The president of St. John’s University, Father Donald Harrington, will announce his retirement this afternoon. The news comes in the midst of an investigation into the conduct of both Harrington and his chief of staff, Rob Wile, after allegations of corruption and misuse of university finances. Wile will resign effective June 30, according to sources.
“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,” Harrington wrote in an internal communication to the St. John’s community.
The dual departures follow a series of New York Magazine stories detailing a web of undisclosed, interlocking business interests between Harrington and Wile. Particularly troubling to investigators was a real-estate venture partnership that was struck at the same time that Harrington recommended Wile for hundreds of thousands of dollars of no-interest loans from the university.
The changes at the top of St. John’s, one of the country’s largest Catholic universities, follow the trial of former dean Cecilia Chang, who committed suicide after being accused of defrauding the university for more than $1 million. Both Wile and Harrington benefited from the generosity of Chang, who picked up the bill for vacations, expensive suits, and jewelry, and fraudulently passed the expenses along to the university. At one point, Wile signed off on her expense reports. “You don’t see stuff like this except in corrupt companies,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfield of Yale University, an expert in business governance.
Harrington has enjoyed support from many alumni, and today law school alumnus and New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a statement praising him. Despite the continuing probe of irregularities, Kelly said, “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.”
Kelly added, “Think of what’s essential to New York, and Father Harrington and St. John’s always come to mind.”
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has also supported Harrington, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan today suggested that he would tap Harrington to continue his work for the Church. “I am delighted to learn that in his retirement Father Harrington will be available to the Church to continue to champion Catholic education,” Dolan said in a statement. “I expect to call on him.”
Harrington, a Vincentian priest who served as president for two decades, is largely responsible for ushering St. John’s into the modern era, transforming it from a mid-level commuter college into a first rank university that attracts students from around the world.
In his communication to the St. John’s community, Harrington noted that he had been thinking of retirement for some time, but had been convinced to stay on by the board of trustees. The chairman of the board, Peter Angelo, issued a statement today praising Harrington for his service, saying, “The tenure of Father Harrington as president has been a period of unrivaled growth, expansion and achievement for our University.”
This post has been updated with new information.