When times are tough, the first thing a college president might do is start passing out pink slips.
But not Thomas Scanlan, who led Manhattan College as its 18th president through both tumultuous and jubilant times over a 22-year period.
“Things were bad in the college, and very often what you hear is the first thing that presidents do is lay off employees,” said Barbara Fabe, the school’s vice president of human resources, who worked closely with Scanlan. “In fact, Brother Thomas’ philosophy — and it was mine also — was that is not the first thing you do. That is absolutely the last resort.”
Scanlan, who continued on as president emeritus of the university since his retirement in 2009, died Sunday. He was 72.
“Nobody got hurt in that respect,” Fabe said. “And I think that’s a very unusual thing in this day and age. He believed that he had to save employees’ jobs, and that’s what he did. I think that tells you a lot about his leadership style and about what he was as a human being.”
But it wasn’t just employees Scanlan looked out for.
“Students always came first to Brother Thomas — as I think they always have at Manhattan College,” Fabe said. “There were difficult choices that went on. And in the midst of all of this, was changing the college dramatically from a commuter school to a residential school.”
That required expansive thinking, said Brother Robert Berger, who, like Fabe, worked with Scanlan for nearly his entire tenure.
“When he took over in ’87, he had the vision of extending admissions to basically the eastern seaboard from Washington to Boston,” said Berger, who is an associate professor in Manhattan’s religious studies department. It was “more of an outreach for getting students who were qualified to do our program.”
That vision had results. Enrollment increased by 120 percent during Scanlan’s two-decade tenure, and the college received accreditations by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.
Scanlan’s profound commitment to improving Manhattan College couldn’t be overstated.
“First and foremost he was just an exemplary Christian brother, and he devoted most of his adult life to higher education, whether it was Bethlehem University in Palestine or Manhattan College here in the Bronx,” Berger said. “All his energy was just providing a top-notch education for people who may not have higher ed as part of their experience.”
Even amidst the financial duress of the 1980s, Scanlan was undeterred — and tenacious.
“He had to work hard in terms of securing loans and getting the confidence of some financial institutions to back us,” Berger said.
His perseverance paid off. Manhattan College raised more than $225 million in two capital campaigns, and the endowment increased tenfold. Under Scanlan’s leadership, the college saw some very real enhancements — new residence halls, as well as the Thomas O’Malley Library, and a multi-level parking garage.
“All these things show you that he was a great planner,” Fabe said. “He couldn’t just do one thing — he had to do several at the same time to put Manhattan College in a very good place. And eventually, we started doing very well.”
And to top it all off, he had a great sense of humor.
“And that helps,” Fabe said. “Believe me, that helps.”
Throughout, Scanlan never shied away from being involved on a fundamental level. He led an effort that impressed upon people the dignity of the individual, encouraging them to struggle with issues of social justice and service, recognizing teaching as a community experience as opposed to a solo project.
“He led by example,” Berger said. “He lived in the residence hall. He was just present at so many things.”
In addition to the increase in enrollment under Scanlan’s tenure, Manhattan College also saw a 100-point jump in incoming freshmen’s SAT scores, and added five-year education and engineering programs, as well as a new, computer engineering major to the curriculum.
“When I walk around this campus and I see all the additions that he did, and I see the new programs that we have as a result of his time as president, I’m kind of in awe that he was just able to step away from it when it was all over,” Berger said.
For all he accomplished, Scanlan will be deeply missed. Nevertheless, the impact of his work will not be forgotten — of that, Berger is certain.
“He really gave us a gift in terms of the strength we have now,” Berger said.
And in no way does that work end with Scanlan’s death.
“I think he brought forth to everyone involved here that it wasn’t just the responsibility of the Christian brothers community,” Berger said. “It was the responsibility of everybody to make this college what it was — what it is — and that we all participate in that mission.”