Jonathan Peri, President of Manor College speaks with MONTCO Today about growing up on Long Island, racing go-carts with his father as a teenager, finding his way into Villanova and then Widener Law School before deciding practicing law wasn’t for him, shepherding Neumann College through the university accreditation process and his hopes that Manor College’s rebranding initiative will give the two-year Jenkintown Catholic college a more inclusive and contemporary look and feel.
Where did you grow up Dr. Peri?
I was born in Queens, New York in the early 1970’s and moved to Long Island when I was three or four; grew up and stayed there until college. My father was a real estate lawyer; my mother was a stay at home mom who dabbled in real estate. She went back to college to get her education degree after they divorced and she was a role model because she carried a 4.0 gpa, along with everything else in life. And my step-mother was wonderful, like a second mother.
What do you remember about growing up on Long Island?
Both my parents came from large and close families. My grandmother, who will turn 102 in April, used to bounce me on her knee while singing nursery rhymes. The one I liked the most was when she would wrap my grandfather into the Old Man Who Bumped His Head nursery rhyme. I was little and the imagery of my grandfather bumping his head made me laugh.
I also had an eclectic set of friends growing up.
What made your group of friends so eclectic, Jon?
My three best friends growing up, and who I’m still very close with today, were of all races and creeds. One was an Irish Catholic; another was Russian Jewish; and the third was Chinese Buddhist. I was mixed race and identified as an Italian who wasn’t baptized Catholic until I was four-years-old. The four of us hung out a lot and thankfully, never did anything too stupid.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I played a little basketball and studied Martial Arts but it wasn’t all that serious because my father couldn’t participate in either. Instead, he got us started in go-cart racing, something we both loved and could do together.
Every Saturday, from the time I was eight until I entered college, we world work on the go-cart together and then head to the track on Sunday to race. Eventually, one of our friends joined us, and we formed a small racing team. In 11th grade, we won a league championship, and I received a shiny 3’ trophy.
What did you gain from the interaction with your father?
The experience gave my father and me a lot of quality time together and he taught me some great life-lessons; one I learned was about the gears on our go-cart. Our carts were single-gear. There was no shifting gears mid-race to go faster. If we didn’t pick the right gear for that track before the race started, we would go too fast and miss turns or too slow and not finish well.
This one track was giving us fits because we couldn’t find the right gear. At some point, I expressed frustration to my father, telling him we had tried many gears and nothing had worked. His simple, yet profound advice was, ‘you can’t stop trying. You have to keep changing until you find what works.’
I’ve come back to that response when I’ve been stumped with something, and the easy path is just to stop or stay the course and hope things will change. I’ve learned that changing the approach to difficult problems is the answer when there is no answer. This may mean poking around in the dark a bit, but better to poke aimlessly than to walk around with your arms down. Eventually you do hone in on the answer, and you can tweak it from there.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school?
I had an ongoing rivalry between one of my friends I mentioned earlier. He was a huge fan of Pink Floyd, and I was a big fan of Genesis. Our discussions and arguments about which group was better and why pierced both of our guards and made us both listen to and appreciate the other’s music. As a result, I now have more Pink Floyd on my iPhone today than Genesis.
How did you decide to go to go to Villanova?
My father was the first in his family to attend college so he knew that others’ opinions and insights on which college to attend would bring value. He started talking to a friend of his about Villanova. This friend had achieved a master’s degree in theology at Villanova years earlier. At the same time, Villanova showed up at a college fair at my high school. So even though my guidance counselor advised me not to apply to Villanova (she must have had designs on other students applying besides me), I didn’t listen to her, included the university on my list and ended up getting accepted.
Was going to Villanova a big transition for you?
I missed the comforts of home of course, but all my friends went away to school as well, so being away from home allowed us all to stay in touch and communicate by phone and through letters.
What did you do after you graduated from college?
Prior to college, I was pretty unaware of any possible ability for leadership. At Villanova, I came to know and enjoy a comradery with peers through student groups, as well as a sense of wanting to do good for them and by them. I found myself being elected to leadership roles.
At about the same time, I started watching political leaders on C-SPAN and pondering how leadership and service worked together. I noticed how many of the leaders on C-SPAN had law degrees and thought that a law degree would provide me a similar foundation for service and leadership as those elected officials. So I applied and was accepted at Widener University’s Delaware Law School.
You said you met your wife at Widener?
Yes, I was working in the computer lab and noticed this one student would come in every day and sit at the same workstation to do her work. She came in so frequently that one day I placed a sticker with her name on the workstation screen. She came in, sat down and kept looking between her name and at me, wondering why here name was there. Finally, I said, “You’re here every day, so we should have your name on that computer!” She laughed, we got to talking and 15 years later we’ve been happily married and have two great kids.
Is your wife a lawyer too?
Yes, a lawyer turned artist who does amazing custom three-dimensional cake designs. She’s done two recently: a two foot dancing ballet-pig cake and another couple wanted a Corgi dog shaped cake for their wedding. She’s been on TV (Food Network & TLC) several times in major national cable-network competitions.
Ok, you’re done law school. What next?
After graduating, I returned home and started to work for a Long Island law firm. Even though I enjoyed practicing law, I didn’t like the particular work and thought maybe another place would be different. Six months later, I took a job in Manhattan. Again, I liked Manhattan and the people I worked with, but not the particular track.
In the meantime, my wife graduated and got her dream job in the Philadelphia’s Defenders Association office. They’re ranked as one of the top public defender’s offices in the country.
In April of 2001, I moved down to the Philadelphia area to be with her. I passed the Pennsylvania bar exam (a second exam after having passed New York – whew!) and eventually got a job in the Delaware County District Attorney’s office earning far less than I was making in Manhattan. Over time, I assumed the spokesperson’s role in the DA’s office, along with doing some grant-writing, while also earning a few extra dollars on the side teaching first for Delaware County Community College, then Penn State Brandywine and eventually Neumann University in Aston.
When our first child was born, I joined a large Philadelphia law firm hoping to make more than the few bucks I was pulling-in at the DA’s office. The work didn’t resound with me the same way working in the DA’s office had, and after two years, I began looking around. Education and public service were a better fit.
One day I heard about a VPAA (Provost) opening at Neumann University and decided, even though I had zero administrative experience in post-secondary education, to apply for the job. I met with Neumann’s president several times, and eventually she offered me a different position as her Executive Assistant, to include preparing Neumann’s application to move from being a college to becoming a university.
She liked my work and about year or two later she named me Vice President & General Counsel of the college. So there I was, 33 years-old and sitting in the President’s Cabinet with people who had decades more experience.
Somewhere around the same time I submitted 22 four-inch binders to Pennsylvania’s Department of Education (PDE) making the case for why Neumann deserved “university” status. Two weeks later we received a call from our Department of Education liaison in Harrisburg. I was nervous for the call. The liaison wound up telling us that our application was among the most well-drafted, best-organized proposals the department had ever received. The entire process took several more years to complete, but by 2011 PDE granted Neumann “University” status forever-more.
You had finally found your calling in life.
That’s true! In fact, I had gotten to the point in my legal career where I viewed lawyers work as a civil form of war; and with moments of utter ruthlessness. Luckily, being in the DA’s office and in education meant always taking the high road, and that was something inside me anyway. Unfortunately, it’s not in everyone.
When I first came into academia full time, I told one of the Neumann Franciscan Nuns that the collegiate setting was an oasis. She looked at me funny, but the difference was our respective life experiences – I don’t think she fully appreciated how contentious litigating legal cases can be.
What challenges and opportunities are in front of you as you begin your second year leading Manor College?
Manor is well positioned as the best-priced Catholic college in Pennsylvania. 96 percent of our students receive financial aid to assist them with expenses and access. Our 9:1 student-teacher ratio and ranking as the safest college campus in the state allow our students to have a transformative experience.
Our students have higher than average graduation and starting salary rates as well as twice the likelihood of transferring to a four-year college or university in comparison to our local community college competitors.
So as a two-year associate’s degree granting college, we’re poised for becoming a 2 + 2, where we will chart towards conferring select bachelor’s degrees that match our current programs and our students’ needs, without losing our associate degree granting profile.
You don’t often hear the word transformative when it comes to two-year colleges.
When I use the word transformation, I don’t just mean that you get the best start here, but that you leave Manor with new opportunities to impact our world. Chance are, most 18 year-old students don’t have life figured out yet; and like my mother who was an adult-student, many adult students are hoping to find their best pathways too.
When students come to Manor, we not only want to give opportunities for guidance, and to learn about a chosen field of study, but we offer the mission-values that Manor College’s founders held dear: that our Basilian environment of community and hospitality would enable students to fully develop as individuals and instill an understanding of scientific, humanistic and ethical principles, so students form a global vision; a vision where they would commit to generating a more peaceful world, and inspire confidence in the present, and hope for the future.
Manor has a major rebranding initiative you’re rolling out later this month.
Our founding Sisters of St. Basil were so deeply humble for so many years. They poured their hearts into our college and the learning of our students. Last year they and our board chose in me a leader who is charging forward with shouting who we are and how well we do it from the roof-tops. Our rebrand together with a new tagline that suggests inclusiveness and an embracing environment, as well as a completely redesigned website with dispersed control over content, honors our institutional history and gives us the freedom to be more contemporary in how we present ourselves.
Finally, Jon, what was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Daniel McDevitt, a career prosecutor in the Delaware County’s DA’s office, advised me to: “Say what you have to say.” What Dan meant was don’t say less or more than what is needed, and if you do, certainly don’t go too far beyond what is needed. You have to trust that listeners are active and evaluative.
As a young prosecutor, there were times when I struggled to know how much to say. What I discovered was that it was okay not to say a lot, as long as I said what needed to be said. As I implemented Dan’s advice, not only did my trials grow shorter, but I gained a sense of growing confidence in my ability manage and win cases. Today Dan’s advice still holds as true. When I am asked to offer substantive remarks in the academy, enough colors are used to paint the picture, but not so many that they run together.