A fundraiser at a New Jersey public college doubled as the college president’s anniversary party. The fundraiser is the signature scholarship event at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Over the past 34 years the college’s benefit gala raised millions of dollars for student scholarship. In 2014 expenses soared as sources say scholarship was not the priority.
Video obtained through an open records request shows the college president and his wife being honored throughout the scholarship gala. The video documents standing ovations during the $225 a plate dinner and a private dance shared by college President Herman Saatkamp and his wife in front of more than 500 guests.
According to the college’s own data, the 2014 scholarship gala was the most expensive and raised the least amount of money for scholarship in a decade. The 2014 gala raised $180,005 for student scholarship — down from $278,245 in 2013 and $282,799 in 2012.
“That's because the focus was not on helping students but on throwing a gala fundraiser for the president," New Jersey attorney Seth Grossman said. Grossman runs the nonprofit watchdog group liberty and prosperity.
The gala’s organizer said any connection between the president’s anniversary celebration and fewer dollars for scholarship are coincidental.
“They're not related at all,” Stockton college foundation executive director Dr. Phil Ellmore said. “The lower net is related to moving to Seaview late in the game and we had to construct a place to meet.”
Dr. Ellmore runs the college’s fundraising arm. He explained the gala was originally planned for Atlantic City’s Revel Resort. He said it had to be moved to the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club, a facility the college owns, but there wasn’t enough space to hold the gala the day it was planned.
Stockton officials had to put up what they call, ‘a temporary tented structure’ in the parking lot. It cost $134,000 which was a third of the gala’s total cost.
Internal emails obtained through the New Jersey open records act show the entire Seaview Resort was available on other dates in the spring of 2014, but school officials including the president insisted the gala be held on April 26th.
"He didn't use his position for that opportunity; the institution chose to recognize him," Dr. Ellmore said of the presidents’ involvement in planning the gala.
The internal emails show President Saatkamp chose a picture with his wife to be featured on promotional materials.
The emails show he chose the music he and his wife would dance to. They show he signed off on the gala’s program and seating arrangements.
Through a spokesperson, Saatkamp refused to comment for this story.
"Does it look bad? Yea of course it looks bad, but it’s not," student senate vice president Louis Manuel Chevere said.
"I don't see anything wrong with it," student senate president Carl Archut Jr. said.
"I think that's kind of cheating the students here," senior Andrew Dunkle said.
"I think if we're going to have an event for students to help them save money or scholarship it should be just about that and that should be the main focus," senior Colin Fahy said.
It costs roughly $25,000 a year to attend Stockton College and live on campus.
Students graduate with an average of $34,000 of debt according to the institute for college access and success. That is the highest in the State of New Jersey for a public college.
Dr. Ellmore said celebrating the anniversary helped raise money for student scholarship. He said it highlighted an endowment created in the college president’s honor. He said the Stockton foundation has been promised future contributions.
"Doing that has created over half a million dollars in pledges that would not have been otherwise if we were not recognizing him," Dr. Ellmore said.
Dr. Herman Saatkamp has been the president of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey for ten years. Tax records show he earns more than $450,000 in total compensation. Those records also show the Stockton Foundation’s assets have grown to $27 million dollars under his leadership.