ALBANY — In the village of Cooperstown, Tom Hickey is best known as the majority owner of the Cooperstown Hawkeyes baseball team.
This week, though, he’s been going to bat for a cause far removed from the world of sports. In a federal courthouse one block from the State University central headquarters, he has taken center stage in a trial that he says is exposing a gross injustice and exploitation of hundreds of low-income African American students admitted to the SUNY Cobleskill campus in recent years.
Hickey, a tenured professor at the Cobleskill campus and its former dean of liberal arts and the humanities, said the college has been knowingly accepting students with low Scholastic Aptitude Test scores as well as mediocre and poor grade point average from high school, putting them at high risk of flunking out.
“They are admitting kids who have no foreseeable chance of making it,” Hickey told The Daily Star. “They are committing a massive fraud against groups of people, including African Americans, and against the taxpayers of New York and the United States, because some of the kids were getting financial aid.”
In 2009, Hickey initiated his lawsuit against the SUNY Cobleskill and two of its then-administrators after he was stripped of his deanship. He argues he was punished for calling attention to what he says was the administration’s effort to qualify for more state funding by enrolling students who didn’t belong in college.
The students, Hickey argued, could have improved their grades had Cobleskill not slashed approximately 90 percent of the remedial programs it used to offer.
Hickey said he is disappointed that lawyers for the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are defending the Cobleskill college for carrying out a “scam” that takes advantage of economically-disadvantaged black students.
Contacted by The Daily Star, a Schneiderman spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the fact the trial is underway. A spokeswoman for the campus administration cited the same reason in declining to comment.
Hickey said after he complained to campus administrators about the admissions policies, they retaliated by scouring emails that he and those who tried to help him had sent to one another.
In videotaped testimony presented Thursday, Cobleskill geology professor Ed Stander was asked by Assistant Attorney General James McGowan about a specific email he had sent in October 2009. Stander admitted he transmitted a Danish television commercial that showed bare-breasted women. He said he sent the commercial to Hickey and others because “I was amazed such a thing was allowed on Danish television.”
Stander, who had agreed to formulate a statistical analysis of admissions date for Hickey, agreed it was “a mistake” to use his college email for that purpose.
Stander said his analysis found that after their freshman year, Cobleskill retains only 43 percent of its black students but 58 percent of its white students. He also said that to his knowledge the college does not have a race-based admissions practices.
In other testimony, Patricia Lapore, a former secretary at the college, said Hickey tried to bring “fresh new ideas” to Cobleskill, such as introducing a nursing program, but was often stymied by his superiors. Attorneys for Hickey tried to introduce testimony from Lapore that one former provost, Anne Myers, a defendant in the lawsuit, spent time looking at a fish floating in her fish tank while a distraught student tried to relate how she had been called “a n-------.”
Lapore, who said she is racially mixed, also said campus administrators failed to mete out any discipline after white students, in 2007, set up a racist “white pride” page on Facebook while other white students attended an event wearing black face, with one having the word “n-------” scrawled on his chest.
Testimony is scheduled to continue today and to conclude next week.
Hickey told The Daily Star: “I’m not doing this for the money. This has to be stopped. All it would have taken for this not to have gone to trial was for them to say they were going to stop doing this.”