Brother Liguori, Retiring As Iona President, Leaves Record of Achievement

By Claudia McDonnell
Catholic New York
May 18, 2011,5526

Brother James A. Liguori, C.F.C.

When Brother James A. Liguori, C.F.C., leaves Iona College this month after 17 years as president, he will, in one sense, walk out of a different school from the one he walked into in the 1990s. Iona was primarily a commuter school then; today it's nearly two-thirds residential. Seven new buildings have been added to the campus. Ryan Library has been restructured and expanded; during exam week it was filled with students studying at computers.

But some things have remained the same, especially the commitment of Iona College to the ideals of the Christian Brothers who founded it in 1940. Brother Liguori, an alumnus himself, said in an interview last week that all of the changes are rooted in the "Catholic and Christian Brothers heritage" at the heart of Iona's identity.

Brother Liguori said that one of the first things he did as presidentóin consultation with the board of trustees, faculty and othersówas to "identify what Iona wanted to become."

"It was clear that Iona wanted to become residential," he said. He added that residential students tend to be better students and to be more involved in college life.

He and his associates drew up a campus master plan that called not only for construction, but also for efforts to attract students and parents. Iona sought and obtained academic accreditations in various disciplines from international accrediting agencies.

The master plan activities were funded by two capital campaigns; the first raised about $85 million, and the second about $20 million. Three separate five-year strategic plans focused on areas including academics, faculty, the physical plant, enrollment, and technology.

Brother Liguori said he has worked to create a culture of commitment and pride in Iona, reflecting its heritage.

"Go anyplace on campus, and you will see a cared-for environment, which I translate into a care for people," he said. It's rare to see anyone toss garbage on the ground, he added, and he hasn't seen graffiti on campus in years. A stroll through the campus and buildings proves him right: they are clean and superbly maintained.

Iona's original mission was to educate students who were largely the children and grandchildren of immigrants and the first in their families to attend college. Most were Irish or Italian. Today's enrollment reflects "all ethnicities and races, as it should," Brother Liguori said. There are about 3,200 undergraduates; some 20 percent are the first college generation in their families. About 77 percent are Catholic; there also are Jewish and Muslim students, and some who do not profess a faith. Iona welcomes everyone, but all follow a curriculum that includes six credits of theology.

"We make no bones about the fact of who we are," Brother Liguori said.

Brother Liguori was born in the Bronx and grew up in New Rochelle, where he attended Iona Prep. He holds a master's degree in English education from SUNY at New Paltz, and a master's and a doctorate, both in educational administration, from Fordham University. During his more than 40 years in education, he was principal of Rice High School in Harlem, headmaster of Iona Prep, associate superintendent of schools in the New York Archdiocese and schools superintendent in the Archdiocese of Newark. He was executive vice president of Iona College before becoming president.

One of his greatest satisfactions as he leaves Iona is "holding onto and enhancing" the mission of Iona's founders, he said.

His successor, Dr. Joseph E. Nyre, will be Iona's first lay president, and Brother Liguori expressed absolute confidence in Dr. Nyre's unshakable commitment to the mission and his ability as "a strategic thinker."

"He will be an excellent president," he said.

Brother Liguori said he has some regrets, including the fraud committed by Sister Marie Thornton, S.S.J., former chief financial officer of Iona. He also wishes he'd been "more visible, more available." But, quoting his mother, he said, "You do the best you can; that's all you can do."

He said he is leaving Iona with gratitude for his experiences there and for the goodness of the Iona community, including alumni and benefactors.

After leaving on May 31, he will begin a sabbatical. He's not saying what he will do next, but he will continue in ministry. Perhaps he was hinting at his plans when he added, "I'm more than ever convinced that this mission, the Catholic educational mission, is critical."


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