By: Rebecca Panico | Published Feb. 9, 2016
Rev. Michael Blackwell, Kean University’s new employment review consultant who was hired after groups alleged institutional racism on campus, just wants the university “to move forward.”
“I’m not trying to make noise, and I’m not asking for anyone to resign. I’m asking for Kean [University] to move forward,” Rev. Blackwell said in a phone interview on Jan. 28.
The university announced Jan. 22 that Rev. Blackwell was chosen by the Board Governance Committee as an “an independent consultant to review and evaluate data related to University employment practices, trends and affirmative action procedures.”
The announcement came days after protesters, led by Rev. Ronald Slaughter of the Saint James AME Church in Newark, protested in front of state Sen. Raymond Lesniak’s (D-Union) office to denounce the senator’s support for the university president, who they want to resign.
Rev. Slaughter, a coalition of black ministers, Kean’s full-time faculty union and others alleged that there’s “structural racism” on campus following Twitter threats made against black students. A Kean graduate was later charged in connection with the threats in an alleged hoax.
They say that Kean’s large minority student population is underserved when compared to nearby universities, pointing to a decline in full-time professors and potential cuts to student services while tuition and fees have recently increased.
For Rev. Blackwell, this is just another assignment in a career spanning over a decade in marketing and managing consulting jobs, according to his Indeed.com resume which he confirmed was his.
“I’m going to be seeking truth and I’m unbiased,” he said, later adding that the coalition has accused people at Kean of things that he doesn’t “think they’re guilty of.”
According to his online resume, he currently serves as president and general manager of Select Marketing Inc., which has worked with the Port Authority, NJ Transit, the City of Newark and the Essex County Improvement Authority.
He’s also done public relations and promotional work, according to his profile, and is also an Army veteran. He’s also earned several degrees, including a bachelors in theology/religious studies from Almeda University, his online resume read.
Rev. Blackwell said he was ordained by the North Jersey Missionary Baptist Association which is part of the National Baptist Convention, and later became the founder and pastor of Agents of Change. He declined to say where Agents of Change was located. He stopped preaching around 2004, but continues to visit nursing homes and prisons, he said.
The consultant said he has reviewed institutional research numbers online at Kean and other colleges. He’s also “sat in” on some classes at Kean and talked to some minority students, he said.
“I have to tell you honestly, I haven’t found one student….since I’ve been here…I haven’t found anyone that has these sentiments of these protesters,” he said.
Rev. Blackwell, 59, described himself as a Civil Rights activist who “lived through that era,” and he said that Rev. Slaughter should be focused on issues in Essex County, where his church is located.
In emails sent to The Tower since Kean’s announcement, Rev. Slaughter has been very outspoken about Rev. Blackwell, emphasizing that he and others behind him wanted an auditor to be independently assigned by state lawmakers. He’s accused Rev. Blackwell of being “more than likely hand picked” by Sen. Lesniak.
“At the end of the day I bet he has a close relationship with Lesniak or one of his elected associates,” Rev. Slaughter wrote in an email. “This is an insult to the coalition and integrity of the University. Lesniak and Kean thinks picking a person with a Rev. Title (sic) will even this out. It will NOT. No one in the coalition knows Rev. Blackwell.”
“No, I’ve never heard of ‘Agents of Change,’” he added in a later, separate email.
Meanwhile, Rev. Blackwell stated that his pastoral title should not affect his work at Kean.
“…[K]ean University hires my Professional (sic) expertise not My Pastoral conviction (sic),” Rev. Blackwell said in a text message on Feb. 8. “Bottom line is my Ordination (sic) and right to the Reverend title is credible.”
Rev. Blackwell also addressed the concerns related to his relationship to Sen. Lesniak.
“Senator Lesniak did not tell me to come here,” Rev. Blackwell said, later adding that the two have known each other since the days of former Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2004.
In late November, Rev. Blackwell participated in a protest on Broad Street in Newark to call for higher wages for Newark International Airport employees, which he pointed out that he did not see Rev. Slaughter in attendence. A number of state and local officials were there, including Sen. Lesniak, Rev. Blackwell said.
“He [Sen. Lesniak] ran into me as an opportunity, to say ‘Hey, what do you think about this [what was going on at Kean],” Rev. Blackwell said, adding that he then began to read news reports about the Twitter threats and then the coalition’s accusations.
Rev. Blackwell stated that it was “irresponsible” to bring media attention to Kean without “the facts,” and called the coalition’s claims of structural racism “abhorrent.”
“If we’re going to do this thing, then we should talk in stats,” he said.
After looking at the number of professors at Kean and other colleges, Rev. Blackwell said that the numbers decreased across all ethnic groups, including Caucasians and Hispanics. At other colleges, he said, the number of professors went down while the number of adjuncts increased too.
“There’s no law against management style,” he said, adding that, “President Farahi is a better manager of people because he’s getting more for less.”
The money saved from reducing the number of full-time professors, he said, went to something else: “That money went somewhere else, which is the architectural program.”
“I was very impressed by Kean University opening a new architect school that they’re making a master’s program.”
The coalition has cited a recent discrimination lawsuit which was brought against Kean as an example of racism, including that of a former Kean employee, Sherrell S. Holderman, which was settled for $75,000 last year. (By settling, no one claims any wrongdoing.)
“I don’t think it was an admission of guilt, I think it was the university making a good business decision,” said Rev. Blackwell, referring to the settlement.
Rev. Blackwell stated that he has yet to review any court documents pertaining to discrimination lawsuits brought against the university, but plans to do so. He also plans to devise a five-point plan to help Kean improve, though he declined to elaborate since he’s still working on it, he said.
As for the purchase of the $219,000 conference table in the Green Lane Building — which the coalition used as an example of wasteful spending at their December protest at Kean – Rev. Blackwell was unsure.
“Would I have bought a $219,000 table? I don’t know.”
Rev. Blackwell declined to comment on whether he was hired or doing the job pro bono and referred all questions to Board of Trustees Executive Director Audrey Kelly, who protesters say is the ex-wife of Sen. Lesniak’s nephew, alleging nepotism.
Kelly referred all questions to the university’s spokeswoman, Margaret McCorry.
“The Board of Trustees assigned a review of the University’s employment data and practices to the Governance Committee at its December 2015 meeting,” McCorry said in a statement. “The leadership of the Board and the committee felt the assistance of an external consultant familiar with compliance reviews would be beneficial to their work. A number of approaches to this project were considered.”
McCorry added that Rev. Blackwell will be paid $15,000, plus out of pocket expenses for his consulting services.