“It’s time for the Brookdale Board of Trustees to begin taking action to rename Larrison Hall, its $15 million showpiece academic building that, amid a climate of county corruption and scandal, has become a tarnished symbol of Monmouth’s two-year institution of higher education.”
Those words—that still have validity-- are from an opinion piece by this writer and published r six years ago. It was a different time—but, interestingly, some of the political players now cast in a shocking new Brookdale drama are the same and the scenario is similar.
It shows that political cronyism, patronage and favoritism remain an integral part of the Brookdale culture. And the Lincroft campus still can use a good cleansing.
The new drama involves the fast-moving, explosive events in the last few weeks when the college president resigned amid allegations of financial impropriety; searching questions are being asked about his outrageous pay and perks; the county prosecutor is investigating his spending practices ; the business and finance vice president was placed on administrative leave with pay; a plan to raise tuition was dumped; there are official demands the board of trustees resign for lack of budget oversight; the trustees are scrambling to come up with ways to check college spending; the Board of Freeholders remains divided on what action to take in the crisis and, out-of-nowhere, a former state trooper who is a fraud investigation expert rapidly and strangely was named interim president.
Whew. That’s a lot of trouble for any college to absorb at one time. But the telltale signs of that trouble have been lurking around Brookdale for a long time . It’s just that many county and state politicians and college administrators didn’t have the courage and ethical purity to tackle the trouble head-on..The trustees took the word of Dr. Peter F. Burnham, the school’s now ex –president, that all was going well. Before resigning, Burnham was placed on administrative leave without pay. There was no admission of wrongdoing.
Fortunately, Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Curley, a Republican, was instrumental bringing to light the Burnham pay and expense package as the trustees voted to raise tuition. Thanks to Curley and Freeholder Amy A. Mallet, a Democrat, the freeholders voted to repeal the tuition increase.
Larrison Hall was named for former longtime Republican Board of Freeholders Director Harry W. Larrison, Jr. , charged with accepting bribes from developers and official corruption before he died in 2005. The case never went to trial. Still, Larrison was one of the big fish caught in the first FBI sweep in its Operation Bid Rig investigation that led to the arrest of 11 officials in the county that year. It was a shameful time in Monmouth history.
Then-U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie-- now Governor Christie-- had this to say about the former freeholder director:
“Harry Larrison is one of the most enduring political figures in Monmouth County and long held himself out to be a fine public servant. In fact, as alleged, he used his power, prestige and political clout to corruptly serve himself.”
County government, at that time, was thrown into turmoil from which it still has not recovered fully. That’s when former freeholder deputy director Amy H. Handlin, a Republican and now an assemblywoman, took bold steps to start the county board on a path of much-needed ethical and fiscal reform. And she fought hard to get the name of tainted Larrison Hall changed.
Although Burnham and the trustees were not about to remove the Larrison letters from the building—Handlin was able to at least broker a deal with Burnham to have two educational events with ethics themes—a commencement address by Burnham and a panel discussion forum for students, faculty and the community. Both fell short of addressing the real issues of corruption cronyism and patronage.
What has emerged in looking at Brookdale’s past and the startling events of today are that the Board of Trustees Chairman Howard C. Birdsall and Vice Chairman Jacob S. Elkes must resign as quickly as possible. With Burnham, they led the trustees on a pitted road that raised legitimate questions about the very integrity of Brookdale and its ethical practices.
Birdsall and Elkes were longtime personal, political and business buddies of Larrison. Not only was the naming of Larrison Hall questionable—but so was the naming of the Collins Arena after Larrison’s chief lieutenant and county administrator, Robert J. Collins, And then Collins, with his county connections, went on to become the president of a Birdsall Engineering component. Talk about cronyism and coziness. Collins died three years ago.
Indeed, Brookdale needs a new, clean direction on the board of trustees—especially as it begins the important and critical search for a new president with the highest academic, administrative and ethical qualities. The time to start is now.
Arthur Z. Kamin
Fair Haven, NJ
Arthur Z. Kamin, Fair Haven, is an independent journalist and taught journalism and English as a Brookdale adjunct instructor.