July 3, 2018

After 31 years, QU's Lahey calls it a day

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
John Lahey.

When John L. Lahey first strode into his Mount Carmel office in March 1987, the lanky Bronx, N.Y. native had just turned 40.

One of the youngest college presidents in the United States, Lahey assumed the helm of Quinnipiac College, a regional business school with a student body of 2,500, mainly made up of commuters.

Its athletic teams, then known as the Braves, toiled in NCAA Division II obscurity. The school in the shadow of the Sleeping Giant had an unassailable reputation as the best college in…Hamden.

On June 30, after 31 years on the job, Lahey retired at age 71 as president of Quinnipiac University, having presided over three decades of transformational change at an institution whose student body has quadrupled and whose national profile has swelled from non-existent to a sturdy brand that resonates beyond the Northeast.

Lahey's list of achievements is long and rings loud:

• Under Lahey's tenure QU's endowment has grown from rounding-error magnitude ($3 million) to $530 million — with $1 billion in sight as the next milestone goal.

• In 1992, Lahey took the controversial leap to acquire the financially distressed University of Bridgeport law school, a move opposed by many politicians and UB administrators.

• In 2010, QU invested $100 million to create a medical school from whole cloth — the Frank H. Netter, M.D. School of Medicine, namesake of its benefactor. The move numbered Quinnipiac among the two percent of U.S. universities with both law and med schools.

• To build QU's name-recognition (few outside of Connecticut knew how to pronounce its Indian name), Lahey oversaw creation of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which extended the university's brand name nationally. The idea built on a similar poll conducted by Marist College, where Lahey previously worked as executive vice president and CEO before coming to Connecticut.

• Lahey was a prime mover in the elevation of QU intercollegiate athletics to Division I in all sports — and spearheaded the fundraising campaign that paid for creation of a massive new physical infrastructure to support the renamed Bobcats, especially the shiny new People's United Center (formerly TD Banknorth Sports Center), the 185,000-square-foot pleasuredome that hosts basketball and hockey contests.

• In homage to his Hibernian forebears Lahey oversaw creation of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, which opened in Hamden in 2012 — 15 years after Lahey served as grand marshal of New York's City's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

QU's relations with its Hamden host community have been fractious under Lahey — perhaps unavoidable given the school's explosive growth. Town officials have scored Quinnipiac for ignoring a 2006 pledge to guarantee four years of on-campus housing to undergrads. To quell tensions, the university three years ago ponied up its first $750,000 voluntary payment for town services.

Since his tenure began Lahey has safeguarded QU's public image — many would say to a fault. A decade ago he attracted negative national attention by effectively censoring the student newspaper, The Chronicle, precipitating a mass exodus by editors of the student weekly, who then formed an independent online news site, The Quad News.

Lahey reacted by threatening the recognition of the QU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists if it recognized or interacted with the rogue news site. The incident earned Lahey the approbation of national media including The New York Times and Huffington Post.

Still, as Lahey embarks on life-after-Quinnipiac (kind of — he'll return to Mt. Carmel in 12 months to teach philosophy), his admirers far outnumber the detractors.

In summarizing his three-decade tenure to a reporter, Lahey quoted Ronald Reagan as he prepared to exit the White House after eight transformative years: "All in all, not bad."

Reach Michael Bingham at mbingham@newhavenbiz.com

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