Goodbye to an Unknown Man

If three years ago, as I was finishing my first year at St. John’s, someone had told me that two weeks before graduation I would be awoken from an afternoon nap by a call asking if I’d heard that Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M. had announced his retirement, I would have said, “who retired?”

That was before I had gotten involved with the Torch or pretty much anything at this University. Norm Roberts was the highest ranking person I could name, and he’d been fired. Harrington could have walked up to me, introduced himself and shook my hand and I still wouldn’t have known who he was.

To many alumni and long-standing faculty, he may be remembered for the immense changes in the University: adding residence halls, becoming an international university, expanding the national recognition of a traditionally regional university, etc.

But to many students of the modern era, Harrington will either be remembered for the fallout of the Cecilia Chang ordeal or simply, not remembered at all.

The fact is that many students at St. John’s have never met Harrington and for those seniors, they may only come in contact with him at their commencement ceremony (that is, if he still attends) on May 19th.

Harrington was not a name often mentioned by students around the University before this year. But as Cecilia Chang’s federal trial began in October, Harrington became the center of much attention – and not in the way he probably would have liked. The initial New York Magazine investigation, as well as follow-up reporting by the Torch, showed his personal business relationships with Robert Wile, his chief of staff and vice president of Institutional Advancement, as well as trips and gifts furnished by Chang on the University’s dime.
In recent years, his private nature has proven to be a problem for him. Even when things went well, he chose to remain as an unknown figure. When things have turned to the wayside, his public image – these reports, the testimony – are the only things the student body know of him.

While the results of the Board’s investigation have not been released, and may never, Harrington’s image problem was clear enough to the University that it felt the need to send the student body not one or two emails regarding his retirement, but four. The last email included praise for Harrington from both Cardinal Timothy Dolan and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.
What is possibly more depressing for Harrington than much of the student body believing he was a corrupt president will be the fact that after all of this, the good press and the bad, there will still be students who don’t know who he is or what he’s done at the University.

When we interviewed students for the Student Sparks question this week, many didn’t know who Harrington was and therefore couldn’t answer the question.

These aren’t the outliers at the University. They are the everyday students on campus to prepare for their finals on the Unviersity Study Day. Students who live in the dorms that didn’t exist 24 years ago at the beginning of his reign or those studying abroad on either the Paris or Rome campuses may not realize the lasting impact, good or bad, that he has had.
This entire situation has not been ideal for anybody associated with the University. However to the University community, the lack of a true leader in Newman Hall was the biggest disappointment throughout the year.

During Harrington’s tenure, a culture without transparency and accountability became the norm at St. John’s. At the end of July, Harrington will leave St. John’s the way he ran it, in the background, hiding behind other people’s statements.