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A quintet of questions for potential Canisius presidents

Taking a one-week pause from my series on the core curriculum, I write this week to the three presidential candidates who monologued at Montante over the past week and a half.

If you’ve made it this far, your strengths are true. You have developed over decades examples of unquestionable expertise in one part of the job description: academic affairs for Dr. Fitzgerald, student affairs for Dr. Kolomitz and community relations for Mr. Stoute. We can’t combine all three (or can we? Maybe that’s what’s been going on in the Wehle “Technology” Center this whole time…). Whoever becomes president, you must add magis to your personalis.

It’s not about who is the best teacher — who has the most experience or expertise in their area — but rather who is the best student — who can pick up the rest the fastest. Are you, as you say you are, “servant leaders,” and, as you want us to be, “lifelong learners”? Let’s go to the classroom with a student as the professor.

First, the course materials. The Griffin, of course, is weekly reading. The textbook is The First Hundred Years: Canisius College 1870-1970 by the late, legendary Canisius professor Charles A. Brady (my first cousin thrice-removed — Buffalo’s a small, quite Irish world). The call number is LD791.C52, which is on the bottom floor of our Andrew L. Bouwhuis library. No need to fight! There are three copies.

As far as I know, you became a finalist by spelling Canisius correctly in your cover letters, and to become president, you will have to, as all other Canisius presidents have, take Jesuit vows, graduate from my alma mater St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute or both.

If you become president, you will have have to answer queries regarding scholarship models, enrollment, infrastructure and much more (these are multiple choice, with infinite choices for each) and the following questions, which are not so temporally pressing, but will hopefully serve to distinguish the various philosophical challenges for each potential presidency (each has a different test and there is no rubric).

Dr. Glynis Fitzgerald — Senior VP and provost, Alvernia University

Legitimacy of leadership: Though your LinkedIn page touts “demonstrated success in enrollment management and student success” and you called yourself the “least micro-manager in the world” in your public forum, you have never led an entire organization or served in an explicitly public-facing role as President Hurley did before becoming president. Are you ready to be the public face of Canisius, soliciting alumni donations, managing media relations and defending all decisions made by the Board of Trustees and your senior leadership team?

Internal leadership: There are senior administrators at Canisius who have held similar positions (professor to chair to associate vice president to vice president) for just as long or even longer than you. Canisius also has a proud tradition of presidents rising through the ranks, Jesuit or administrative. How do you sell yourself to potential reports and to a community with such an in-house tradition?

Fiscal leadership: You emphasize your role in saving money without cutting any major programs in your tenure at Alvernia. One of Canisius’s virtues, however, is its relatively affordable price: IPEDS data show that the average net price for Canisius undergraduates is $8,000 lower than for Alvernia students — this, despite competing with a more subsidized state university system. Are you prepared to make do with fewer resources, or put your training and teaching in communications to the test by selling even more tuition costs to students, budget cuts to faculty and staff, capital campaigns to alumni or grant requests to governments?

External leadership: President Hurley served as a private-sector lawyer and as Canisius’s vice president for college relations before becoming president. As president, you would be the main link between our academic bubble and the outside world. While you have worked with ESPN, VISA and other corporations, you’ve served most of your career in academia. How will you relate to and partner with community leaders who are not intimately familiar with higher education?

Style of leadership: From forming a staff council to attending student government monthly, you pledge to delegate aggressively and be a “clear, open and regular” part of the community. Admirable as the attitudes are, as president you are more than a first among equals. Moreover, you are ultimately accountable to the Board of Trustees. When big decisions arise, will you defend student, faculty and staff interests to the Board, or will you defend Board directives to everyone else?

Dr. Kara Kolomitz — Senior VP and COO, Regis College

Legitimacy of leadership: In “a career focused on becoming a mission-driven, executive leader,” you’ve been a director, dean or vice president for the past three decades. While this could increase trust among faculty and staff, this means you’ve spent most of your career at places like Canisius. Your dissertation also found that, surprisingly, “the transition to the office of the college presidency by someone from outside of academe required less adjustment than that of someone from inside the world of higher education,” because the former was more accustomed to the institution’s business-like nature. How will you overcome the struggles faced by similar presidents you studied and bring fresh ideas that haven’t already been tried in the small, shrinking bubble of Catholic higher education?

Internal leadership: Among the three finalists for our presidency, titles included senior vice president, provost, chief operating officer and chief of staff — none of which we explicitly have. In your dissertation, you studied new presidents of small universities worried about “who would do the day-to-day work and ensure the institution was still running” while the president was busy being the public face. You then concluded, “A strong number-two person is important for new presidents at small colleges, who normally do not have the transition time necessary to establish trust and relationships with someone new.” If you restructure Canisius administration to accommodate this number two and/or other positions, will you promote from within or hire from outside?

Fiscal leadership: You are not your institution, but during your two-decade tenure at Regis College, its graduate school has grown from less than one-quarter of enrollment to half of enrollment; during that time, Canisius’s proportion of graduate students has declined slightly to about a quarter of students. According to IPEDS data, 75% of Regis undergraduate degrees are in health professions and related programs; 17% in liberal arts, 4% in business and 4% in education. Canisius emphasizes the latter three. You said in your forum that the “strategic decision” to invest in these programs sustainably subsidizes traditional liberal arts undergraduate education. If this is the path you decide Canisius needs to take, at what point will we become sustainable enough to begin investing in the liberal arts again?

External leadership: Between 2007, when it became co-educational, and 2020, Regis College’s undergraduate enrollment increased nearly 50%. In that time at Canisius, undergraduate enrollment has decreased nearly 50%. Further, between 2016 and 2019, when you were vice president for enrollment (and student affairs), enrollment gains were at their highest. While enrollment is not solely the president’s purview, some pieces are more important than others (you did say you like chess). However you do it — cajoling, convincing or cheerleading —, will these remarkable figures make the trip with you over the I-90 W from Boston to Buffalo?

Style of leadership: You dissertated that the “literature [on college presidents] is unified in identifying presidents as being responsible for swaying constituents toward a unified strategic plan.” At the same time, you summarized the profile of a president as one who, among other things, “was into risk-taking … [and] not overly concerned with shared governance or academic tradition… There was no room for slow movers in the office of the college president.” If your bully pulpit fails to unify, will you act decisively to implement your own plan regardless?

Mr. Steve Stoute, J.D. — VP and chief of staff, DePaul University

Legitimacy of leadership: As Search Committee Chair Dr. Francis Lazarus noted, you would be just the fourth president in the past 56 years. Canisius’s presidency is also typically the crowning achievement of those who have held the position. Adding a presidency to your youth and sterling background would put you in a great position to become the president of an even larger university. You’ve also spent an average of three years at each of your institutions. If the opportunity were to arise, will Canisius merely be the stepping stone to a more prestigious presidency?

Internal leadership: While you have worked with faculty leadership in your administrative role, you don’t directly oversee faculty and have taught just one, freshman-level class. In 2020, Canisius eliminated nearly two dozen faculty positions. No doubt faculty that appreciate your commitment to shared governance — especially regarding curricular matters — but how will you lead an institution composed largely of educators, many of whom have decades more of experience than you in academia?

Fiscal leadership: You’ve fundraised for Princeton, practiced corporate law and headed strategic initiatives at DePaul — when you advocate “innovative and creative” ways to access “different revenue sources,” it’s easy to trust in you. Yet, Princeton is Princeton, corporations are not non-profits, and DePaul receives $15,000 more per year from it each undergraduate than Canisius does. You say the market can bear higher prices given higher outcomes, but higher outcomes seem unattainable without more resources in the first place. Will you be able to keep your promises to close our budget gap and invest in the institution without passing costs onto the students?

External leadership: You are a devotee of data: citing Pew, advocating social media marketing, arguing that students prefer video and photos. Perhaps this paradigm is necessary at DePaul, but at Canisius, with fewer undergraduates than DePaul does full-time employees, it should only be complementary. You as an individual must be a reason students and their parents invest four years and college savings into Canisius. Can you be the inspiring image of an institution, who meets prospective students and champions the recruitment process?

Style of leadership: Graduate from a Catholic university. Attend a top law school. Practice corporate law. Become a top executive at a Catholic university specializing in donor relations and strategic planning. This was, roughly, President Hurley’s career path before ascending to the presidency. You added a master’s degree and other experience prior to law school, but besides those, your career has followed a remarkably similar trajectory to this point. How will you distinguish yourself from a president who has been largely successful with alumni and donors but not so popular among students and faculty?

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