By Lee Manchester
In January, President Richard Guarasci announced that he would retire next June, after 22 years at Wagner College.
While the search for our next president has already begun, it’s the perfect time to pause and reflect. Let’s look at five moments that have typified President Guarasci’s leadership on Grymes Hill.
Begin with Innovation: The Wagner Plan
Biology professor Donald Stearns remembers Wagner’s situation back in 1997, when Richard Guarasci was named provost.
“The College was in debt, had little in endowment funds, and had a standard curriculum model,” he says. “The institution did not look special or particularly attractive to prospective students, except for our proximity to New York City. The faculty recognized that we were in a difficult situation.
“Richard proposed what became known as the Wagner Plan,” Stearns remembers, characterizing it as “an affordable way for Wagner College to more effectively compete for prospective students. While the College could not outspend other institutions for physical facilities, we could brand the institution with an innovative curricular model that could be marketed as ‘the practical liberal arts.’ It would highlight the way experiential learning prepares students for real-world situations — engaging real issues in the community as well as course subjects in the classroom. New York City would be a major resource for many of those experiences.”
Art history professor Laura Morowitz joined the Wagner faculty just a few months before Guarasci was hired.
“I really had no idea how things worked, so I don’t think I fully realized how innovative and daring it was to completely restructure the curriculum,” she says. “This was especially so since it seemed that the entire faculty — or at least the people I associated with — were really revved up by the Wagner Plan.
“One of the best parts was the spirit of shared endeavor. Richard gave the faculty a tremendous amount of freedom and leeway. It was our program, and we were free to shape it as we saw fit. It was something that made Wagner unique.”
Sociology professor John Esser, a member of the curriculum committee that worked with Guarasci to develop the Wagner Plan, remembers how the faculty took ownership of the basic idea presented by the new provost.
“Richard had a bare-bones notion,” Esser says. “He’s very good at coming in with an idea and making you feel like it’s your own — but that’s OK, because they’re good ideas! And together we developed those bare bones into the Wagner Plan.”
One moment in the Wagner Plan’s creation is still burned into Esser’s memory, 21 years later. It happened at the end of the faculty meeting where the plan was finally approved.
“The meeting runs long, of course,” he recalls. “We have a vote — no clapping, no congratulating, no nothing. Everybody’s just exhausted … and there’s Richard, standing at the bottom of Spiro 2, which is sort of like a fishbowl. He’s at one of the pinnacle points in his life, but there’s no hoopla, and everyone just leaves — and there he was, standing there. I’ll always remember that.”
Connect with People: 9/11
By the fall 2001 semester, the Wagner Plan was an accomplished fact and Richard Guarasci was a well-established leader in the Grymes Hill community.
The morning of September 11, 2001, dawned exceptionally clear and bright for the freshman residents of Harborview Hall, barely two weeks into their new lives as college students.
Then, at 8:46 a.m., smoke began to rise from the World Trade Center, across New York Harbor, where a plane had crashed into the North Tower. Word spread quickly through Harborview, and students began looking out their windows toward the city. They watched in shock as a second jetliner hit the South Tower, at 9:03; as that tower collapsed, at 9:59; and as the North Tower disintegrated, at 10:28.
“Staten Island was locked down. New York City was locked down,” recalls Frank Young, the College’s fundraising chief at the time. “Of course, that meant Wagner was locked down. People couldn’t go home, and we weren’t sure how we were going to get supplies in to campus.”
As that day passed into night, the world began learning details of what had happened: New York, the nation’s economic capital, and Washington, our seat of government, had been attacked by terrorists. Thousands had been killed. We were at war.
The following day, President Norman Smith gathered the campus community onto the patio outside the dining hall to inform them about what was happening, “but he didn’t actually have much that he could tell, and it didn’t ease peoples’ minds,” Young says.
“That’s when we went over to Harborview — me, assistant provost Hal McCullough, and Richard. … Richard knew everybody, so he was just fabulous.
“We went to every room,” says Young. “I remember how calm those students were, and how they all wanted to do something to help.”
“This was a recurrent pattern,” Guarasci says. “Students wanted to know how to get to Ground Zero, how to give blood. I was so pleasantly stunned by the remarkable big hearts and civic commitment of our students.”
In the midst of that crisis, Richard Guarasci’s instinct was to make sure that the students were all right — every one of them. What he learned from knocking on all those doors and talking to all those students inspired him.
“It got me to rethink the idea of patriotism,” he says. “How we all came together, that tragedy was so profound and we came together as New Yorkers, it gave me a sense of what it was to be a citizen. No matter our differences, we have much more that connects us.”
Keep Teaching: President and Professor
The year after 9/11, Richard Guarasci was unanimously elected by the Wagner Board of Trustees to succeed President Smith, who’d been recruited to lead England’s Richmond University.
President Guarasci took office on June 1, 2002. But even as president he was still, in his heart, a teacher — and so, he taught.
Each fall, he joined history professor emeritus George Rappaport for a (mostly) freshman honors seminar on “Darwin, Marx, Freud and Picasso.”
And each spring, he and government professor Abraham Unger taught another honors seminar, “The City and Citizenship: To Be a New Yorker.”
Jamie Lynn Macchia ’13 was placed in the “Darwin” seminar during her first semester at Wagner.
“My class with Dr. Guarasci was my first ‘real’ college class,” she says. “You can imagine how intimidating this was when I first saw who would be teaching the course. But once I attended my first class, everything I had anticipated was proven wrong. Dr. Guarasci was welcoming, open-minded and always welcomed discussion. He made us feel like equals rather than students.”
“If you want to know what kind of teacher he is,” Rappaport says, “the word I would use is ‘democratic.’ I just remember being impressed with his ability to get students to participate, not intimidating them and encouraging them to talk through any disagreements they have. It’s kind of peculiar, because he’s the president of the College, but the kids get pretty comfortable in the class.”
“Richard’s a very rigorous teacher,” Unger says, describing a teaching method used by Guarasci. “‘Close reading of the text,’ it’s called. You go through a text, paragraph by paragraph, and you just parse it out very scholastically. I watched him do this, which I had only really seen actually in the yeshiva.
“He would demand, in a very charming manner, that the students come in having highlighted sections of the work that they found interesting and be ready to ask a question or explain it to us.
“Whenever a student would say this is getting too tough, Richard would say, ‘I’m here to give you the Mercedes-Benz of education.’”
Take Risks: Foundation Hall
It was May 1, 2008. The housing and credit markets were rapidly wobbling toward disaster, but had not yet tipped over the brink.
In that moment, Wagner College was poised to break ground on its first new residence hall in four decades, providing desperately needed on-campus student housing.
“We had oversubscribed students — we were tripling the doubles in Harborview, and we had 100 students living across the street in the Grymes Hill Apartments,” Guarasci recalls. “Attrition was going up because first-year students weren’t very happy, tripled in doubles.”
Fortunately, Wagner was on good terms with the financial world.
“We had developed a relationship with J.P. Morgan’s investment-bank side of the house,” Guarasci says. “We had three or four young investment bankers who knew us well, and they believed in us.
“I got money from my dear friend Mike Manzulli through the Richmond County Savings Foundation, $5 million toward the $30 million I needed, so then we could approach borrowing — going to Morgan, naturally. And we had been planning this for four or five years of endless meetings.”
The groundbreaking was scheduled for 10 a.m. At 9 a.m., Guarasci received a phone call from J.P. Morgan.
Because of the financial crisis, the caller said, J.P. Morgan was moving all its money. The Wagner residence hall project would be sent to the company’s private bank instead. The whole deal was in limbo. “The private bank is a whole different part of Morgan Chase, a whole new group of people who had never heard of us, never been to campus, probably never been to Staten Island,” Guarasci explains.
His wife, Carin, met him in his office to walk to the groundbreaking.
“She said to me, ‘Sweetheart, it looks like you’re bothered by something,’” he recalls. “‘What is it?’
“I said, ‘There’s no longer any financing for this building.’
“She said, ‘Oh, what are you going to do?’
“I said, ‘Well, we’re going to go turn over some earth, and either they’re going to bury me in that hole or there will be a building there.’
“I didn’t tell anybody anything. We walked back, and I was confident that we’d figure this out.”
Guarasci started the whole process over with the new team from Morgan Chase.
“The Morgan people came out, and they were extremely aggressive about interrogating us and our numbers and everything else,” he says. “They were somewhat impressed by the campus — but, you know, they didn’t know anything about us.”
Guarasci decided that the College needed to look for alternate financing, just in case.
“We called in our financial team and said, OK, let’s shop around for other banks — the Bank of Ireland, I think, Royal Bank of Scotland, an investment bank from Scandinavia, a Japanese bank, and so on and so forth,” he says. “TD Bank had just come to [Staten] Island, and they kind of took a liking to us.”
The switch was made to TD, and construction proceeded.
“The Morgan people took me out to a steak dinner with Carin and some other clients they had, and I had to break the news to them that we were going to go with TD Bank,” Guarasci says. “They were furious — they thought they were doing us a favor!”
On January 18, 2010, the first students moved into the College’s new residence facility, Foundation Hall.
Guarasci remembers a quip shared with him that day by Student Government Association President Mike Pinto ’10: “Al Smith built the Empire State Building in 18 months, and it took Wagner four years to build my dorm.”
“What college presidents do is manage risk,” Guarasci says. “If you’re heading up a residential college, we have risk every moment here.
“You don’t take wild risks; you take prudent risks, and try to assess the risk — but this is the job.”
Discover a New Role: Grandfather
Last December, President Guarasci and his staff began working on a big announcement: his plan to retire next June.
And while his retirement announcement was in the works, another major shift in his life was underway: the pending birth of his first grandchild.
Guarasci swears that the one is not related to the other.
Those who work with Richard Guarasci know that he is an utterly relentless leader with an eternally restless mind.
But if you want to see his heart melt, just ask him to show you a picture of his granddaughter, Zoe Amala Guarasci Potnuru, born on January 18 to daughter Bridget and her husband, Mani.
“When I found out I was pregnant with Zoe,” Bridget remembers, “we gave my parents a children’s book called What Do You Do With an Idea? They were like, ‘Why are you giving us this book?’ And I said, ‘Well, I thought you’d like to read it to your grandchild.’ My dad nearly passed out on the floor.”
“A college president’s job comes with a lot of stress,” Carin Guarasci says, “but when Richard is with Zoe he forgets all that, he’s just happy and making up rhymes and singing ‘Farmer in the Dell’ and ‘Old MacDonald.’”
Carin and Richard’s son, Patrick, has noticed the change, too.
“I’m hearing fewer stories about the Jets draft,” he says, “and more stories about Zoe.”
“When you’re in her world, you’re in Zoe-land,” Richard says, “and she’s a happy little kid, and she is well-loved — obviously, she knows — so, yeah, it is a different place.
“But I must say that I never see Wagner as a stressor or anything; it’s what we’re compelled to do — it’s a calling, really.”
This May, proud Grandpa Guarasci introduced Zoe to the commencement audience:
“I have a beautiful little four-month-old granddaughter who I think about all the time. Her name is Zoe. She is a multiethnic and multiracial child. Not only is she beautiful, but she appears to be very bright.
“I think about how little Zoe will experience the world,” he continued. “Will she be the object of bigotry and cruelty, or will she be able to grow and flourish and learn, like you, and bring out the best in herself and in others?
“What gives me hope that her life will be one marked by happiness and meaning is that you have learned, here at Wagner, to become the transformational leaders who will honor our national pledge to create a world ‘with liberty and justice for all.’”
Whether he’s a grandfather or a president, caretaker or teacher, innovator or financier, it all flows into the ultimate goal — the Wagner mission — for President Richard Guarasci.