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SJU dean had pupils serve her: Feds

A former St. John’s University administrator allegedly forced students to be her personal servants and threatened them with losing their scholarships if they did not cook and clean for her, federal prosecutors charged in a complaint filed in court last week.

Cecilia Chang, 57, of Jamaica Estates, worked at St. John’s for more than 30 years until she was fired in June, prosecutors and school officials said. During those three decades, she held a series of high-profile positions, including vice president for international relations and dean of the Center of Asian Studies.

Federal prosecutors charged Chang in a complaint filed in federal court in Brooklyn last Thursday with forced labor and bribery and said she allegedly told students they had to work for her for 20 hours a week in order to retain the scholarships she had the authority to grant.

“I have learned from students and staff members of St. John’s that the defendant Cecilia Chang demanded that students perform personal services for her and others, including cooking, cleaning and washing clothes at Chang’s home, chauffeuring Chang and Chang’s son and others, answering Chang’s personal e-mails and conducting personal financial transactions for Chang,” FBI Special Agent Kenneth Hosey said in the complaint.

“Chang threatened the students and placed them in fear that if they refused to perform these personal services they would lose their scholarships and be unable to attend St. John’s,” the complaint said.

“If these allegations by federal authorities are true, Ms. Chang’s treatment of some students and the environment she created are shocking and in complete violation of all this university stands for,” St. John’s said in a statement. “The students will continue to receive full scholarships at St. John’s and, at the request of the board of trustees and senior leadership, the university is undertaking a complete review of its controls in this area to ensure that this will never happen again.”

Alongside the federal complaint, Chang has been charged by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown last month with stealing more than $1 million from St. John’s and using the funds for trips to casinos, shopping at Victoria’s Secret and her son’s tuition.

She allegedly submitted travel and entertainment charges to her former employer for as much as $50,000 a month that were purportedly related to her employment but which were allegedly used for her own personal life, Brown said. She also allegedly diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in foundation donations intended for the school to herself, according to the DA.

FBI investigators interviewed four unnamed students, most of them foreign exchange students, in the case against Chang. Each of the students reported being forced into hours of labor unrelated to their school work, including allegedly driving Chang’s son to the airport at 3 a.m. in 2007, according to the federal complaint.

This student told the FBI that Chang and her son “were not good people.”

Another student reported that by the end of 2008 or early 2009, they were working as housekeepers at Chang’s residence two days a week, according to federal prosecutors. Two other students allegedly took care of the house the five days their fellow student was not there, according to the complaint.

A different student reported they had to cook for Chang’s son and the son’s girlfriend, during which time the son would yell and curse at the students, calling them stupid and complaining about the food, according to the complaint.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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