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Canisius University: It’s different this time

By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor

President John Hurley has been crusading against “college” since he came to Canisius. In a conversation with The Griffin, the former executive vice president and current president described the “different levels of unfairness” that have hurt Canisius in comparison with both New York and out-of-state institutions that are often our mirror images but can call themselves universities.

In 1969, the New York State Department of Education changed the requirements to become a university in an effort to achieve truth in advertising. It required a range of curricula in the liberal arts and sciences, at least two professional programs and — critically — at least three doctoral programs.

The tri-doctoral requirement should have precluded all local private schools from university status. The problem for Canisius was that Niagara and St. Bonaventure, despite not meeting doctoral requirements, were grandfathered into the new classification because they already called themselves universities. Canisius has subsequently found it harder to compete in Canada because international students often view a “college” as a two-year, post-secondary technical school.

In 2009, with the backing of two local Regents, Hurley asked the state education department to change the definition. The response he got was “riddled with a lot of inaccurate and unfair statements. … They said, in essence, ‘Well, we know, but we’re New York and we’re different.’”

And yet, in 2012, this paper declared on its front page: “Canisius College prepping for university status.” Then–Editor-in-Chief Nick Veronica reported that attaining university status “is a goal on Canisius’s long-term to-do list — to be taken care of in the next decade or so — and it’s the reason the word ‘college’ has been disappearing from Canisius signage as of late.”

In order to meet the existing definition of university, Canisius looked at how it could create three doctoral programs. Hurley told Veronica that, “So long as we can satisfy New York state requirements in a way that doesn’t create a huge issue for us in our budget, I want to explore that.”

It was all lined up. Hurley had said that turning master’s programs into doctoral versions “would be ‘natural extensions of what we’re doing well on a graduate level.’” He asked the master’s program in mental health counseling to develop a PhD program. Education and anthropology doctoral programs were reportedly on deck.

The application for a mental health counseling PhD was denied. Hurley, 10 years later, recalled that the state education department’s response was “Pretty much, ‘The answer is no, and don’t bother to come back.” The cost to make those three doctoral programs would have been a substantial investment but, Hurley said, “If we’d had a glimmer of hope, we might’ve kept marching along that trail and trying to comply.”

Pen pals with paper pushers

In 2019, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities — which represents private higher education institutions in New York such as Canisius — successfully convinced the Board of Regents to reopen discussion on a definitional change. A new definition, which requires master’s programs in three different fields but drops the doctoral requirement entirely, was passed by the Board of Regents in January 2022.

State records show that more than a dozen colleges had sent letters to the education department in support of the change. An April 2021 Canisius letter complained of “a competitive disadvantage in branding and recruiting students, particularly within the international marketplace” compared to schools such as Niagara, St. Bonaventure and Jesuit peer institutions that call themselves “universities” but are very similar to Canisius.

Bolded was its thesis: “Now is the time to modernize and redefine the term ‘university.’” It urged the Board of Regents to “eliminate the need for doctoral programs in three academic fields” and instead “adopt a more permissive definition” akin to the one passed in 2010 by Massachusetts. With everything else going against private colleges, this “regulatory adjustment” could boost enrollment. Further delay, the letter concluded, “only serves to jeopardize New York’s own economic interests.”

The next steps, in order to tee it up for President-elect Steve Stoute and the Board, include consulting other schools who have made the change, developing an extra marketing budget and assuaging alumni. The latter could be the toughest task. Hurley says that some graduates may have an “emotional attachment” to Canisius College, but that, as when marketing the change to the broader community, messaging to alumni must explain that the change is “one part of an overall strategy” and “a progression; a step forward.”

Alumni Association President Anthony Kroese is willing to listen. “The more I talk to alumni, the more alumni have started to have the opinion that we should make decisions for the future of Canisius.” The lawyer reasoned that the Canisius brand is strong; the traditional college suffix could be shed for the modern university ending without losing the school’s honor and tradition.

Pointing to the changing landscape of higher education and the expectations of international students, Kroese said that, “It is now time to evaluate whether Canisius will be best prepared to excel and achieve, for itself and for its constituents, under a college or university classification.”

“We’re not a liberal arts college”

If Canisius does apply for university status, Hurley is not concerned that we will be rejected. The new, doctoral-less definition, he said, “Looks pretty plain English. We qualify here.”

As for whether Canisius will actually apply, Hurley said that “we haven’t made a decision on this. My sense is that the Board [of Trustees] wants to pursue this but we just need to make sure we have this all lined up and understand what we’re doing.” (For what it’s worth, Dr. Glynis Fitzgerald, a finalist to succeed Hurley, said during her public forum that she “couldn’t get a good read” on the Board’s inclinations.)

Hurley confirmed that, while he’d “love nothing better than to put [his] name on the petition,” the decision would have to be made under a new president at this point, and that a final decision would probably be next year. Asked if there’s a possibility that a new president might choose not to file for a name change, Hurley responded, “The competitive landscape is going to dictate that we do this.”

Citing Carnegie classifications which label Canisius a “master’s 1” university, Hurley took issue with those who “mistakenly assert that we are a liberal arts college. We’re not. We are a comprehensive university that has an undergraduate core curriculum that is steeped in the liberal arts, but we’re not a liberal arts college.”

Hurley hopes that the community would speak with one voice to promote Canisius University. He criticized “the constant drumbeat that we’re a liberal arts college, despite all objective evidence to the contrary. We’ve got to stop calling ourselves a liberal arts college.”

“What you pick up in the undergraduate humanities [by remaining a “college”], you lose in the School of Business and you lose in graduate programs. I don’t think that is a good exchange. … The graduate program, historically, has been a profit center for us, and the undergraduate program is not.”

Can I see us (as a) ‘University’?

Hurley pitched the college/university decision as between trying to establish graduate programs in international markets despite a prestige handicap or “dropping it and running with the tide by further investing in new programs and making the school stronger and better.”

The tide is here.

D’Youville, whose employees sent a whopping 663 letters to the education department in support of the change, had their petition for university status approved by the State Board of Regents in February, less than one month after the definition was changed.

Daemen applied in February for university status, and a spokesman told The Griffin that, “If Daemen's application is approved, the institution's adoption of ‘university’ will begin as soon as possible.” As for Medaille, a spokeswoman said their trustees met last Friday and voted to apply for university status. An official statement, released Wednesday, said, “The institution … upon anticipated approval, will transition to Medaille University.”

So, can I see us as a university? I’m as enamored with alliteration as anyone, and I personally prefer “college” to “university,” but the cost of remaining a college seems clear: fewer students. Inspired by Canisius’s letter to the education department, let’s look at Massachusetts, the next-most recent state to change its definition of university.

IPEDS and Massachusetts Department of Higher Education data show that foreign undergraduate enrollment at Massachusetts colleges that became universities more than doubled from an average of 11 in 2010 to an average of 25 in 2020. In that time, those college-to-universities experienced just a 1% drop in undergraduate enrollment, relative to a 17% decrease in undergraduate enrollment for all Massachusetts colleges and universities.

Those figures are from a dreadfully small set of eight schools, and they don’t account for changes in out-of-state or graduate students. Nonetheless — and I hope administration will confirm this with more data — “university” would seem to boost enrollment.

Canisius University is a rational recognition that our decision is not different from the experience of Massachusetts schools and the expectations of similar local schools who fall so clearly on the side of university.

At a time when we look to increase and diversify our student body, improving our appeal to international students would accomplish both. Unlike in 2012, we needn’t add any programs (doctoral or otherwise) to qualify for university; any change in our program portfolio will be a decision independently made.

Nearly a century ago, inspired by a ship known as Le Griffon, Canisius adopted the “Griffin” as our mascot. My editorial ancestor said of that change: “On a policy of friendliness and temperate language, the new feature of the College will disinterestedly serve only the interests of the Alma Mater and her friends. Your hearty cooperation is solicited.”

In 2022, surrounded by colleges which, newly unmoored from their bureaucratic anchor, are sailing to university-land, Canisius must either tack into the wind or follow in their wake. The Massachusetts data indicate upside, and the ready-made definition protects against the downside of losing our identity. If university is good enough for D’You(ville), it’s good enough for me.

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Janelle Harb
Janelle Harb
Mar 11, 2022

This is such a well-written and researched piece. You should be very proud of this one, Pat! I'm so impressed with the reporting of the current Griffin staff, congratulations and best of luck to you all! <3 Janelle Harb, EIC 2016-2018

Patrick Healy
Patrick Healy
Mar 11, 2022
Replying to

Thank you so much, Janelle! Always proud to uphold the tradition established by writers such as you.


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