By Rebecca Panico | Published March 4, 2016
Kean University’s Board of Trustees turned down state Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s (D) recommendation for an auditor in a recent exchange of letters, stating that they’ve already hired one.
Read more: View the entire exchange here
In a joint statement from Sweeney and Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Sandra Cunningham (D), the two expressed that the university’s decision to hire their own auditor “fails to meet the standards of independence that are so important in restoring trust and confidence in the university’s practices.”
“Those actions and inactions leave us with little choice but to consider remedies of our own,” the statement read. “We will consult with our colleagues to determine what next steps we should take. As public officials it is our responsibility to the students, faculty and staff, as well as the entire state, that these issues are addressed properly.”
During a closed-door meeting in Trenton last November, Sweeney met with university President Dr. Dawood Farahi and Rev. Ronald Slaughter of the Saint James AME Church in Newark, the leader of a coalition of black ministers who alleged institutional racism on campus after Twitter threats were made against black students.
Rev. Slaughter called for Farahi’s resignation even after a black Kean graduate was charged in connection with the threats because of “the culture of racism and the fact that it trickled down to the students.”
In recent statements, Rev. Slaughter and Sweeney claimed the group decided that an independent auditor would be named once the Trustees agreed to it.
The university never confirmed or denied that such a decision was reached. Kean’s Board Governance Committee hired Rev. Michael Blackwell earlier this year to audit Kean’s hiring and firing practices, resulting in outcry from the coalition, Kean’s full-time faculty union, and now legislators.
Senate Majority Office Executive Director Kevin Drennan encouraged Farahi to engage the services of former State Supreme Court Justice John Wallace of the Brown & Connery law firm in a letter on Feb. 29, which he said would satisfy “the public’s perception of independence, fairness and integrity.”
Wallace was the only African American on the State Supreme Court Justice until Gov. Chris Christie did not re-nominate him in 2010. That seat has been vacant for the past six years. Recently, Sweeney – who is considered a likely candidate for the next Governor — and Christie have been in a heated exchange over who will fill the vacancy.
Farahi forwarded the letter to Trustees Chair Ada Morell, who responded that the university’s Board Governance Committee led by Chair Linda Lewis, who was at the Trenton meeting, had already secured the services of compliance reviewer Rev. Blackwell.
“Mr. Blackwell has experience working as a compliance officer on several major development initiatives in New Jersey, including the Prudential Center, various school construction projects, the Xanadu project at the Meadowlands and various projects in the City of Newark,” Morell wrote on March 2.
She added that Rev. Blackwell has reviewed the university’s employment practices, enrollment trends and affirmative action data in addition to interviewing 45 members “of the University community.”
The Committee also met with Rev. Blackwell once a week to discuss primary findings, additional research areas and the development of a final report for the Trustees, she said.
Drennan responded on March 3, alleging that “it was made clear at the meeting [in Trenton] that the investigation would be conducted by an independent body selected by, or at least endorsed by, the Senate President.”
“Utilizing members of your Board of Trustees and an individual handpicked by the University would only serve to further nurture an environment of mistrust and skepticism, especially if the investigation unequivocally validates the actions and atmosphere at Kean University.”
Other lawmakers have expressed support for the Farahi, like state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). In an open letter from December, he stated that, “Diversity is Kean’s strength, and under the leadership of President Dawood Farahi, it has flourished.”
The letter led to the Kean Federation of Teachers (Kean’s full-time faculty union) and the minister’s coalition to stage a protest in front of Lesniak’s office on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where they questioned his relationship with Farahi.
Today, Rev. Slaughter said that he agrees “100 percent” with Sweeney’s recommended auditor, as well as Sweeney’s recollection of what happened at the Trenton meeting.
“I left with the impression that the Senate President would be the one selecting the independent investigator, not the university,” Rev. Slaughter said. “How can the university handpick an individual to conduct an investigation of itself? In order for the results to be believable and credible, the investigation must be fair and independent. I am confident that Justice Wallace will produce a report that all can agree is fair and independent.”
The Board Governance Committee will present a summary of their auditor’s findings at the Trustees’ next meeting, Morell said. The meeting will take place on March 7 at 4 p.m. in Kean Hall. The final report will be presented on May 9, she said.