Irish American of the Year: Dr. John L. Lahey


Considering the carefully calculated percentages of students who meet with professors outside of class and student-to-faculty ratios in today’s college guides, this may not seem all that significant. But to Lahey, it was huge. “It’s harder to appreciate today, but back then, because of the time [the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement], the philosophy professors were among the most sought after teachers on any campus. They were dealing with war and peace; human rights and civil rights. For me it was a transformative experience and it was what led me to major in philosophy.” It also led him to stay on at Dayton for a master’s degree in the field, and then to the University of Miami, where he earned his PhD. 

Lahey’s first teaching post was at a small college in Alabama. At this point, he had been away from New York for 13 years. In addition to all the philosophy he had studied during that time, he had also learned that he missed the Northeast and wanted to go back. A tough decision was in store as the professor of philosophy began to realize that it was  unlikely he would return if he remained at the mercy of the tough academic job market. Determined to stay involved in the academy in some way, he returned to New York in 1977 and enrolled in a master’s course in academic administration at Columbia University. Upon graduating, he was quickly hired by Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he steadily climbed the ladder until he was named executive vice president.

After ten years with Marist, at the age of forty, Dr. Lahey was hired as President of Quinnipiac. It’s telling that, when asked what he is most proud of from his 24 years with the university, Lahey cannot name just one thing. “We’ve come so far,” he said with pride. When he started at Quinnipiac, it was still Quinnipiac College – a small, quiet commuter school. Today, it has a student population of about 8,000, with close to 6,000 undergraduate students, 2,000 graduate students, and 500 enrolled in the law school.

The law school is another of Quinnipiac’s great achievements. It was established under Lahey’s lead, when the law school at the University of Bridgeport closed and was restored by Quinnipiac. Lahey has also had a hand in the athletic teams’ entrance into the NCAA Division I Northeast Conference; the establishment of the highly regarded Quinnipiac Polling Institute; the wide expansion of the campus; and the school’s overall transition from a small college to a competitively ranked, nationally recognized university.

The next project is a medical school, which will employ the same philosophy the president has seen implemented in the school’s other programs: an emphasis on the actual practice of the subject being taught. “Take the law school, for instance,” Dr. Lahey explains. “Many of the top-ranked law schools in the country teach their students all there is to know about the law, but not as much about how to actually practice it. In a lot of cases that’s fine, since a significant number of their graduates go on to teach rather than practice. But I think it’s important that students know how to apply what they have learned to practical situations. That’s why the medical school will put an emphasis on primary care.” 
There’s another thing that makes Quinnipiac stand out from the crowd. In the campus’s Arnold Bernhard Library, a special room designed to mimic the inside of a ship, houses the Lender Family Special Collection, one of the country’s largest collections of art and literature pertaining to An Gorta Mór – Ireland’s Great Hunger. It contains 700 volumes, historic and contemporary texts, and a growing number of works of art that portray or respond to the loss of more than 1.5 million Irish lives between the years of 1845 and 1852.

This is the common ground on which Lahey’s work as an educator and his commitment to his Irish roots come together. Growing up, he had always been aware of The Great Hunger and the shadow it cast over Irish history, but this was more of a peripheral awareness. “I knew about it, I had heard it talked about, but it was always called ‘The Famine,’ which doesn’t point to the truth of what happened.

True, there was a famine, the potato crops did fail for a few years, but that [alone] could not have caused the widespread death from starvation and related diseases. The untold story is that there was more than adequate food produced in Ireland during the years of the famine that could have been used to feed the Irish. But since Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom, the ports remained open for export.”

Lahey became fully aware of these facts in 1997, when he was honored as Grand Marshal of the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It was also the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the deadliest year of the Great Hunger. Wanting to learn more, he read historian Christine Kinealy’s The Great Calamity, which revealed many facts about the Famine Lahey hadn’t known before.