By Phil Corso and Karen Frantz
The Rev. Donald J. Harrington was praised for his accomplishments reforming St. John’s University during his tenure as president following the surprise announcement that he was retiring Friday in the wake of two New York Magazine articles accusing him of taking gifts and vacations from a powerful school fund-raiser who killed herself during her fraud trial.
“The tenure of Father Harrington as president has been a period of unrivaled growth, expansion and achievement for our university,” the St. John’s board of trustees said in a statement. “He has been a transformative leader who guided this institution, nurtured its community, cultivated excellence and generated unprecedented levels of enthusiasm and support.”
City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who graduated from St. John’s Law School, also lauded Harrington for his years of service in separate statements released after the announcement, pointing out that he had increased the school’s endowment fivefold and grown the campus with new facilities and buildings.
But the reaction among students and faculty at the university appeared to be mixed.
One student, Patrick, who would only give his first name, said he had the sense that students thought the university would do well with a new direction, a sentiment he agreed with.
“I feel that Rev. Harrington has done his time well here, but the university could definitely benefit from fresh leadership,” he said.
He said that although Harrington had many accomplishments, he thought he focused too much on the business aspect of running the university. He said he would like to see a successor carry on the Vincentian mission of the school to promote social justice and alleviate poverty.
He also said some of his feelings about Harrington’s retirement were wrapped up in the accusations lodged against former dean and fund-raiser Cecilia Chang, 57, who was on federal trial in Brooklyn on charges of stealing more than $1 million from the school.
“That’s definitely there,” he said.
Some of the $1 million allegedly went to Harrington and his chief of staff, Rob Wile, according to the indictment. Chang, who would have faced as much as 20 years in prison if convicted, hanged herself in November after she took the stand in her defense.
Some faculty members said the retirement should not detract from a board of trustees investigation into the events leading up to Chang’s fraud trial, with one professor saying he was worried the resignation would allow the board to end the investigation prematurely, according to The Torch, the university’s student newspaper.
A spokesman for the university said the board of trustees’ review was still ongoing.
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.
Chang, a 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, Wile had already submitted his resignation effective June 30, 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.
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.”
Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4538.