John’s University: Father Donald J. Harrington
by Joan Baum,
up soon on 15 years as the 15th president of St. John’s University,
Father Donald J. Harrington, C.M. [Congregatio Missionis] actually
traces his service back to the 17th century when St. Vincent
De Paul, concerned about the impoverished physical and spiritual
condition of the poor in France, inspired the founding of the
Vincentian community. Though four centuries removed from the
French countryside where the Vincentian priests and brothers
first established their retreats, the Queens campus, the site
of St. John’s since the rural days of 1870, has remained the
flagship school, with a prestigious graduate center in Rome,
an interdisciplinary Management School in Manhattan and colleges
on Staten Island and Oakdale, L.I. In true Vincentian tradition,
Fr. Harrington regularly visits all the campuses, ensuring
that no matter how wide the sweep of the university’s beacon
light, the mission remains focused on the founders’ commitment.
appearances might argue to the contrary, because of the university’s
extraordinary growth in the last few years—more than 20,000
students, brand new facilities, and a recently instituted innovative
policy to provide all incoming freshmen with IBM ThinkPad notebooks
for a wireless community—the demographic facts bear out the
Vincentian mission, which the Rev. Father cites as the number
one accomplishment for which he would like to be remembered.
He smiles broadly, an athletically trim, savvy, energetic man
who not only enjoys his position, but talking about it as well.
The conversation is direct, animated, interspersed with humor
and anecdotes. He notes his leadership during St. John’s transition
period from commuter school to multi-university campus, with
approximately 25% of students now living in residences. He
also cites as significant his having instituted a “planning
culture” at the university. Repeatedly, however, he returns
to the Vincentian theme of helping the poor.
notes, for example, that St. John’s is “the most diverse” institution
in the Metropolitan area, with well over 110 countries (not
counting non-citizens) and all ethnicities represented (whites
constitute a little over 50%), with approximately 40% of all
students classified by federal guidelines as in the highest
need category. Although financial aid now meets only 35% of
those in need, the president says nothing essential has been
sacrificed. The university still boasts an 18–1 student /faculty
ratioý a top-notch curriculum, a relatively high graduation
rate of 68-69%, and diversity, even more important now in the
global marketplace. Acknowledging that many urban colleges
and universities make similar claims about whom they serve
and how, the Rev. Father, with a twinkle in his eye, cannot
resist mentioning that a former CUNY Chancellor once referred
to St. John’s as “City University with theology.” Well, yes,
as far as “access” goes, but not “values,” which Fr. Harrington
puts at the center of the St. John’s experience.
was students, he points out, who argued for strengthening the
honor code, and he speaks of wanting values to permeate the “entire
atmosphere.” The core curriculum, for example, requires all
students, regardless of religious affiliation, to take “Introduction
to Christiani-ty” and then two more courses, which can be in
other denominations or in ethics or philosophy. He recalls
an incident several years ago when athletes were accused of
improprieties but found not guilty. He nonetheless had them
expelled because the transcript showed that they admitted to
unacceptable acts, behavior contrary to the spirit of the university.
This emphasis on values is particularly remarkable given the
president’s wider professional activities. In addition to the
numerous academic and community boards on which he serves,
Fr. Harrington also sits on the Board of Trustees at Bear Stearns,
the first Catholic priest to serve at a major Wall Street firm.
The experience has made him more aware that higher education
is a business (“one must be faithful to the trust”) but not
only a business (“we’re not making widgets”). The future? “More
collaboration with other colleges, not competition,” and of
course the continuation of values in the etymological and theological
sense of being “catholic.”#
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