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Rev. Donald Harrington resigns as St. John's University president

St. John's University president Rev. Donald Harrington takes

St. John's University president Rev. Donald Harrington takes in the St. John's/Notre Dame game at Madsion Square Garden. (January 16, 2011) Photo Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

The president of St. John's University, the Rev. Donald Harrington, announced Friday that he was resigning after 24 years leading the Queens school.

His letter of resignation and a reply letter from the school's board of trustees made only a passing mention of a series of revelations in court and in New York Magazine of improprieties at the school, one of the largest Catholic universities in the country.

His chief of staff, Rob Wile, also resigned, effective June 30, the school said.

The head of the school's Asian Studies Program, Cecilia Chang, 59, was found dead, a suicide, in her Jamaica Estates home in November, a day after she testified in her own defense at her federal trial on charges of embezzling $1 million and using foreign students as her personal servants.

Harrington, 67, a Brooklyn native who is a Vincentian priest, said in his letter of resignation that he was leaving now because he had accomplished many of his goals, and mentioned "the difficulties for everyone during the past year."

"As I step aside, I am deeply satisfied that I leave behind a strong foundation upon which a new generation of leadership will undoubtedly build," the letter said.

Chang raised an estimated $20 million for the school, particularly in the Asian community, and the New York Magazine articles questioned whether that led Harrington and Wile to ignore her embezzlement and lavish expense account.

The magazine also said that Wile and Harrington were involved in a real estate deal together and that Wile got $370,000 in interest-free loans from the school.

The school declined to comment on the magazine articles Friday, as it has in the past. The school has hired outside lawyer Frank H. Wohl to review the spending, but it has not said whether his findings will be made public.

One prominent alum, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, praised Harrington in a statement released before the school had officially announced the resignation.

"Over the last quarter of a century, Father Harrington transformed St. John's from a really good university to a great one," the Kelly statement read. " . . . Think of what's essential to New York, and Father Harrington and St. John's always come to mind."

Cardinal Timothy Dolan issued a statement praising Harrington's work at the school. "I am delighted to learn that in his retirement Father Harrington will be available to the Church to continue to champion Catholic education. I expect to call on him," Dolan's statement said.

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