Success Stories: Quinnipiac University
The new Rocky Top Student Center is just one of the new buildings on campus.
When Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum opened in Hamden last October, it was hailed as the crown jewel of John L. Lahey’s 25-year tenure as Quinnipiac University’s president.
And yet, for the university itself, the museum was just another milestone along the road running from 1966, when the one-time New Haven-based “college of commerce” purchased 100 acres near Sleeping Giant State Park, an area that now contains its main (or Mount Carmel) campus. Yes, main campus. Two more campuses have opened since then. One, a 250-acre campus atop nearby York Hill, is replete with sports center, wind farm and dorms. The other is a 104-acre plot in North Haven, the former Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield property that will, beginning this fall, be home to the Frank H. Netter M.D. School of Medicine.
Quinnipiac is now one of only three universities in the state with both law and medical schools (joining UConn and Yale). One could go on and on listing the highlights of Lahey’s tenure: establishing the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, acquiring a commercial radio station (WQUN 1220AM), adding the School of Law, upgrading the athletic programs to Division I and transforming the school from college to university.
To explain the school’s meteoric rise, Lahey goes back as far as he can—to the day in 1987 when he arrived to interview for the job as the university’s eighth president.
“I didn’t know much about the school when I interviewed here,” says Lahey. “But it looked like a big, beautiful New England campus.”
Lahey saw its potential for growth. At the time, the school had 1,902 students, 80 percent from Connecticut and 60 percent who commuted to class. Lahey realized that, in the long run, that dynamic would have to change.
“Connecticut was then, and is now, a net exporter of students,” says Lahey. “To grow, you had to do it from outside Connecticut. We didn’t have Yale’s endowment. If we’d stayed at 1,900 students, we’d be at 1,000 now.”
Today, the university has 6,200 full-time undergraduates and 2,300 graduate students, and offers 23 graduate degrees. Nearly all underclassmen and 80 percent of the student body live in dorms. Most tellingly, only 22 percent of the student body is now from Connecticut.
“We were known as a professional and business school, and to expand that it was clear we had to go to a master’s program,” says Lahey. “The bachelor’s degree is not what it used to be.”
The first step was the acquisition of the law school 20 years ago. At the time, the University of Bridgeport was near bankruptcy. To pay expenses, it was draining resources from its law school. “If they continued, they were likely to lose accreditation,” says Lahey.
Lahey has never been one to allow such opportunities to slip by. When Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church bought the University of Bridgeport in 1992, the law school was put on the market. Quinnipiac purchased it, first leasing space in Bridgeport, then building a separate law-school building in Hamden in 1995.
“This was part of a long-term strategic plan,” Lahey explains. “Otherwise it would not have worked. We were not dealing with our survival, of course, but we did have to grow and then continue to develop graduate- level programs.”
When asked if he worried that his long-term plans were being implemented too quickly, he says, “I didn’t have concerns that we were moving too fast in terms of risk to our brand. When you consider that these changes took place over 25 years, it doesn’t seem that swift. I wouldn’t say there were no growing pains, particularly in dorm space and class sizes. Today we are in our best-ever shape, and the endowment is up to $283 million—it was $25 million when I arrived.”
Before landing his current position—for which he’s paid more than $1 million annually—Lahey did not take the path most traveled by He initially had dreams of becoming a modern-day Plato, earning three separate degrees in philosophy.
“Philosophy is one of the most practical things you can study,” he suggests. “Of course, my parents should have said something like, ‘Hey, John, what can you do with all these degrees in philosophy?’ But back then it didn’t matter what you majored in. Just having a bachelor’s degree was the important thing.”
Still philosophically inclined, Lahey teaches a course in “logical reasoning” to undergrads each fall.
“You know the expression, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do?’ I think of philosophy as conceptual cartography,” he said. “We all have to have a conceptual vision—what do you want to be? What road map does Quinnipiac University want?”