After 12 years of serving as Fairfield’s president, Father Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. prepares to say goodbye as his departure draws closer.
By the end of December, von Arx will leave for Cambridge, Mass. to head up to the House of Studies in Cambridge, where Jesuits doing graduate work at Harvard and MIT will be able to live and engage with an intellectual and spiritual community, according to Fr. von Arx.
Fr. von Arx looked back upon his career at Fairfield with fondness.
He commented that for anyone who works at an institution like Fairfield, “the biggest achievement is to see kids who come in here as adolescents, people who are dependent on their parents and have a certain lack of maturity, and to see them come out of Fairfield as mature, self-aware, self-realized adults who know who they are, who know what their values are and who know what they want to do with their lives.”
Fr. von Arx also discussed the reputation of Fairfield throughout his tenure as president and how it improved during his tenure.
“That’s something that everybody’s contributed to, but I think the perception is that Fairfield is in a much stronger position and in a much more prominent position as the kind of institution we are now than when I started,” he commented.
However, Fr. von Arx had to face some difficulties while president at Fairfield. He recalled the most difficult of these challenges, which, according to him, were the financial hardships of 2008.
“We had to look for ways to make sure that we were more efficient,” said Fr. von Arx. “It meant that we had to make difficult decisions about what we would or wouldn’t do at the institution.”
Fr. von Arx spoke on the difficulties of having to prioritize the most important aspects of the institution and launching initiatives to get through the financial crisis.
He also touched upon the difficulties of the school’s association with alumnus Douglas Perlitz ‘92.
Perlitz was convicted of sexually abusing children for more than a decade at a school that he founded in Haiti for the Project Pierre Toussaint, which resulted was in a sentence of almost 20 years in prison in 2010.
The school provided the children with money, food, clothing and electronics. Perlitz threatened to take these away and remove the children from the program if they told anyone about the abuse.
“The Doug Perlitz case was a tragedy in a certain sense,” Fr. von Arx commented. “It wasn’t really a scandal for the University in the sense that we did not actually have any control over Project Pierre Toussaint and certainly Doug was not somebody who worked for the University in any way.”
“But he was a Fairfield alum who we thought was a wonderful person who was doing wonderful things, but as it turned out he was using his position to take advantage of and abuse minors, which is both a tragedy and a crime,” Fr. von Arx continued. “We’ve had to try to come to terms with it and have made significant efforts at different times to try to help the situation down there. Not always successful, but we’ve certainly tried.”
In spite of the difficulties that Fairfield has encountered, the institution is flourishing economically and academically.
In comparison to their net assets of approximately $279.1 million by the end of 2008, Fairfield accrued approximately $468.8 million in net assets by the end of 2014, according to the University’s 990 form.
Additionally, Fairfield is on its second strategic plan.
“The second strategic plan, Fairfield 2020 has to do with building a more sustainable future, which has obviously to do with issues like restraining tuition increases, increasing the efficiency of our operations and looking for new revenue streams for the University,” commented Fr. von Arx.
Fairfield 2020 has resulted in the Master Plan, which is the facilities aspect of the outcome of the strategic plan.
Another massive success for the school is the Fairfield Rising campaign to raise $160 million for the school, $134 million of which was already raised.
“We have every confidence that we will meet the goals of the Fairfield Rising campaign,” said Fr. von Arx. He believes that Fairfield will be able to exceed the goal.
When Fr. von Arx first arrived at Fairfield, he vowed that he would focus on academics more than building new facilities, as his predecessor President Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J. did a lot of building such as expanding the library and the student center. However, Fr. von Arx ended up accomplishing both.
During Fr. von Arx’s tenure, renovations and building projects such as the new Leslie C. Quick, Jr. Recreation Complex, Rafferty Stadium, Dolan Hall, 42 Bellarmine Road, Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies, the Aloysius P. Kelley Center and 70 McCormick and 51 McInnes Road have transformed the physical appearance of the campus.
However, in addition to these changes, there were also vast improvements in academics.
“The quality of the classes has improved year after year,” said Fr. von Arx. “We’ve brought down the acceptance rate over the last couple of years, so clearly we are looking for and getting better qualified students and it’s getting more difficult to get into Fairfield as a result.”
According to Fr. von Arx, if you look at SAT scores and how the students were ranked in their high school class, each recent class is better than the previous one.
Another success for the institution is an increase in diversity.
“One of the things I’m happy and proud about is that I think we’ve become a more diverse institution,” said Fr. von Arx. “When I arrived here, our diversity figures were quite low, the lowest in the [Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities], I’d say at around 7 percent. Before 2008, we got them up to 19-20 percent.”
“They took a little bit of a hit after 2008 [due to the financial crisis], but we are building them back up,” Fr. von Arx continued. “I think it’s around 14-15 percent right now. My goal would be to try to get it back to 20. Not just racial and ethnic diversity, which those figures reflect, but also I think a more diverse campus from a socio-economic point of view.”
However, Fr. von Arx believed that the University needs to improve in more than just the numeric aspect.
“I want to see us become a more open and welcoming community. A community that values the diversity of students and their backgrounds and their experience and what they bring to the institution,” said Fr. von Arx. “I think that’s an area where we all have a long way to go still — students, faculty, administrators and staff — in creating a truly welcoming, diverse community.”
Fr. von Arx also discussed the success of campus sports.
“I think people have a lot of admiration for our teams,” said Fr. von Arx. “I think men’s and women’s basketball are significant recognition factors for the institution. Lacrosse has been an important sport for us as well.”
“Then you look at something like women’s volleyball, which is probably the last couple of years our most successful and winningest team, and I think people really appreciate how those teams and their success and the wonderful people we have of the team have contributed to people’s improved perception of Fairfield and its position,” Fr. von Arx continued.
However, an important aspect of the school that Fr. von Arx discussed is the sense of community.
“That’s almost famous about Fairfield,” Fr. von Arx said of the community. “Our alumni and students while they are here talk about the friends they have formed at Fairfield and the fact that these friends are lifelong friends. There is a very close sense of community.”