By Phil Corso
In a surprise move, St. John’s University President the Rev. Donald J. Harrington announced his retirement Friday two months after New York Magazine ran articles accusing him of taking gifts and vacations from a powerful school fund-raiser who killed herself during her fraud trial.
Harrington, 67, has been at the helm of the Queens university for more than two decades since his arrival in 1989. His retirement will become effective July 31, he said.
The announcement came at a turbulent time in the university’s history.
St. John’s fund-raiser Cecilia Chang, 57, hanged herself in November when she was on federal trial in Brooklyn on charges of stealing more than $1 million from the school, some of which allegedly went to Harrington and his chief of staff, Rob Wile, the indictment said. If convicted, she would have faced as much as 20 years in prison.
Chang, a former dean who had raised vast amounts of money for the Catholic school, was fired after a 2009 audit shed light on suspicious charges to university expense accounts and credit cards. She was later charged by the Queens district attorney’s office in a 205-count indictment with grand larceny, forgery and falsifying business documents in September 2010. She faced separate charges in Brooklyn federal court of requiring foreign students to perform household duties in exchange for $1 million in tuition fees and taking $250,000 from a Saudi prince for courses that never materialized.
Meanwhile, Harrington’s former chief of staff Wile had already resigned, the New York Post reported.
Two articles that ran in New York Magazine in March tracked a series of luxury gifts Chang gave to a somewhat reluctant Harrington and to Wile, who was described as having expensive taste.
St. John’s board of trustees hired an outside attorney to review the Chang case back in February.
In his retirement letter to the school community, the university president detailed his intentions to step down with only a minor mention of the probe.
“Nonetheless, for quite a while, I have been thinking about when would be the best time to relinquish the leadership role to younger, perhaps more energetic, individuals,” Harrington said. “The urgings of many members of the board of trustees and others persuaded me to remain longer than I had originally planned. But the difficulties for everyone during the past year have convinced me, after much prayer and reflection, that the time to leave the presidency has now come.”
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who graduated from St. John’s Law School, showed his admiration for Harrington in a statement released Friday.
“Over the last quarter of a century, Father Harrington transformed St. John’s from a really good university to a great one,” Kelly said. “As an alumnus of its law school, I’ve witnessed with pride as Father Harrington strengthened St. John’s academically and physically with new facilities and buildings, while holding fast to the Vincentian mission that has drawn so many of the university’s alumni to public service.”
Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.