Campus sale contradicts University Mission

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While the St. John’s community started to wrap its head around the constantly updating reports and allegations of questionable dealings of upper administrators, the University dropped another bombshell, announcing that the Manhattan campus would be put up for sale.

Even if all of the allegations of institutional corruption cast doubt on whether the University was living up to the first two parts its “Catholic, Vincentian and Metropolitan” mission – the mission all students are inundated with during orientation – with a campus in the heart of the Financial District, St. John’s could credibly say it lived up to the latter part.

Now, the prospective sale of the campus has put a serious dent in the school’s metropolitan credentials, and more importantly has exacerbated every problem students have with St. John’s right now.

They don’t think the administration is looking out for them. They don’t feel comfortable speaking up. And there’s a prevailing feeling – both from students and alumni – that academic standards are slipping even as the higher-ups pad their wallets.

With the exception of the D’Angelo Center, classrooms for most students are shockingly out-of-date. Marillac looks like an old high school building and St. John’s Hall is either freezing or scorching, depending on the season. And when students go to a professor’s office hours, or for an advisement meeting, they sit in cramped spaces smaller than the desk of Father Harrington’s secretary.

Rather than modernize spaces for either students or professors with the perennially increasing tuition students pay, Rev. Donald J. Harrington, president of the University does things like hand out six-figure, reportedly interest-free loans to his already overpaid chief of staff Rob Wile with students’ tuition money. While students shivered during philosophy class, Wile lived the high life, spending hundreds on liquor and fancy dinners that were billed back to the University by Cecilia Chang.

And while a professor hastily cleared a space so his pupil could sit and chat after class in the space that constituted his or her “office,” Harrington and Wile lived a 1 percent lifestyle on trips to Asia and Hawaii.

Harrington certainly enjoyed a lot of perks for a president of a university that claims to be Vincentian, and for a priest that took a vow of “poverty.” I wonder how many people living in actual poverty get to go on vacation to Turks and Caicos on their employers’ dime, as Harrington did. I wonder if the money spent on that trip could have been spent on fixing the crooked St. John’s crest at Taffner.

St. John’s students, faculty and even other administrators asked themselves and each other those same questions as more and more details of Harrington and Wile’s questionable expenses emerged. They stopped talking about those things – and not for the reasons Harrington would want – last Thursday, when St. John’s COO Martha Hirst announced via email that the Manhattan campus will be sold off. The cited reason is the apparently booming Manhattan real estate market, which even if true is a terrible, awful reason – one that would only make sense if St. John’s was viewed as a for-profit corporation, not a place to provide a “Catholic, Vincentian and Metropolitan” education.

The Manhattan campus, just like the Staten Island, Queens, Oakdale, Paris or Rome campus, shouldn’t be treated as some sort of commodity, to be bought and sold according to the whims of the market. If anything, St. John’s should be expanding its footprint in the city, despite its bottom line, because that’s what would be best for its students.

Think about it – in its current location at 101 Murray St., the Manhattan campus is the ideal place for a business student. It’s not a stretch to say that it is in perhaps the best physical location for a business school in the entire world.

It’s a huge selling point for the school to have a building right where people want to work, and would be a huge leg up for students who would live right down the street from potential employers.

Instead, most Tobin classes – undergraduate and graduate – are here in Queens, even as building space on the Manhattan campus goes unused.

Not to worry, however. The University will maintain a footprint in Manhattan, by renting an as-yet unknown place in the city like a young college graduate trying to make ends meet. It’s an incredibly shortsighted move – leaving a great, permanent location in which the St. John’s brand could gain legitimacy and prestige for a temporary locale of which the University literally has no ownership.

Last week, we learned that Harrington, for some bizarre reason, uses NYU as a basis for comparison when measuring St. John’s academically, according to a professor contacted by the Torch.

That’s crazy. We’re closer in stature academically to Queens College than NYU. If the school is serious about being competitive with NYU, having a business school in the city is a great way to start. Instead, we’re getting rid of the building that could, and should, be that school.

Some might say we’ve been really hard on Harrington for everything that has gone on through this whole Chang saga – the trip to the Caribbean, the nightclubs and Las Vegas trips charged on Wile’s credit card and the general lack of control and oversight he had over Wile and Chang.

But the anger of students and faculty toward him is no longer about Chang. Harrington, in their eyes, is motivated not by the best interests of his students or what would be best academically for St. John’s, but by the almighty dollar, like so many others.

That’s the perception of Harrington since the NY Mag report hit, fair or not, and nobody within the University or outside of it has done anything to combat that. Whether he gets a chance to repair that image, well, that’s up for the Board of Trustees to decide.