By Rebecca Panico | Published April 21, 2016
A state Comptroller’s report looking into how students’ fees are used at Kean and two other colleges has yet to be released, although multiple officials say they were told it would be issued in late 2015.
Former spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office Pete McAleer said the report — which would also review how students’ fees are used at William Paterson University and The College of New Jersey — would be released late last year.
But a new spokesman now says that a deadline was never set.
“I checked with the staff and nobody knows where that December deadline came from,” said the current spokesman Jeff Lamm, referring to McAleer’s information regarding a late 2015 deadline.
McAleer could not be reached for comment, though last year he said the report would inspect if the colleges were “doing a good job informing students of where the fees go” and if the money from those fees is allocated accordingly.
Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex and Morris), who also heads the Higher Education Committee, confirmed with the Comptroller’s Office last year that an investigation into Kean’s finances was being conducted.
That information came in a letter she penned to the Board of Trustees expressing outrage after they threatened layoffs in departments related to student services following last year’s 3 percent tuition and fee increase.
Kean University spokeswoman Margaret McCorry emphasized last year that the university’s financial management is a strength, as was confirmed by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s rating services.
“Kean University is audited independently on an annual basis and is regularly found compliant with all Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) requirements,” she wrote in an email last year. “The University works cooperatively and transparently with all governmental agencies regarding financial oversight.”
Kean University President Dawood Farahi reported that potential layoffs to the Center for Academic Success, the library and the Equal Opportunity Center could take place due to a $3.7 million shortfall in the budget. Meanwhile, Kean Federation of Teachers President James Castiglione, which represents full-time faculty and staff, said last year cuts to student services would negatively affect “the most at-risk students.”
Jasey’s Chief of Staff Mary Theroux was also told by the Comptroller’s Office last year that the report on student fees would be released in December. The Comptroller’s Office could not comment on when that investigation began, citing office policy on active investigations.
“We were told that the State Comptroller was conducting an inquiry and that they expected to have it completed by the end of 2015,” Theroux said. “I don’t know what happened since then. I think this entire situation has grown some more legs.”
The Comptroller’s Office is also working on a separate investigation regarding the purchase of Kean’s $219,024 conference table. The report on the table is also forthcoming.
“All I can tell you is that both [reports] are active, and I don’t have an estimate on when they’d be issued,” said Lamm, the current spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office. “It’s not a statutory deadline that anyone gave.”
Philip Degnan took the reigns as acting Comptroller in September 2015 after Marc Larkins quit the same position amid concerns of cronyism. Lamm said the changing of hands at the top of the department do not affect the student fees report.
“No, because the staff that’s working on it has remained the same,” he said. “There hasn’t been any change in the staff that’s directly working on that [student fee report.]”
Lamm stated that he was, “unaware of such a circumstance” where a report would never be released.
The Office of the State Auditor
Meanwhile, a bill which calls for a legislative auditor to review the issue of student fees sits in the state Assembly.
Although the Comptroller’s Office exists under the executive branch of government in New Jersey since the Governor appoints the head of the office with the advice and consent of the state Senate, the legislature can vote on what the Office of the State Auditor – which exists separately from the Comptroller’s Office – looks into.
The Comptroller’s Office was created in 2008 and has the authority to review nearly all government agencies in the state, including public universities. The Office of the State Auditor was created in 1934 and has similar authority. Both offices have reviewed universities like Rutgers, but never Kean.
“Both of our offices can overlap as to what we overlook and look into,” said Assistant State Auditor John Termyna. “And it just so happens that the Comptroller’s Office started looking into student fees before we did.”
“The last time I spoke to someone from the Comptroller’s Office they indicated that the audit was going to be issued December of last year or early this year,” he added. “But as of yet it hasn’t been issued.”
In January, Jasey’s chief of staff called the Office of the State Auditor to learn more about the process of getting the auditor to conduct a report, Theroux said.
Jasey’s office was not privy to the fact that there’s already a bill (A551) sitting in the Assembly that asks the auditor to review three schools’ student fees and how they’re spent. No universities are named in the bill.
The bill’s main sponsor is Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Middlesex) and was presented to the Assembly on January 27, her chief of staff said, but has since had no action or vote.
“I just feel like we have to look at these things,” Pinkin said when asked about the motivation of the bill. “We just have to be very determined to address this crisis” of rising student loan debt.
Pinkin, who formerly served on the state Higher Education Committee, was originally a co-sponsor of an identical bill (A2816) in 2014 which passed the Assembly, but was never voted on in the Senate. The main sponsor of that bill was former Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), an outspoken critic of Kean.
“The question of fees comes up all over higher education in New Jersey,” said Cryan, who now works as Union County Sheriff. Kean University was not the motivation for sponsoring the bill, he said, but later added that, “No higher education institution in New Jersey deserves an audit more than Kean.”