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Moving forward, looking back. Farewell Lahey
University president John Lahey reflects on the 31 years at Quinnipiac before upcoming retirement, discusses hopes for the future
The Mount Carmel campus is covered by a blanket of snow. The Sleeping Giant commands the Quad on Quinnipiac’s then-small campus.
John Lahey has just stepped on campus for the first time, barely 40 years old and unsure what Quinnipiac College will mean to him yet.
One thing he did know then is that he had quite the opportunity at his fingertips. Here, he could become president of a college at a relatively young age in one of the best areas of the U.S. for higher education.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Lahey was attracted to Quinnipiac for its ideal location, almost directly between Boston and New York. Another motivating factor in Lahey’s job search was its immeasurable room for growth. A college of 1,900 undergraduate students and only three schools seemed like a challenge for a driven young Lahey, a challenge he was eager to accept.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about Quinnipiac,” the now 71-year-old Lahey said. “This was all before the internet and such so it wasn’t as easy to research what you’re getting into… It was going to be an opportunity at a very young age to become a president if I was successful in getting the position.”
And of course, he was. In March 1987, President Lahey began his career at Quinnipiac.
“I probably had a little more energy [when I started] but I don’t feel like I’ve slowed down in the past few years,” Lahey said.
His efforts speak for themself, with the addition of accredited engineering and medical schools within the past 10 years. Though growth seems apparent in higher education institutions, these additions were part of a larger design that Lahey had in mind from his start at QU.
“I had a general vision in mind to make Quinnipiac University, or Quinnipiac College then, a larger and more comprehensive university,” he said. “I did think the three schools were not enough for Quinnipiac to prosper and become better known.”
When Lahey came to Quinnipiac, there were only three schools of study; the School of Liberal Arts, the School of Allied Health and Natural Sciences and the School of Business. Lahey knew that in order to compete with larger public and private institutions, Quinnipiac needed to expand, which began by distinguishing communications majors and officially establishing the School of Communications.
Currently, Quinnipiac offers majors in the schools of arts & sciences, business, communications, education, engineering, health sciences, law, medicine and nursing, making Quinnipiac one of the 2.1 percent of universities in the U.S. to have both a medical school and law school, according to the university website.
But this expansion went further than academics.
“I certainly had a growth mentality,” Lahey said. “Back then when I arrived, about 75 to 80 percent of our students were from Connecticut and only 20 to 25 percent were from outside of Connecticut. I knew Connecticut was a small state and in fact is a net exporter of students so if we were going to grow the way I wanted to, we were going to have to recruit outside of Connecticut much more extensively and in order to recruit successfully you have to get known outside Connecticut.”
After 31 years, Lahey achieved his goal, with a small 25 percent of students hailing from QU’s home state, another 25 percent coming from New York, 19 percent from Massachusetts, 17 percent coming from New Jersey, 8.5 percent from other areas of the U.S. and 3 percent coming to QU internationally, according to the university website.
Despite planning for growth from his first day as president, Lahey admits that some changes seemed to simply work out.
“You can plan and do good research and do your homework, but it never hurts to be lucky or to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “So some of what we developed came about just by taking advantage of opportunities that presented themselves.”
With these changes also came the expansion to the York Hill and North Haven campuses, the addition of the Theater and Arts Center, the change to Division I athletics, a new athletic complex on the Mount Carmel campus, the approval of a new resident hall on York Hill and much more. After all of these accomplishments, Lahey can retire with a sense of pride in his work.
“I feel quite satisfied today that I’m leaving Quinnipiac in two months without any major projects, at least that I initiated, that I didn’t get the opportunity to complete,” he said. “That was also by design, I didn’t really start any new major projects really for the last two or three years. I knew when I was retiring five years ago.”
After his presidency comes to a close, Lahey plans to take some time away from QU to allow incoming president Judy Olian to make her own mark on the university.
“After 31 years and three months you cast a long shadow, for good or ill, so I really want to stay away from my successor Judy Olian at least for a year to give her an opportunity to come up with her vision and her plans for Quinnipiac,” Lahey said.
Despite stepping away, Lahey still has hopes that the Quinnipiac administration will continue to strive for high quality in all of the areas he has helped develop. Along with this, Lahey hopes to see the university’s endowment, which was $3 million when he began and is currently an impressive $530 million, grow to $1 billion. Lahey hopes to see this money used to establish more scholarships for students and create endowed faculty chair positions.
“I am certainly very optimistic about the Quinnipiac that I’m handing over to my successor,” he said. “I’ve only met [Olian] once and only spent about an hour with her so I don’t know her real well, but on paper… she has been a very successful dean of the business school at UCLA.”
Lahey has faith in Olian due to her experience as dean, noting that serving as the dean of a school is like running a small college.
In 31 years of presidency, Lahey was bound to encounter some hardships. He recalls the most challenging being student deaths, Hamden relations, students drinking recklessly or underage and providing adequate housing for seniors. Diversity and inclusion issues seem to have been a large concern of Lahey’s, which he said there have not been many of recently, followed by a hopeful “knock on wood.”
“Those are challenging issues where you get calls from parents of African American students saying ‘Is it safe for my son or daughter to be on campus with hate speech?’ Those are difficult calls to take,” he said.
Lahey also elaborates on providing adequate housing for the university’s growing student body as well as accommodating Hamden residents who complain about the presence of students in their neighborhoods. In fact, the planning and zoning project for the new resident hall on York Hill is the first in Lahey’s 31 years to be approved unanimously. This appears to be due to the desire of Hamden residents to keep their neighborhoods calm and quiet.
“While I have no doubt that some students had parties and loud music and so on later in the night, I always felt, at least in the media, that our students were painted with a broad brush,” he said. “I know Quinnipiac students better than anyone I think, the full range of them, and they’re great young people who come from great families. They respect authority and work hard. As I often say, they work hard and God knows they play hard, but they’re good young people and I think they’re respectful of others and I often get in trouble for defending our students.”
Despite these and any other bumps in the road, Lahey hopes he has been able to instill values in the QU community and develop a campus culture of respect and acceptance.
“Leaders come and go, presidents come and go, deans come and go, but culture survives,” he said. “If you set the right culture in place you will attract the right kind of students, the right kind of faculty, the right kind of staff.”
This culture and the closeness Lahey has felt with the student body is one of his most cherished memories in his time as president.
“A lot of presidents can get pretty far removed from students and the teaching and learning environment, doing fundraising and external relations and going to events and so on, but my time in the classroom was really special for me and gave me a relationship with students,” Lahey said.
As the year now comes to a close, Lahey reflects on all of the ‘lasts’ he has experienced but still intends to keep his focus on the students.
“I tried hard this year not to think of it as my last year,” he said. “[This year] may be my last commencement, but for students graduating this is their first commencement… I try to keep the focus on that so I have intentionally not had a lot of events celebrating ‘John Lahey’s Presidency.’
Lahey puts his relatively quiet exit into perspective in a way only a New Yorker would.
“I’m a Yankees fan and I thought Derek Jeter had a few too many going-away celebrations,” he said with a laugh.
After having personally signed the diplomas of 80 percent of QU’s living alumni, the thought of shaking his final hand at his final commencement ceremony seems to cause Lahey to feel the emotional weight of his retirement.
“It certainly has been a little more emotional for me to be around campus and know many of the things I’ve done this year [were my last]… I’ve had 31 wonderful years. I’ve been privileged. I’ve been given the opportunity… to truly transform what was a small, local little college back in 1987 when I arrived to a major national university today. I feel very thankful for that, but I don’t think the focus should be on ‘John Lahey’s Retirement,’ I think it should be on Quinnipiac’s future.”
One of these ‘lasts’ included his final Wake the Giant (WTG) concert, which Lahey co-sponsored this year in an effort to give students a high-quality concert experience. This financial support allowed students to enjoy Khalid and Daya’s performance on Saturday, April 14, however Lahey gives all of the credit for the planning and execution of the concert to the students.
Lahey admits that he had no idea who Khalid was and jokes that he was relieved that he was not consulted on who should perform, due to his preference for classic rock. In fact, Lahey’s favorite WTG memory wasn’t even a musical moment, but rather Khalid’s acknowledgement of what makes QU unique: hockey.
“It was great to see an artist of the stature of Khalid identify with his crowd and how did he do that best? By donning a [QU] hockey jersey,” Lahey said. “That for me was the high point.”
Lahey basked in the sight of a nearly full Lender Court, noticing the excited faces of over a third of QU’s undergraduate students during the show. This sight brought him back to the years of a humble Quinnipiac College once again.
“Looking back on how small we were and an event at Burt Kahn gym with a couple hundred students, and here we have a beautiful facility with packed seats as well as the floor and a performer of that size,” he said. “I think it’s another example of how Quinnipiac has arrived and that we’re really a major national university and that what we do has quality all around it.”
While Lahey is saying goodbye to his presidency, he is not saying goodbye to Quinnipiac just yet.
“I am coming back to teach in the fall of 2019 and probably for a couple years after that… I taught for 25 of my 31 years, I only stopped teaching five years ago and I always taught at least one course a semester. I usually taught a philosophy course or a logic course.”
However, don’t expect to see Lahey on campus in the spring semester. He and his wife of 48 years, Judy Lahey, plan to spend the colder months at their home in Florida. Despite the distance, Lahey said he will be “cheerleading” from Florida while he is away.
Despite Lahey’s plans to return next year, retirement as president is something Lahey has prepared himself for far ahead of time.
“I was more prepared [to announce my retirement] than anyone else in the community because I knew it was coming,” he said. “I knew we were approaching that time and I knew it for almost five years… There are a lot of people who have been with me for a lot of years for whom I think it was a much more emotional event.”
This knowledge of his looming retirement was something Lahey felt sorely about keeping from his Bobcats.
“I think while probably some people in the community felt that I was going to retire at some point, I do think it did come as a surprise to a lot of the community,” he said. “In fact, I had just done an interview, I felt a little bad about it to tell you the truth, with The Chronicle. I think the last question [The Chronicle] asked me was about my retirement and I made some statement like, ‘I’ll be around for a while, I’ve got a few projects to do,’ I felt that wasn’t 100 percent candid but I couldn’t let the word get out in that way to the community.”
Naturally, endings lead to reflections on beginnings. Lahey does not see much of a change in himself, which he proved by noting with a laugh that he weighs the same 182 pounds as he did in 1987 and that he, unlike many other university presidents, does not have a private bathroom. However, he does feel Quinnipiac has left an impact on him that won’t soon fade away.
“I hope I’m leaving Quinnipiac as someone who doesn’t take themself any more seriously than they have to and appreciates the people around them,” he said.
A smile always finds its way to Lahey’s face as he thinks of the impact his presidency has left on this university. Names like Buckman, Echlin, Lender and Bernhard pass through students’ lips without a thought, but to Lahey these are the names of friends, colleagues and generous donors to the university that have made him thankful to be a part of this community.
Lahey’s list of proud moments at QU is almost too long to list, adding up to academic, athletic, service and social feats by students over the years. Unsurprisingly, the same cannot be said for his list of disappointments.
“[Being president has been] about the most fulfilling career at a single university that I can imagine anyone having,” he said.
Finally, Lahey leaves his home of 31 years with some words of advice, which he also passed along when opening WTG this year.
“Some time tomorrow give your parents a call and tell them how much you love them and how much you appreciate the sacrifices they’re making to give you a Quinnipiac education,” he said.
A second piece of advice is directed at all students learning what they love at Quinnipiac.
“Do what you really have some passion for, hopefully you have some passion,” Lahey said. “That’s what the college experience is about, if you don’t come with a passion then finding passion. If you do that you won’t find work drudgery and you can get to the top of any profession with passion.”
Lahey humbly reminds students that if they do find success in their passion to not forget Quinnipiac and to consider contributing to the future of our university so it can continue to grow and prosper in the future.
Thirty-one years in one place may seem like a lifetime. This ending of a chapter could be a sad one, but just as he entered, Lahey leaves QU looking forward.
“It is my last year, but who cares? The much more important thing is that I keep focus on what I’ve always tried to focus on, the students. We’re here to make sure students get a great education and go on to do wonderful things in their personal lives and their professional lives.”