Decision to Sell Man. Campus – Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Penny-wise, pound foolish – that’s the only way to describe the University’s decision to sell the Manhattan campus.

I used this space last issue to talk about how incredibly shortsighted, not to mention contradictory to the University’s “Catholic, Vincentian, Metropolitan” mission, the sale of the campus was.

Martha Hirst, St. John’s chief operating officer, doesn’t see it that way, obviously. In a letter to the editor, she highlighted the ways money from the sale could be used, from increasing scholarship aid and study abroad opportunity, to strengthening the School of Risk Management. The full letter can be viewed on page 11.

(One other way the money will probably be used for is to pay rent for the new Manhattan campus that the University doesn’t own. She didn’t mention that one though.)

“[Improving academics] were, and remain, our sole considerations,” she wrote.

That many people don’t believe the University’s stance speaks to how far the administration’s reputation has fallen since the Harrington-Wile-Chang scandal hit. It’s not Hirst’s fault, of course. She came to St. John’s after former dean Cecilia Chang had already left, and there’s nothing to suggest her hands are anything but clean in that whole sordid mess.

No, people don’t think she’s corrupt, but as long as Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., President of the University and his chief of staff Rob Wile have offices in Newman Hall, people will, rightly, assume by default that there is something untoward going on. The University has lost its trust with its students and faculty, and many believe that there is a profit motive in everything the school does.

Hirst also writes that this sale will be completely within the spirit of St. John’s history, citing the many other times the University has switched boroughs and buildings throughout its history. She said, “St. John’s has been a University that has been both literally and figuratively ‘on the move.'”

But what Hirst — and whoever else was responsible for this decision — is ignoring by choosing to sell the Manhattan campus is that St. John’s is no longer the local New York City school that it was before Harrington took over.  St. John’s is rapidly becoming a national brand, with students coming from all over the country to get a taste of the Big Apple without the price tag or selectivity of NYU or Columbia.

Those students fly out to Queens, Manhattan or Staten Island to visit the campus, take in the place they’ll be living and studying for the next four years.

What happens if a freshman from California matriculates as a Staten Island student – after falling in love with the campus, its location and its proximity to Manhattan – and then somebody makes the University an offer it can’t refuse? They expect that person to obediently pack his or her bags and move to wherever and whatever they decide to replace the Staten Island campus with?

If St. John’s wants to be a national brand – and everything Harrington has done in his nearly quarter-century tenure at the University has been geared toward doing that – then it needs stability. Incoming students need to know that when they sign a lease after moving cross-country that they are moving to an apartment, a street, a neighborhood they can call home.

The University called its merger with The College of Insurance and its impending takeover of 101 Murray St. “unprecedented” when it happened more than a decade ago. It was, in a good way. It was St. John’s making a definitive move toward being a major player in New York City.

Now, we’re supposedly “on-the-move,” couch-surfing around the five boroughs while we wonder why we don’t compare to NYU and Columbia, two schools firmly settled in their locations.

The University will make a lot of money off the sale of the Manhattan campus. But it will also take a hit to its brand, long-term, and severely dent any hopes anybody has about St. John’s ever being on par with the elite New York institutions.

Penny-wise, pound foolish.