Potemkin University?

The president of Kean U. has made the campus beautiful, but many say the façade hides the way he treats people.
November 22, 2005

Dawood Farahi is a rarity among college presidents -- not only was most of his career spent as a faculty member, but he was repeatedly elected to lead the Faculty Senate at Kean University. Before becoming president of the New Jersey institution in 2003, he was a professor of public administration -- and he had strong backing from many faculty members who wanted to see him succeed.

In office, he has pushed hard to improve Kean’s physical appearance with a prominent fountain, impeccably kept grounds and new buildings. He has also created new programs and facilities to help students, and is known for constantly asking professors how they are helping students.

Two years into his administration, about the only thing people at Kean agree about is that it looks nicer than when Farahi took over. The president is feared and disliked by many on the campus. Professors, administrators and students say he belittles them and many report that he has personally insulted them and their colleagues. Stories abound of the president commenting on people’s ethnic status, or asking them to do something and adding on “and if you don’t I’ll fire you,” or of him telling people not to walk on the grass.

Farahi, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article, even after being told that critics were making very pointed and personal comments about him. The spokesman did provide the names of several faculty supporters, who said that the president is shaking up the university -- and improving it substantially.

Students and faculty members say that Farahi is quite visible on the campus, walking around and talking with people. While supporters say that reflects his commitment to checking up on student learning, many say that the president seems most concerned about the grass. Students and professors report that walking on the grass can earn you a stern lecture from the president, who believes that quads are meant to be viewed, not lived in.

One student -- who like many Farahi critics asked not to be identified and would only communicate off of Kean phones or e-mail -- said he was personally chastised for cutting across a green area when he was running late for class. He said he wasn't walking through a flower bed or anything, but was just walking on grass, as students do on campuses everywhere. Faculty members similarly report being scolded and hearing from students who are stunned at being taken to task for such infractions.

The concern about appearance doesn’t necessarily extend to the insides of all buildings. “We have mice in some of our rooms. We have classrooms with 35-40 students in a class and no way to control temperatures, but we build fountains and we keep planting flowers to try to make the place look like a botanical garden,” says Kathleen Mary Henderson, president of the Kean University Adjunct Faculty Federation, a branch of the American Federation of Teachers.

Daniel Higgins, a spokesman for the university, said that the critics exaggerate what is an appropriate pride in the campus appearance. “We like to keep the grass nice. There are tons of walkways,” he says.

To critics, however, the lectures about the grass symbolize a larger problem in how the president treats people on the campus.

One administrator said that the president frequently addresses him and colleagues with some problem that needs to be dealt with. After the president outlines a proposed solution, he says “if you don’t take care of this, I’ll fire you,” the administrator says, adding that the president seems to favor this approach especially when others are around to witness it, and that the president then likes to walk away. (Other Kean employees confirm this, and talk about how another Farahi tactic is to tell people in meetings that they are either with him or against him, using the imagery of war or political campaigns, not the kind of academic exchange where people might see nuance and agree with part of an idea but disagree with another part.)

Sometimes, this administrator says, the course of action that the president has outlined is perfectly reasonable, but the threat is anything but. “Everyone is sort of dumbfounded every time this happens. He has no qualms about using shame or embarrassment.”

“The campus is beautiful now, but you can’t take pride in your job when you have been totally demoralized, when you don’t want to come to work every day because you don’t know what he’ll do to you.”

In his first year in office, Farahi shocked many faculty members when he tried not to renew dozens of contracts of faculty members who were on the tenure track. Following protests, he backed down, but relations have been tense ever since then – and professors say that the issue of control is a key one with him.

“His approach is that to be effective, the university has to be run like a business, that you have to control people,” says Maria Rodriguez-Solis, an assistant professor of counseling and president of the Kean Federation of Teachers, the AFT affiliate for full-time faculty members. “It’s all about treating workers like we are not really people.”

The latest fight concerns a proposed code of conduct for faculty members. Many parts of the code are common policies at many institutions – a commitment to academic freedom, refraining from sexual harassment, etc. But parts of the proposed code, faculty members and some administrators say, contain prohibitions that they fear would be used to stifle dissent. For example, the code says that faculty members may “not misrepresent any university position or policy” that they must “work together and communicate in a constructive and forthcoming manner,” and that they must “model exemplary verbal and nonverbal behavior.”

Many faculty members say that these rules might be appropriate in a corporate environment, but that they make no sense in an academic one. When professors have questioned the president about his priorities, they say he frequently accuses them of misrepresenting his policies, so they fear that any questioning in the future could amount to violating the code of conduct.

The right to dissent has already been threatened, faculty leaders say. This fall, Kean’s board adopted new rules that changed a longstanding practice of having an open portion of board meetings where people could raise issues about the university. The primary people who have taken advantage of that opportunity have been faculty leaders, who of late have been talking about morale problems, the need for more full-time positions, and facilities issues that haven’t been fixed by the sprucing up activities for which the president is known.

This fall, faculty members were told that to speak during the open portion of the meeting, they would have to present their subject areas in advance for approval. Then, according to faculty leaders, their subjects were deemed irrelevant and they were barred from raising them.

“This is a public university, and last time I checked, we were still covered by the First Amendment,” said Richard Katz, a professor of English. ”This was about the stifling of dissent.”

To get the rules changed, the faculty union had to get political. New Jersey had a gubernatorial election this fall and when Jon Corzine, the Democratic candidate who was the eventual victor, was planning to appear on campus, the faculty groups threatened to set up a picket line to protest the board rules. Corzine, whose campaign had strong union support, didn’t want a protest. Local politicians negotiated an agreement under which the unions called off the picket – and the board is expected to relax the rules.

Higgins, the university spokesman, says that no one was ever prevented from talking at meetings. He says that administrators and board members wanted to know all issues being raised in advance so that they could better prepare for meetings, not to squelch an ideas. He said that the procedures “were misinterpreted.”

More broadly, Higgins characterized the president’s critics as a few angry faculty members who are union leaders. He is correct that those prepared to take on the president publicly tend to be union leaders. With their identities protected, however, many faculty members and some administrators who are not union leaders share the union leaders’ views on many of the issues.

Supporters of the president say that some of the physical improvements that the critics deride do matter to students and faculty members. Richard Bakker, chair of the physical education, recreation and health department, says, “the campus has never looked better,” and that helps attract better students, faculty members and donors.

He said that while he has heard the reports about how the president is said to treat people, he has never witnessed any rude behavior. What he has seen, he said, is a president who is committed to students and to changing the university. He said that “there is nothing [the president] could do that would make the union happy.”

Similarly, Suzanne Bousquet, chair of the psychology department, said that she thought some of the president’s greatest accomplishments had been in pushing through efforts to centralize student services and improving the resources available to help students with academic and other problems. She thinks these changes are helping students succeed academically, which is the university’s mission.

Bousquet, who has worked at Kean since 1984, said that the physical plant had deteriorated over the years, and that improving it did have an impact on student and faculty morale. “I’m more proud of this institution now than at any other time,” she said.

The president’s faculty critics, she said, are vocal, but she argued that they do not represent a majority, and that some of the tensions are inevitable. “Anytime that you have anybody in power, if you are the person who is not in power, it is easy to feel off put or humiliated or taken advantage of,” she said.

Bousquet said that she had never seen examples of the sorts of behavior that Farahi’s critics cite, but she acknowledged that the president is not one to mince words. “Some people sugarcoat a message. Our  president delivers a message,” she said. “It’s not a campaign to humiliate. If there are people feel that way, I can understand that because of his directness. He just says it like it is.”


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