Former Rowan President reflects on his tenure’s most challenging moment
By Brian Jacobs
The Donnie Project
With 11,392 students enrolled at Rowan University right now, it’s a simple fact that Donnie Farrell could have been almost any of us, and that what happened to him can happen to anyone.
It was the seeming randomness of it all that people remember. Talk about the Donnie Farrell murder with anyone who was on the Rowan campus then, and it’ll come up — the way tragedy can strike without warning.
When it happens on a college campus, someone has to be in charge, to answer when the cries of mourning, anger and confusion come. In 2007, that responsibility fell on former Rowan President Dr. Donald J. Farish.
“Anyone who was a student at that time, and all of the faculty and staff, will have their own memories of Donnie and how he died, and of the changes to the campus culture caused by his brutal death,” Farish said. “It may be four years, but for too many of us, it still feels like it was just yesterday.”
Now president of Roger Williams University Rhode Island, Farish said Farrell’s death has stayed with him over the years. It’s that randomness that gets Farish, too — how an innocent kid ends up dead on what should have been a fun Saturday night.
When he got the news, Farish went to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where he spent time with Donnie’s friends and girlfriend.
“I went to the emergency room as soon as I learned about the assault that led to his death,” Farish said. “The situation with Donnie was maddeningly difficult on so many levels.”
On campus, things were tense in the days that followed. Despite decreases in on-campus crime in recent years, no one felt safe.
The crime involved a white student allegedly attacked by a group of African-Americans. Nobody was sure yet whether the attackers were fellow students, or whether to trust their own safety. News crews were crawling the campus, and parents were worried.
Students were angry, feeling like they were under a microscope, said Rowan University spokesman Joe Cardona.
“White kids are suspicious; black kids are like ‘what’s up with this’,” Cardona said. “That little underlined racism comes in.”
Stacy Jones, a 2009 Rowan graduate who covered the Farrell case for The Whit, said she, too, felt the surge of racially-tinged suspicion on campus.
“There was a lot of racial tension that got brought up because of this,” Jones said. “Campus was chaos.”
To confront these issues and give students a place to voice them, on Oct. 29, 2007, Farish called an open meeting in the Esby Gym. The room was packed, a line of news vans outside and a wall of cameras in front of the podium where Farish spoke.
The meeting was raucous, with boos and some catcalls from the audience; panic almost set in as SWAT teams arrived nearby in response to an emergency call unrelated to the Farrell incident. The sirens were enough to put an already tense gathering even more on edge.
An African-American student stood up to angrily confront Farish and student-government representatives.
“I’ve never seen students so distraught,” said Gavin Farber, a former student who was at the meeting. “[The student] was an admissions ambassador and he was angry. I felt bad for him. He was a good student. I’m a six foot, four-inch Caucasian male, but if I fit the description I know I’d be questioned, too. The student who spoke out, spoke for everyone.”
While investigators continued the search for Farrell’s killer, the campus carried on. On Oct. 30, Farish unveiled a 14-point safety initiative that was already in the works.
Farrell’s funeral services stretched across two days, on Nov. 2 and 3, and was one of the largest gatherings in recent Morris County history, according to the Par-Troy Funeral Home in Parsippany. More than 2,000 people made the trip to Gates of Heaven Cemetery in East Hanover, causing police to shut down Routes 287 and 80 while the funeral procession made its way.
Rowan provided buses for students and staff who wanted to attend, and administrators went to represent the university community. The same day, the university published an online newsletter for parents to update them on the investigation and what was happening on campus.
Farish didn’t get to know Donnie’s family personally, but as a parent and a representative of the school, he felt their pain.
“They were understandably, terribly distraught and angry, and there was nothing I could offer beyond saying that I was so very sorry,” Farish said.
Although the Farrell family is reluctant to criticize Rowan’s response to Donnie’s murder, Don Farrell said he felt the school has tried to distance itself from the crime since.
“We didn’t blame Dr. Farish,” Donald Farrell said. “You’re mad at God, you’re mad at everybody.”
Brian Jacobs is a senior journalism major, and is a staff writer for The Whit. He has written for the Daily Journal in Vineland.
Kristen Stenerson contributed to this report.