Pace University recently undertook a project to transform their Westchester campus from a commuter school to a more local, consolidated, and walkable campus. Part of this plan entailed the selling of their Briarcliff Campus, located on Elm Road. According to Mary Cheever in her book The Changing Landscape: A History of Briarcliff Manor-Scarborough, the buildings that originally made up the Pace Briarcliff Campus were built in 1903 by Walter W. Law, founder of the Village of Briarcliff Manor, and functioned as the Ms. Dow’s School for Girls (which was first housed at the Briarcliff Lodge). After Ms. Dow retired, the school transformed into a Junior College, offering two-year postgraduate courses, and eventually began granting four-year bachelor’s degrees in 1957. The famous Dow Hall still stands today, a remnant of Briarcliff’s past as a magnet for the New York elite.
In 1977, Briarcliff College, as it was known, shut down due to financial restraints and low enrollment, and sold its campus to Pace University, who then operated it as part of its Westchester Campus until 2015. According to a press release from Pace University: “Pace University sold its Briarcliff Manor property in late December [of 2017] as part of a strategic plan to consolidate facilities and services of the Westchester campus of Pace to its Pleasantville location. As part of this plan, Pace built two new residence halls, a new field house, new athletics fields, and a new environmental center complex as well as expanded its student center. The newly revitalized campus allows for an enhanced living-learning experience with all services and activities for Westchester students in one location.”
Chronicled in no other news sources besides The Briarcliff Daily Voice, Westfair Online, and the Pleasantville-Briarcliff Manor Patch, the sale of the campus was merely announced; there was no information released on the actual buyer or what the buyer intended to do with the campus. According to those aforementioned news services, the campus was sold for $17.35 million to a charity called The Research Center on Natural Conservation Inc. The only description of the charity available online was found on a Westfair Online article, which described the charity as “a nonprofit dedicated to discovering innovative natural conservation methods, organizing forums to discuss contemporary environmental issues and studying the effects of global warming.” Further research into this charity proved difficult. The organization has neither a website nor a Wikipedia page, and it is not mentioned in any charity-watchdog organizations such as Charity Watch. The only available in-depth information available could be found on the website of a financial services company called Seeking Alpha.
According to Seeking Alpha, The Research Center on Natural Conservation Inc. was created by Tianquan Vincent Mo, executive chairman and CEO of SouFun Holdings Ltd., a Chinese real estate company. Further exploration into this company proved valuable: their purchase of the Pace Briarcliff Campus was just one of many high-cost real estate purchases in the Hudson Valley. Other real estate locations bought by this “charity” included the former New York Military Academy (purchased for $15.825 million), an alma mater of President Trump.
For wealthy Chinese businessmen like Tianquen Vincent Mo, forays into American real estate holdings are not uncommon. According to The South China Morning Post, there has been a mass exodus of underground cash flowing out of the country and into foreign assets in order to “safeguard money against a failing Yuan currency and weakening Chinese economy.” Another possible explanation for the real estate purchases could be that CEO/chairman of SouFun is using the charity as a front to steal money from his own company and invest it in real estate owned by his own charity. Still, fronts such as the Research Center on Natural Conservation Inc. do not go unnoticed, and some may argue that the purchasing of historic buildings such as Dow Hall or the former Military Academy as a way of securing cash and not actually putting the locations to use is a waste of land and resources. There are also many legal and moral complications. Seeking Alpha accused SouFun of breaking the trust of shareholders, and that the Chairman has no respect for his fiduciary responsibilities, “We believe that the founder and Chairman of SOUFUN HOLDINGS LTD. (“SFUN“, “SouFun” or the “Company“), which owns and operates a real estate website in China, has diverted resources from the Company for personal use through a series of questionable transactions involving high-priced New York real estate and charities of dubious authenticity…We believe that SouFun’s Chairman has irrevocably broken the trust of shareholders, rendering, in our view, the Company’s shares only as valuable as the Chairman’s apparent respect for his fiduciary duties.”
While the true nature of this deal may not rest solely on the shoulders of Pace University, one does have to question the morals of an institution that allows this kind of suspicious and dubious financial irresponsibility to continue in our own backyards. More still, there should be an actual legal investigation into this purchase, and the other SouFun purchases in the Hudson Valley in order to determine the exact reason why that company and their charity are investing in real estate that will go unused thousands of miles away from the headquarters of their iniquitous company.