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The so-called Dean of Mean
December 13, 2012 1:27 AM   Subscribe

The complicated and contradictory life of Cecilia Chang, former dean at St. John's University. [NYT] Having enjoyed a meteoric rise at St. John's as a fundraiser in the 1980's and 90's, and having served there as an administrator for over thirty years, in 2010 Chang was accused of embezzling $1 million from the school to pay for "lingerie, trips to casinos and her son’s tuition bills." [NYT] Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that she was using foreign scholarship students as her servants, making them clean and cook at her home for up to 20 hours a week. [NYT] And during her trial, it came to light that Chang's first husband, Ruey Fung Tsai - with whom she argued over millions and divorced bitterly - was executed in broad daylight back in 1990. As he lay dying in the hospital with three bullets in his back, he wrote on a piece of paper, "My wife did this" and handed it to the police. She was never charged.

Chang appeared optimistic about her opportunity to defend herself in court against the charge of embezzlement, but alas her testimony went so poorly that jurors trembled with laughter, and prosecutors not involved in the case flocked to the courtroom to catch a glimpse of the trainwreck. [NYT]

Less than 24 hours after her testimony, and facing as many as 30 years in prison, Dr. Cecilia Chang ended her own life. She filled her home with smoke, slit her wrists, and hanged herself with speaker wire. "She was covering all the bases," said one source.
posted by phaedon (39 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previous deleted thread.
posted by grouse at 1:45 AM on December 13, 2012


Oh my god. Mindboggling and flabbergasting.

(and I've worked in University Administration, that student employment bit...)

*sits down to read*

Excellent FPP crafting btw.
posted by infini at 2:21 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dr. Chang, who led the Institute of Asian Studies at St. John’s and served as its vice president for international relations, is accused of using her position to recruit scholarship students from overseas, promising them a free education, but then forcing them to clean her house and shuttle cases of liquor to her room at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.

Wow. What a woman. I can't help but be impressed. I'm surprised she gave up so easily. No doubt she would have been running the prison in a matter of months.

She was never charged.

So why cast this shadow on the dead woman? She was investigated, no charges were filed. End of story.
posted by three blind mice at 2:22 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dean Unclean
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:23 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by acb at 2:31 AM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chang had lavished gifts on many officials, later submitting phony invoices for reimbursement, according to testimony. The biggest beneficiary was the university’s president, the Rev. Donald Harrington, who later testified against her. She provided him more than 40 custom-made suits from Hong Kong, along with pricey Patek Philippe watches and lavish stays at The Four Seasons hotel in Hawaii, according to testimony.

And he accepted them.
posted by infini at 2:43 AM on December 13, 2012 [19 favorites]


It seems to me that these things couldn't have gone on for so long without many people being complicit. Maybe I lack imagination, but how does one start a nonprofit, accept money into it from international donors, then spend money frivilously out of it without other people seeing it?
posted by newdaddy at 3:00 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


The University was happy to look the other way and even to participate if it kept the big bucks flowing in.
posted by zachlipton at 3:15 AM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing about this that disappoints me is that the one place that Taiwan stands a chance of clearly differentiating itself from the PRC on is clean governance, and yet it just keeps messing that up over and over again. St John's was happy to have Taiwanese funding for its Asian Studies institute, and it seems like the Taiwanese funders were also happy to keep the tap open, so why was all of this corruption a necessary part of the deal?
posted by 1adam12 at 3:19 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is much better than the deleted thread. Excellent work.

That was an amazingly dogged suicide attempt(s) by the way. Amazing story.
posted by Mezentian at 3:29 AM on December 13, 2012


American higher ed. is a racket like any other.
posted by bardic at 3:58 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


1adam12: "The thing about this that disappoints me is that the one place that Taiwan stands a chance of clearly differentiating itself from the PRC on is clean governance, and yet it just keeps messing that up over and over again. St John's was happy to have Taiwanese funding for its Asian Studies institute, and it seems like the Taiwanese funders were also happy to keep the tap open, so why was all of this corruption a necessary part of the deal?"

Taiwan was founded as a right-wing dictactorship, and the ruling party, the KMT, is famously corrupt, and always has been, ever since Chiang Kai-Shek. At some point in the 80s-90s, it was actually the richest political party in the world, which is mindboggling, considering the size of Taiwan. There's basically no chance of Taiwan having clean governance.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:00 AM on December 13, 2012 [13 favorites]


American higher ed. is a racket like any other.

I don't think that's a fair conclusion to come to from this one article alone - and I'm not sure I even understand what's meant by it. Care to elaborate?

I'm pretty sure that the behavior at issue in these articles is not typical or expected (or even legal).
posted by newdaddy at 4:03 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Taiwan was founded as a right-wing dictactorship, and the ruling party, the KMT, is famously corrupt, and always has been,

Can't blame the KMT for this one, comrade. The left-wing was in power between 2000-2008 and President Chen was prosecuted for corruption in 2009, but yeah, Taiwan has a problem with corruption and the current government of Ma Ying-jeou is no exception.
posted by three blind mice at 4:36 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that the behavior at issue in these articles is not typical or expected (or even legal).

Depends on what you mean: looking the other way when a star fund-raiser skims some cream or keeping scholarship students as pets?
posted by ennui.bz at 4:57 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe I lack imagination, but how does one start a nonprofit, accept money into it from international donors, then spend money frivilously out of it without other people seeing it?

It is shockingly easy to spend money frivolously at nonprofits, because no one is worrying about the profit margins. As long as you can justify it somehow, if you don't have an oversight committee, few people are really aware of what money is coming in and what money is going out.
posted by corb at 5:03 AM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


St John's was happy to have Taiwanese funding for its Asian Studies institute, and it seems like the Taiwanese funders were also happy to keep the tap open, so why was all of this corruption a necessary part of the deal?

My SO's relative works for the NYC desk of a Hong Kong newspaper, and he told me something interesting. My apologies that this is not more detailed.

He had told me that Dr. Chang once had extremely influential ties to the Taiwanese administration, albeit in ways that would embarrass Taiwanese officials. Hush hush relatives of important people. However, no matter the source, she really had been a rainmaker for a while, able to consistently raise generous funds for STJ. Everyone was very willing to look the other way.

Then came the 90s (or so). After certain people had been kicked out of office in Taiwan, so ended many of her most influential ties. Too proud or anxious or inflexible to admit that her own sources had diminished, and probably not eager to volunteer that much of her influence had always come through embarrassing sources, she couldn't simply tell STJ the truth. Instead, she decided to cheat both her donors and STJ. She plugged her remaining sources for more money, whose donations she would then underreport to STJ and misappropriate for herself. As the lies piled higher, so did her bubble-like ego and thick, downy fur of delusion. She could never admit to herself that what she was doing was wrong. Everything she took, she deserved. And if she had to lie to get more, then it was because someone else had had the temerity to make her lie.

That was how the sad, weird fraud of Dr. Cecilia Chang grew and grew: from the moment that she knew she was no longer the money tree, she decided to lie to everyone, including herself.

...

Also, this is what happens when you make someone a dean when they're three years out of a master's program. I mean, come the fuck on, guys. That is some next level bullshit right there. What happened here was dramatic and unusual, but the idea itself was predictable: you had a suspiciously well-connected fundraiser, and from a too-early age you gave her tremendous power and influence. You never checked her work, and you never questioned when she had been giving full-ride scholarships to wildly undeserving people. What did you think would happen? Why did you wait for the university itself to get defrauded before you did anything?

...

Sidenote: back when I was a student at STJ Law, I once found in a stack of books a professor's open letter of resignation. It had been submitted for publication in the student newspaper. It opened with the line, "I write this letter out of a sense of duty." That's how you knew it would be good.

My friends and I, we read that letter aloud to one another several times. Bitter invective with the tone and diction of a well-read Russian anarchist. The author had been beset on all sides by faculty politics, with allies and enemies shifting like stones on sand. He let forth accusations of cowardly silence and duplicitous conduct, of "publish or perish" run amok, and of small-minded tenure review boards.

Without knowing the other sides of the story, it was hard to tell who had been in the right with regard to that professor's angry fate. I myself have the interior monologue of a 19th century letter to the editor, so I won't begrudge that this man's frustration had been expressed in a peculiar way. Simple research showed that this professor is now happily tenured elsewhere, an expert in his niche field, whereas the dean who had been in charge at the time is now happily tenured in a more downmarket establishment. Who knows.

What I do know is, that at all universities, but especially at STJ, things are sometimes nutty.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:08 AM on December 13, 2012 [31 favorites]


It is shockingly easy to spend money frivolously at nonprofits, because no one is worrying about the profit margins. As long as you can justify it somehow, if you don't have an oversight committee, few people are really aware of what money is coming in and what money is going out.

That's right, and just like at for profit companies, the board is very often made up of friends and allies of the founder/leader, who care more about that relationship than about good corporate governance.
posted by OmieWise at 5:08 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


actually, re: foreign students.

at the university i have previously been associated with, the university family housing was mostly filled with foreign students and their families. university housing had been neglected for years, with many substandard apartments, and was run as a fiefdom by the housing department. because there was/is so little in the way of family housing, the university had no trouble finding foreign grad students and their families who needed housing. given the condition of the housing, the residents eventually organized a rent strike which, incidentally, was likely legal under state housing law as a response to lack of responsive repair by the landlord... anyway, the university responded by considering the unpaid rent as tuition and threatened to dematriculate all of the protesting students for lack of payment. since these were all foreign students, dematriculation meant the loss of their student visas and bye, bye america.... this broke the rent strike.

so, no, the university didn't make them pick up it's laundry or drive them to the airport, but they might as well have.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:09 AM on December 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Meteors fall, they don't rise.
posted by absalom at 6:39 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


money that prosecutors said she used to pay for lingerie, trips to casinos and her son’s tuition bills.

When dudes embezzle do they ever talk about all the boxers and briefs they bought with the ill-gotten gains? Because seriously, this seems to be a thing, when they catch a woman with her hands in the kitty, her unmentionables are the first order of business.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 6:58 AM on December 13, 2012 [14 favorites]


Meteors fall, they don't rise.

Meteoric means "very rapid" in this context. It isn't a metaphor.
posted by OmieWise at 7:01 AM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Harrington is still the University President: http://www.stjohns.edu/about/president. That he could 1. accept the gifts, 2. allow this kind of abuse and 3. still maintain his position says all you need to know about St. John's.
posted by letitrain at 7:06 AM on December 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


When dudes embezzle do they ever talk about all the boxers and briefs they bought with the ill-gotten gains? Because seriously, this seems to be a thing, when they catch a woman with her hands in the kitty, her unmentionables are the first order of business.
That's not surprising -- have you seen the price of a decent bra nowadays? Having just placed an order for a $50 Wacoal bra this morning, it would be my first order of business upon embezzling some money as well.
posted by peacheater at 7:26 AM on December 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


I find this entire story more of an indictment against St. John's than I do Dean Chang. And as letitrain says, the fact that Harrington is still in charge really means nothing has changed.
posted by Kokopuff at 7:33 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Meteors fall, they don't rise.

Yes, but if you're seeing them from the ground, they often look like they're going up, even though they're plunging Earthward. It's not a bad comparison, really.
posted by Malor at 7:45 AM on December 13, 2012


And I thought the going-ons at my alma matter, Saint Louis University was crazy enough. (Short version: President Fr. Biondi is power-mad, keeps acquiring land at the expense of academic spending and micromanages academic departments. After years of this everyone has voted "no confidence" REPEATEDLY.)

This article makes me realize things could really be worse. The image of the good father Biondi in lingerie is something I'd like out of my brain though.
posted by lineofsight at 8:02 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know nothing of St. John's University. Anyone care to share their experiences or impressions of their reputation?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:41 AM on December 13, 2012


When dudes embezzle do they ever talk about all the boxers and briefs they bought with the ill-gotten gains? Because seriously, this seems to be a thing, when they catch a woman with her hands in the kitty, her unmentionables are the first order of business.

Have you seen how much nice lingerie costs? It is a completely frivolous, insubstantial and shockingly high cost. I imagine if a man was dropping hundreds on a pair of boxers it would be news.
posted by srboisvert at 8:58 AM on December 13, 2012


When dudes embezzle do they ever talk about all the boxers and briefs they bought with the ill-gotten gains?

It's hard to spend a significant amount of money on men's underwear. You'd have to be buying it in 20' container loads in order to compete with the price of high-end women's lingerie.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:14 AM on December 13, 2012


When dudes embezzle do they ever talk about all the boxers and briefs they bought with the ill-gotten gains

They made a big deal about Ollie North buying stockings, leotards and tights. Turned out it was ballet stuff for his daughter. Maybe that proves your point? Maybe it would never have come up if it was boxers.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:14 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read she had a gambling addiction. The articles mention two different casinos.
posted by infini at 9:25 AM on December 13, 2012



Meteors fall, they don't rise.
posted by absalom
Etymology

Of Middle English origin, derived from the Latin meteorum, from the Ancient Greek μετέωρον (meteōron), from μετέωρος (meteōros, “raised from the ground, hanging, lofty”), from μετά (meta, “in the midst of, among, between”) + ἀείρω (aeiro, “to lift, to heave, to raise up”).
Meteors weren't understood to be of extra-terrestrial origin until the 19th century.

"Meteoric rise" is a common phrase at least since the 16th century, and was a standard trope in describing rise from obscurity and subsequent disgrace.
posted by jamjam at 11:16 AM on December 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yes, lingerie is very expensive - especially when you factor in the students you have to take on to wash them. Hosiery is truly a vital part of this story and it's good to see it isn't being under-reported.
posted by iotic at 11:30 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


HOLYCRAP.
posted by Theta States at 11:34 AM on December 13, 2012


Also, this is what happens when you make someone a dean when they're three years out of a master's program.

The article says "named a dean", but I am of the understanding that many universities have this as a separate administrative career track with assistants, associates, and such. It does not say she was named "Dean" at that point. TBF.

It is shockingly easy to spend money frivolously at nonprofits

Indeed; see the Three Cups of Tea story.

She was investigated, no charges were filed. End of story.

Unfortunately, there was no arrest or conviction of anyone, so the murder remains unsolved, and she is listed in public records as the primary suspect. I don't think this is an undue "shadow", especially given that we are not presenting evidence before a jury. This is pretty far from a "Well, gosh, we just don't know"; there seems to be ample evidence of her overall shadiness.
posted by dhartung at 12:20 PM on December 13, 2012


Dr. Chang once had extremely influential ties to the Taiwanese administration, albeit in ways that would embarrass Taiwanese officials. Hush hush relatives of important people.

For those who can read Chinese, google 章曙彤. Sing Tao Daily had some gossipy bits about her background. World Journal had an anonymous interview with an investigator in the murder case of Dr. Chang's ex-husband. Sina HK interviewed one of the scholarship students forced to be Dr. Chang's house servants.
posted by fatehunter at 12:43 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


> The article says "named a dean", but I am of the understanding that many universities have this as a separate administrative career track with assistants, associates, and such.

Agreed. There are administrative dean titles which have absolutely nothing to do with academics; it's an acknowledgement of extra status in the reporting hierarchy, and it's not uncommon for the chief fundraiser to get this kind of recognition.
posted by desuetude at 11:40 PM on December 13, 2012


So why cast this shadow on the dead woman? She was investigated, no charges were filed. End of story.

From one of TFAs:

"...more than half a dozen law-enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is open."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:18 AM on December 14, 2012


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