Quinnipiac is a university in transition, consumed with expansion and plagued by the requisite growing pains.

Down the street from the original Mount Carmel campus, in an area referred to as York Hill, construction is underway on almost 2,000 new dormitory beds, parking and student space. Those beds are intended for undergraduates who have moved into Hamden to live, forced off campus, at least in part, by the largest incoming class in the school’s history.

The university’s $52 million TD Banknorth Sports Center — with 3,300 seats for hockey and nearly 3,600 more for basketball — opened on York Hill last year, a testament to the ambitions of an athletic department itching to move up in the rankings.

Meanwhile in North Haven, preparations have begun for a third campus to house the university’s growing graduate programs.

But rather than receive publicity for its increasing prominence, its surge up the ubiquitous US News rankings or its newfound athletic prowess, Quinnipiac has made headlines over the past few months for a handful of scandals. What has emerged from the media fracas is the story of a university coming to grips with its own ambition; changes at Quinnipiac have necessitated the fastidious management of its image.

A surge in applications to the university created the need to accommodate larger classes and more students. Its new athletic facilities — and its desire to compete at a higher level — required sacrifice.

Quinnipiac’s troubled dealings with reality have created conflict on campus. While administrators think they are bringing the university’s reputation up to speed, other signs point to overreaching — a case of too much, too soon under an antsy leadership.

From the top down

As I pulled into the visitor parking lot at Quinnipiac Monday afternoon, a balding man at the gatehouse gave me a sideways look.

“You aren’t taking any pictures, are you?”

When asked why that would be a problem, he replied, “I don’t know the reasons behind the rules, I just enforce ’em.”

Just minutes earlier I had been turned away by a security guard at the TD Banknorth Sports Center, who said, with a suspicious glare, that I could not get out of my car or take any pictures because of ongoing construction.

The university manages it “much like a corporation does,” said John Morgan, the associate vice president for public relations.

Caution, in other words, comes from the top down.

Requests to interview students or take photographs must go through the public relations department. A call to the vice president for athletic marketing was sent to the director of athletic communications and then directed to Lynn Bushnell, the vice president for public affairs. A request to interview the president of the university, John Lahey, was referred to Public Affairs too (as were requests for comment from the dean of students and Morgan in public relations).

The large-scale expansion and the public-relations attention that comes with it do not mark a complete change in mission but rather a gradual evolution, said Bushnell, the administrator to whom nearly all media requests are referred.

“My first reaction is to say that we have always been driven by our vision, which is academic excellence and a sense of community for our students. Has that changed? No,” she said.

Even if the university’s mission has remained fairly constant, today’s growth is part of Quinnipiac’s modern era, which began two decades ago and has dramatically altered the school’s campus. The appointment of Lahey, then the chief operating officer at Marist College, as president in 1987 kick-started an era of change that hasn’t slowed. Since 1987 the endowment has boomed (now sitting at $223 million); enrollment has swelled (the university’s class of 2012 is its largest ever, and enrollment is twice what it was when Lahey took the helm); the University of Bridgeport’s law school merged with and moved to Quinnipiac in 1995; and Lahey transformed the school from a college to a university in 2001.

Bushnell said the mission of the university is no different now from what it has always been: to educate its students in a way that prepares them for the real world. This mission has led the university to focus on its handful of particularly strong programs in communications, physical therapy and education. As the national demand for graduate degrees grew, administrators had to adapt, expanding graduate programs and offering several five-year joint programs that allow freshmen to earn a master’s in just one extra year. The strain on resources as a result of the graduate-level emphasis forced expansion beyond Mount Carmel, a process which is only now underway.

“Unlike you folks, we put all our resources into the undergraduate and masters-level programs,” Bushnell said. “We would like to think that people recognize us for our academic excellence and strong sense of community and a very student-oriented focus in all we do.”

But the turmoil on campus — both physical and ideological — is there, in the voices of students and the constant clang of hammers and machinery erecting new buildings.

Troubled speech

Quinnipiac’s top-down control of its reputation has invited national attention.

Several years of controversy regarding the university-funded student newspaper, the Chronicle, came to a head last spring. Reporters around the country have jumped on the story.

After concerns among the editors of the Chronicle that the university was exercising too much control over content — including attempts to stop the posting of stories online before they appeared in the print edition — a group of editors left the paper and founded an online-only publication, the Quad News. In response, university officials placed a gag order on administrators and athletes, preventing them from talking to the new publication. And after they learned that the Society of Professional Journalists was promoting both the Chronicle and the Quad News, Quinnipiac sent a letter to the student leading the local chapter, telling her the group could be kicked off campus unless it stopped interacting with the Quad News.

“Such intimidation does not speak well of Quinnipiac’s commitment to freedom of speech, open-mindedness or academic inquiry,” the New York Times editorial board wrote Oct. 29 in response to reports emerging from Quinnipiac. “Instead of encouraging the students for their remarkable initiative, the school tried to retaliate against them for resisting its control and not toeing the line.”

The press generated by the controversy — which included coverage by the News, followed by the New Haven Register, the Hartford Courant and the Associated Press — has encouraged moderation by the administration, and relations between the Quad News and the university have improved in the past few weeks. The university has lifted its ban on Quad News reporters speaking to certain university officials and athletes.

“Obviously I am excited about it,” Quad News Editor-in-Chief Jason Braff said of the removal of the ban. “I’m happy they’re working with us again. I wish that what happened before didn’t happen, but the administration came around, or the PR office came around, and we spoke about our differences and things are better now. There’s not too much to complain about on our end so we’re happy.”

Several students identified with the uneasiness journalists felt speaking out on campus. Students cannot even post fliers on bulletin boards, for example, without a stamp of approval from the administration. (A flier in the library advertising the Quad News had a stamp that read, “Quinnipiac University is not sponsoring, does not endor
se, and takes no responsibility for this activity.”) Editors, meanwhile, said they are cautiously optimistic.

But the Quad News conflict was not the only speech-related controversy on campus.

Just last week, three students were arrested and expelled for two different claims of hate speech. One male student, freshman Charles Merritt, allegedly made harassing phone calls to three black men’s basketball players, and police discovered slurs and a swastika written on the cork boards outside those players’ rooms. Two girls, Emily Loschiavo and Courtney Stellwag, were arrested the same day for making a threatening phone call to a black resident assistant.

The university responded aggressively, with Lahey issuing an e-mail soon after the arrests, explaining that the students had been expelled. A few students expressed reservations about the response — especially given that the expulsions came before any court dates — and suggested that the suspects may have been unfairly punished as the university tries to control the negative press that has amassed in recent weeks. But there was consensus that the move sent a strong message that the administration would not tolerate hate speech.

“I think they were a little hasty,” Victoria Reitano, a Quinnipiac junior, said. “It’s happened before, and in previous instances they said they’d look into it. But this time it seemed like it happened in an hour. I think it was a good thing they expelled the students, but the way they reacted so fast made it seem like an image thing.”

Junior Keith Bevacqua said students perceived the speedy expulsions as a reaction to dissatisfaction with how the administration handled a hate speech incident in the fall of 2007. The community complained at the time that Lahey had acted too slowly, and Bevacqua says he thinks the reaction was an attempt to “give the students what they wanted.”

“If the school made any mistake last year, it was that John Lahey was too honest, and his honesty was that he didn’t know what to do,” he explained. “People didn’t like that. People want answers.”

Athletic ambitions

Despite the ideological hiccups, the physical manifestations of Lahey’s vision are steadily taking shape. And athletics are leading the way.

Quinnipiac’s York Hill campus looks like a lunar landscape, with stories-high dunes of gravel snaking around the perimeter of a hilltop lot that looks out onto the Long Island Sound.

All that stands now is a low-slung gray parking garage and the mammoth TD Banknorth Center, the centerpiece of the university’s athletic ambitions.

Sports have always been an avenue to national recognition. Applications spike when previously unknown universities sneak into March Madness, and alumni giving surges when a football team makes a championship run or beats a major rival. With athletic success, Quinnipiac hopes for more alumni giving and a more competitive applicant pool, which in turn can promote academic progress.

The physical growth is tangible evidence of an increased emphasis on sports. In 2005, just two years before the new arena opened, the men’s and women’s hockey teams joined the ECACHL, a league that includes Ivy League universities and several other prominent programs in the Northeast.

With the new facility, the university has made clear its high aspirations for the basketball teams, which now play in the relatively small Northeast Conference. Last year, Tom Moore, a long-time assistant for Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun at national powerhouse University of Connecticut, took the reins of the men’s team for a reported salary of $300,000 a year, far more than anyone else in the Northeast Conference. This just 10 years after the Bobcats jumped into Division I from Division II.

The TD Banknorth Center has caught the attention of the Bobcats’ competitors, who have raised suspicions that Quinnipiac has its heart set on a new league.

Dave Bike, the men’s basketball coach at conference rival Sacred Heart, said that for now, though, the construction of new facilities simply encourages players across the league to perform better.

“There’s always been rumors about where they wanted to go, but I’ll let them speak to that,” Bike said, adding, “Everybody always is trying to do something to keep up with the Joneses, so you don’t want somebody to get so far ahead in everything they do that you think you have no chance of catching them.”

The new arena has helped build rapport with the Hamden community, which benefits economically from the fans that stream in for hockey and basketball games, but it has been met with some degree of skepticism from students. Sophomore Alex Chase said the emphasis on sports could be an example of mismatched priorities.

“Athletics are important, but education’s obviously more important,” he said. “They could make our library bigger.”

“What I find even more interesting about that situation is that Quinnipiac definitely promotes education, but the emphasis and money goes to the athletes, who only need, like, a C average to stay on the team,” added Kristina Melvin, a junior. “The library definitely needs to be expanded and we could use more professors.”

Local friction

Hamden, too, hopes to benefit from the expansion of the university after years of friction due to students crowding out local residents. But while the town has benefited economically from the university’s presence and growth — Quinnipiac is the largest private employer in Hamden — it has also lashed back at the encroachment of students into residential areas.

After all, students with beer bongs and parents with baby bottles just don’t go along.

“The outer houses want peace and quiet at night, and students, being students, stay up late, have parties, sometimes get drunk, urinate on other people’s lawns,” explained Assistant Town Planner Dan Kops.

Friction grew to a head in 2001, when the Hamden Planning and Zoning Department finally amended its zoning laws requiring students to acquire special permits to live off-campus, Kops said.

With seven or eight students living in single-family houses, housing costs rose and parking became a nightmare. Kops said many front lawns are covered in tire tracks because residents have nowhere else to park.

In 2005, Hamden elected Mayor Craig Henrici, based largely on his promise to enforce a rule limiting the number of students that could live in any single-family house.

“It was a huge issue in 2005,” Henrici said in his office this week. “I think we got Quinnipiac’s attention.”

The result of that attention was a series of meetings with the university’s administration and, eventually, conditional approval by the town of the York Hill construction. Now, for every additional student admitted to Quinnipiac, the university must provide another bed, lest they lose the town’s support.

By 2011, almost 2,000 students will be moved out of Hamden and onto York Hill, eliminating the need for housing lotteries for a spot on campus.

Students said they appreciated the chance to move back on campus, and administrators expect almost every bed to be filled, but the change could also have unintended consequences for developers and residents in Hamden. With the housing bubble burst and generous mortgages scarce, property values could drop sharply. Henrici, who staked his political career on the issue, said he didn’t mind if a few developers suffer the consequences.

“If an owner of a house doesn’t make as much money selling to a family as he did renting it to students,” he said, “that’s not my main concern, because certainly we’ve had many, many landlords make a lot of money off the students.&#

The move back to York Hill comes after years of wrangling between the university and local citizens groups. Lester Faiman, the co-president of Concerned Citizens for Hamden Neighborhoods, said the presence of the students in residential neighborhoods was the main concern facing the group, and that Quinnipiac had changed its approach significantly thanks to local pressure. In Hamden, at least, the university seems to have emerged from a period of consternation with both sides better off.

“I think in general, the relationship is good now,” he said. “It’s cooperative, attentive and they seem to be working with Hamden now, due to the fact that we sort of pushed an issue here.”

The real test

As administrators press forward, pushing an optimistic public message, they hope to erase the outdated misconceptions of local residents and potential applicants. The university’s administrators think the school’s image is decades behind, and administrators are doing all they can to promote Quinnipiac’s recent changes.

“As for the relationship between perception and reality, I think image tends to lag behind reality,” Bushnell wrote in an e-mail. “The quality of our academic programs, facilities, and students, has increased remarkably in the past 20 years, but our image, particularly by those who have known us the longest, is of the university they once knew. I think image is always playing catch-up.”

Bushnell has a point. Yale’s opinions of Quinnipiac may forever be linked with the shuttle bus that drops partiers off near Toad’s. Political junkies will have a hard time adding any depth to their imagination of an isolated polling institute.

But there’s also the sense that the university is moving too fast and that the reality is being outpaced by the vision. Rather than a gleaming bastion of intellectual fervor and limitless possibilities, the campus is still struggling to adapt to some of the most basic tenets of a liberal education, including an emphasis on the free exchange of ideas.

A world-class arena is a monumental step forward from two years ago, when hockey players had to take a bus to midnight practices at a neighborhood rink. A new cafeteria will make room for the school’s bulging enrollment, a welcome relief.

Still, caught in the middle are the students, who have experienced first-hand the disparities between the university’s ambitious claims and the struggles that accompany them.

“This is the growing pains period,” Nick Fazio, a Quinnipiac junior, said. “I think this is what we have to go through in order to be at that stage. We as students have to put up with it, I guess.”