation, including Republican leaders Sen. Tom Kean Jr. and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick. According to the letter, the leaders “wholeheartedly support Dr. Farahi and his visionary leadership as he moves Kean University forward.”
This response is a flawed one at best. Public universities, under the current structure, are meant to be autonomous. Political interference and influence are supposed to be checked at the door to make sure that the students remain at the forefront of any college or university mission. But to be clear, they are not. The governor nominates the board of trustee members, and under the informal senatorial consent system that is set up, any appointment at Kean must go through Lesniak, and it is likely that all the board members were just as handpicked by the legislator as was the president. What a handful of local politicians thinks about their crony who stays in the president’s office despite lies on his resume, an NCAA scandal, decreased student support services and dramatically increased tuition matters very little, if at all.
Politicians are not supposed to be a part of the process once the board members and president are in place, for obvious reasons. The support of Union County’s elite only signals their willingness to interfere with the nonpartisan mission of education, and nothing more. Moreover, it speaks to the fact that the system, as a whole, is broken, when politicians have so much influence over the school’s agenda.
The actions of Farahi and Kean University, from the purchase of a $219,000 conference table, to the construction of a five-star restaurant, have time and time again prioritized hubris over student debt, malevolence over faculty support, and steadfast political influence over the livelihood of the school’s most at-risk student population.
We congratulate Lesniak on the fine work he has done being a public ally to minorities and at-risk populations in the past. But to consider the man a champion of the people while he turns a blind eye to the detrimental policies of the Kean leadership would be just plain wrong. For Lesniak, and the entire political leadership of Union County to support Farahi, with it comes support for a lack of academic and structural integrity, a lack of funds spent on support services for at-risk students, a hostile environment for a teachers’ union, a dramatic rise in very low paid adjunct teachers to replace tenured staff through attrition, a mountain of debt, the lowering of admission standards, and a drop-in graduation rates.
The students, and hence the faculty, should be the number one priority for the school president and for Lesniak. It is clear from their words and actions, their repeated denials of the facts, and their sheer hubris in the matter that their priorities lie elsewhere. Honoring Dr. King’s legacy at the school would be to keep the students’ dreams of a quality and affordable education alive, not the political and economic aspirations of the chosen elite. Student lives matter. Politicians who blindly accept mounting debt on the backs of minority and at-risk students while ignoring basic academic modes of support do not.