A disgraced former college dean charged with bribing her students into slave labor and coercing them to help her embezzle more than $1 million to support her gambling habit and lavish lifestyle required a student to hand-wash her son's dirty underwear and surfing wet suit, according to testimony in a Brooklyn federal court Monday.
Cecelia Chang, the former dean of the Institute of Asian Studies Center at St. John's University has been dubbed the "Dean of Mean" by New York tabloids and testimony in her trial that started last week confirms that she was a strict taskmaster to vulnerable foreign exchange students.
Peiyi (Tracy) Gan was the latest scholar-turned-servant to recount shabby treatment by Chang. According to the New York Daily News the Chinese exchange student testified that she was blackmailed into cleaning and doing laundry for the dean under threat that she'd lose her scholarship if she complained. She said she knew she'd have to do 20 hours a week of service to qualify for financial aid but was never told by the program that would include such non-academic duties as mopping bathroom floors and grocery shopping.
Other former students have told similar horror stories about Chang, 59, who lived in a well-appointed 15-room house in Queens where the live-in help were St. John's students.
The college administrator had been at the school for 30 years when it suspended her in 2010 after a routine audit detected some suspicious expense reports. Chang was unable to explain what happened with the money -- including a $250,000 donation from a Saudi prince’s foundation -- and later that year was charged with more than 200 counts of theft. Soon after, she was slapped with federal charges of forced labor as former students came forward with tales of being forced to drive her son Steven to the airport at 3 a.m. and shepherding the dean to hair salon appointments.
Chang -- who was jailed for five days earlier this month after federal prosecutors convinced a judge to revoke her $1.5 million bail arguing that her heavy drinking made her a flight risk to her native Taiwan -- has been accused of a litany of abuses. Among the expenses the divorcee allegedly put on the college dime: repairs to her Mercedes, law school tuition and ski trips for her son, online dating service subscriptions for herself, a $1,300 dinner at celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s Taiwan restaurant and a $13,000 wedding for the daughter of her Asian bookie.
Gan, testifying via videotape because she has returned to China, said she worked for Chang from the summer of 2004, when another scholarship student showed her the ropes around the dean's house, until 2007 when she earned a Master's degree. During that time she said she felt trapped, obliged to put up with Steven's calling her "stupid" and insulting her cooking because she feared Chang would pull her financial support and get her thrown out of school if she complained.
"To work for the dean is my duty," Gan said in her deposition. "If I don't do the duties, she is going to terminate the scholarship."
Gan, now 31, also testified that the dean ordered her to use Wite-Out to doctor financial documents and type up bogus expenses using handwritten instructions provided by Chang. ”She asked me to do that every month,” Gan said.
Chang's lawyer has pointed the finger at St. John's for not providing the dean with enough money to support her fundraising duties as St. John's vice president for international relations.
“She was a goodwill ambassador, their secretary of state . . . and she needed to keep up a great front, which was very expensive,” Stephen Mahler told the jury in his opening statement. “She meets with international donors . . . and she can’t take these people to McDonald’s.”
But last week Chang was seeen weeping in the courtroom as federal prosecutor Lan Ngyuen laid out the case against her.
“She funded a life of excess with money meant for the students,” Ngyuen told the jury in downtown Brooklyn. “She betrayed the students she was supposed to mentor."