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Black Eye of Nepotism

May 13, 2009

Roger Williams University President Roy Nirschel may not be as vulnerable to nepotism charges anymore, but that’s surely cold comfort.

Nirschel drew critics when his son, Chris Nirschel, was hired by the university’s development office, even though he had a history of arrests and no discernable experience in fund raising. Once again in legal trouble, Chris Nirschel has resigned from his post, which may help close the chapter on a nepotism controversy, but leaves questions about the university's hiring procedures.

Nirschel, 26, resigned as Roger Williams’ regional major gifts officer May 11, university officials confirmed Tuesday. The resignation came two days after Nirschel was arrested on assault charges in Hoboken, N.J., where he’d been working on the university’s behalf.

Shortly before 2 a.m. on May 9, Nirschel got into a street fight with another man in Hoboken, according to a police report. When police officers approached him, Nirschel “turned to the officers and began to assault” one of them, the report states. The officer was treated at a local hospital for injuries to his head and right leg after the incident, according to the report.

Nirschel, who did not respond to interview requests, now faces charges of aggravated assault on a police officer and simple assault, the report states. Nirschel has not been convicted, however, of anything.

A report of his arrest, citing an unnamed Hoboken police source, first surfaced Monday evening on the Web site of the Hawk’s Herald, the university’s student newspaper.

Nirschel’s arrest last week is his third known arrest. He was arrested previously in 2004 for procuring alcohol for a minor and possession of a weapon – not a firearm, according to the Bristol Police Department’s Web site. He was arrested again in 2005 for driving with a suspended license, the Web site notes.

Peter Wilbur, vice president for strategic planning and government relations, said previously he knew of Nirschel’s record prior to hiring him. Wilbur, who did not respond to an interview request Tuesday, chalked the arrests up to “growing pains” in a March interview.

While Nirschel’s resignation closely coincides with his arrest, and the student paper’s report, university officials did not provide any reasons for his departure in an official statement released Tuesday. The one-sentence statement did indicate, however, that Nirschel went on unpaid leave May 5 – four days before his arrest. While Nirschel’s actual resignation followed his arrest, his unpaid leave predated the incident. University officials did not respond when asked what led to Nirschel’s unpaid leave.

Faculty Objected to Hire

Roy Nirschel, who readily defended his son’s hire in a March interview with Inside Higher Ed, did not respond to interview requests Monday or Tuesday. Nirschel said in March, however, that he was not involved in hiring his son and did not think the hire constituted nepotism, so long as his son “did not displace any quote ‘more qualified’ candidates.”

Faculty did not share Nirschel’s position, however. The Faculty Senate passed a motion May 6 that was critical of the hiring of Chris Nirschel, calling it a violation of policy.

“Faculty Senate objects to the hire of the President’s son which did not conform to the university’s hiring policies and detracts from the transparency so important to the functioning of the university and violates the principle of inclusive excellence,” the motion read.

Louis Swiczewicz, a Senate member, said faculty wanted to make their objections to nepotism clear, without making a blanket statement about legitimate familial hires.

“What we’re looking for is fair and equal [hiring practices],” said Swiczewicz, a professor of technology, leadership and management. “Overall the Senate was not opposed to the president or any member of the president’s family being hired as long as it adhered to the nepotism policy that was in place.”

The university’s policy states that “relatives may be appointed to faculty and staff positions when it has been clearly established that they are the best qualified candidate.”

Wilbur, who hired Nirschel in his previous capacity as vice president for university advancement, has defended his decision to go with a candidate who was certainly nontraditional. Wilbur acknowledged that the president’s son had no fund raising experience, even though the job advertisement called for someone with “five years of fund raising experience in a nonprofit or higher education organization.”

Roger Williams officials have never said whether Nirschel holds a bachelor’s degree, which was also a minimum qualification listed in the job advertisement. Nirschel did attend Roger Williams for a time, but university officials said they couldn’t disclose whether he graduated, citing student privacy laws.

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA] does restrict disclosure of personal student information, but the law allows universities to reveal directory data about enrollment and graduation. Asked about Roger Williams’ reluctance to discuss Nirschel’s academic standing, his supervisor said in March that the university had “something signed” that prohibited disclosure.

There is, in fact, an exemption in FERPA that allows students to insist in writing that their directory data be kept confidential. That exemption only applies, however, in cases where an actively enrolled student makes the request, according to a U.S. Department of Education official. In other words, Nirschel could only have made the request while he was attending the university – not months or years later when he started pursuing a job at Roger Williams.

President Has Stressed Ethics

Roy Nirschel, who was named president of Roger Williams in 2001, has touted high ethical standards for an institution that has gone through some rough patches. He helped usher through a conflict of interest policy for the university’s board of trustees, which came under heavy fire in 2007 after the chair’s use of a racial slur became a public debacle. Nirschel has also publicly suggested other university leaders should adopt policies that will place their institutions beyond reproach. After a 2005 scandal involving American University’s then president, Nirschel wrote an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed criticizing university presidents who don’t adopt and obey “clear, rigorous” standards of ethics.

Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in compensation issues in higher education, said Roy Nirschel can probably expect to take some more heat, even though his son has resigned.

“Maybe there’s some institutional fallout that he’s going to have to clean up,” Cotton said. “There’s no question he stuck his neck out for his son, and the son did not behave responsibly and possibly illegally. So he’s got the fallout within the university.

While Nirschel has maintained he wasn’t directly involved in the hiring of his son, there’s little question the president took on some risks by allowing it to go forward, Cotton said.

“He took a chance and it didn’t work out,” he said. “But the other side is he’s also got family issues to deal with and people need to be respectful of that. I sincerely hope neither the faculty nor anyone else associated with the university would pile on.

“… This young man has injured his career for a long time. Assuming these charges stick or one of them sticks, he’s going to have to rebuild his trust if he ever wants any kind of a job in higher education. That’s for sure.”

 

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