By Lou Pastina
I recently wrote about the move that St. Francis College made from beautiful Brooklyn Heights to a grittier downtown address on Livingston Street. While only blocks away, the difference is stark. I have to say upfront that me and my family are very much connected to St. Francis, as not only did I attend the College, but also St. Francis Prep on the Northside of Williamsburg. My sister, brother, son, and nephews all went to St. Francis College as well. And after I retired, I was honored to be asked to help with the College’s Entrepreneurship Program.
Unfortunately, the College lost their visionary president after a long illness, which caused a certain amount of drift in the College’s trajectory. Then caught up in the politics of the day, the College turned hard left under a new administration, losing its loyal alumni in the process, and its way.
I, like many others were dismayed to watch the ship sail in the wrong direction. Further, losses in the endowment fund and a failed sale of the old campus put the College at significant risk of oblivion. But then something interesting happened. The College, for the first time, brought on a Chief Operating Officer, who after a short stint, became the new president. Having delayed seeing the new campus, curiosity ultimately got the best of me, and I reached out to my old friend, the head of the business department. He gladly agreed to give me an insider’s tour, and even a fly-by to say hello to the new president.
I parked on Atlantic Avenue and walked over to Livingston Street, across Adams, past the Board of Education building and the MTA building, into downtown Brooklyn, around the corner from Fulton Street. As I walked down the block, the neighborhood changes, but it is not quite like I remembered it either. There are high rise, ultra-modern condos, and more being built. I was looking for some flags or other signage to let me know I was coming up to the College but could find none. Finally, I sensed I was close to Macy’s which transverses both Fulton and Livingston Streets, and just before it was a sign on the side of the building at 171 Livingston Street, St. Francis College. I was underwhelmed. The front security desk let the Dean know I was there, and he came to get me. He explained that the top floors atop the Macy’s facility were custom built for SFC, and that they occupied the top three floors. When we got off the elevator, I was happily surprised at how new and hi-tech everything looked. Long, well lit, hallways with classrooms on either side that housed all the educational technologies that the old building so sorely didn’t have. We were met by the head of the science department who took me through the nursing stations that included a mock maternity room, operating room, and other hospital areas that made me feel like I was in a real hospital. I was amazed. My sister did the nursing program at SFC back in the day, and she had none of these teaching tools at her disposal. The place was filled with test dummies, wired with all sorts of sensors to simulate different types of medical emergencies. Stunning.
We traveled through the other floors and visited the state-of-the-art auditorium, broadcasting facility, cafeteria, meeting rooms, and open areas that were boxed by ceiling to floor windows overlooking Borough Hall, Brooklyn Heights, and those magnificent condos. I was impressed. Then I remembered that the facility had no athletics. No pool, no basketball courts, no weight rooms, none of the things that the old building had to support the D-1 teams that made SFC special. I found that disheartening.
Our last stop was a fly-by to say hello to the new president. Unlike some previous presidents, Tim Cerere is not a graduate of SFC, but his son is, and is an alumnus of the tennis team. What was supposed to be a two-minute hello, turned into an hour and a half discussion of how Tim got to be president and his vision for moving forward. He spent his career in advertising, helping WPP become a powerhouse in that world. His path from Board member to COO to president was fast. It surprised even him. He is used to being in the business world and making businesses work financially. He told me what he inherited in terms of finances and where they are today. Athletics was a big financial drain on the College, and operating at a significant deficit, they just couldn’t afford it anymore.
The move brought them to a state-of-the-art facility, but the sale of the old building had fallen through which left them even more financially exposed. Tim was able to find a new buyer, in a rising interest rate environment, and get the sale done for a surprisingly good price. He also had to play the bad guy and do a deep cuts into the SFC finances, laying off longstanding employees. These were things I was used to in the corporate world I lived in. If expenses exceeded revenues, you had to do two things – increase revenues and decrease expenses, or simply put, you were out of business. He is attacking the problem in the same way. Enrollment at both the undergraduate and graduate level is strong. But tuition hasn’t been raised in a decade. And that comes on the heels of the highest inflationary period this country has experienced in almost 40 years.
While the mission is the same, to educate first generation young adults, there needs to be a recognition that times have changed. I think Tim will get there. We talked a lot about Franciscan values, and what a Franciscan education means. I was an accounting major, but I learned the most in my philosophy, history, English, art, and political sciences classes. I have always valued a Liberal Arts education, learning to think was always more important than memorizing a formula to me.
By the end of our discussion, I thought, this might work, this new notion of SFC. Re-imagined here on Livingston Street. Although the street level is a hard sell, SFC has a lot going for it: a new facility, money in the bank (finally), a president with the same values that I align with, a small, dedicated team of educational professionals who sincerely want to see SFC survive and indeed thrive. It has lost a lot along the way, but we ended with the prayer of St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
I thought to myself as I headed back home, let’s give hope a chance.