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Editorial: Unique CEEP program should be expanded, promoted

CEEP students present their projects at Ignatian Scholarship Day. From left to right, former CEEP students Olivia Gow, Sydney Keesler, Haylie Virginia, Abby Kellogg, and CEEP director Dr. Jennifer Lodi-Smith. (Kyra Laurie for The Griffin)

By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor

Last month, Canisius hosted its 43rd annual Model U.N. conference. Director Dr. Paola Fajardo-Heyward was aided, as always, by a Canisius student using the CEEP program. This is a perfect example of the win-win nature of CEEP, which stands for the Canisius Earning Excellence Program. Canisius got high schoolers on the campus, Dr. Fajardo-Heyward had someone to help her run it and the student gained valuable administrative and leadership experience — while being paid for it.

Before a slight downtick to 69 awards last year, about 85 students applied for and were granted CEEP funding each academic year. Every student who applies is typically granted an award, which don’t vary by student. Every Canisius professor — full-time, adjunct or emeritus — can sponsor three undergraduate grants per year (though they could split those three grants across more students).

The predecessor to CEEP was a grant from the Dana Foundation that provided funds for students in any department (with at least a 3.0 GPA) to assist faculty research. This ran from 1987 to 1996, at which point the Howard Hughes Medical Institute stepped in to provide funds for science students. The William Randolph Hurst Grant funded non-science student projects until, in 1998, CEEP was created to fund humanities and business projects.

The Howard Hughes funding stopped in 2009, but CEEP has continued to fund science and non-science projects since. Canisius sets aside a $100,000 budget for CEEP, which is divided equally among selected students. Importantly, every student who applies is typically selected.

To apply, a student must have at least a 3.3 GPA, find a professor to work with and complete an application. Many professors have ongoing or annual projects that students can help with, such as researching a book or participating in research for Canisius’s autism study. Students can also ask a professor to supervise a new project.

Canisius hands out more than $4,000,000 to every freshman class in merit-based scholarships. That’s about $16,000,000 for all four years combined, and it dwarfs the $100,000 college-wide CEEP budget. If we’re going to spend millions on attracting high-achieving students, we might as well spend a fraction of it to keep and develop them.

We wonder why Canisius doesn’t tout the program at open houses more. Other local colleges don’t have anything comparable. Niagara’s program is just for natural science students and requires a 1310 SAT (or 28 ACT), AP science classes, a detailed application, an interview and prior research experiences — in other words, polished researchers at age 18. St. Bonaventure, St. John Fisher, Daemen and UB don’t have a similar program.

It’s important to note that CEEP isn’t work-study, which depends on financial need and is subsidized by the federal government. However, before 2019, students couldn’t apply for both CEEP and work-study. Now, CEEP functions on a grant rather than an hourly basis, allowing students to apply for both. Kevin Smith, assistant vice president for Student Records and Financial Services, noted that this could also have tax benefits by trading taxable income for a lower tuition bill.

Work-study provides a useful form of financial assistance, but each student is terminated from their jobs once they use up their small allotment. Work-study is an on-campus job; CEEP is closer to an apprenticeship. Students are providing direct value to the professor they work with. The confidence of becoming a partner to a professor isn’t priceless — everything has a price — but it certainly adds value that work-study positions simply don’t.

CEEP is great for students, but it also rewards engaged professors by subsidizing researchers. That pool of paid, motivated students can’t hurt the college when recruiting professors, either. Dr. Jennifer Lodi-Smith said the “structured, intentional, protected mechanism to help support faculty-student collaboration and faculty scholarship” helped attract her to the college. Now the director of the program, she said Canisius CEEP students get a similar experience to graduate students at bigger, research-focused institutions.

Do certain professors provide the bulk of opportunities? For sure. A total of 32 professors sponsored the 69 CEEP projects for the 2021-22 school year. Most of each CEEP class is sponsored by just a quarter of the faculty. But do these faculty change year-to-year, at least?

Not really. 75% of 2021-22 faculty sponsors had sponsored a CEEP student the previous school year. A consistent base of faculty sponsors is good, but it’s strange to see so few new professors utilize this research opportunity. Onboarding faculty are made aware of it, and regular informational sessions keep current professors informed. Lodi-Smith said professors often note that they are willing to be mentors, but certain areas draw less student interest.

While participation would ideally be higher, that can be fixed. The program itself is healthy. It’s like the Niagara program, in that some students can return to it every year and spend four years developing professional research skills, but it’s more flexible; students can test it out for a year, change professors or switch topics.

Many projects are science-based. That makes sense, given the sheer amount of lab work necessary for any scientific research. Among 2020-21 projects (department is not listed for 2021-22 recipients), biology, chemistry and ABEC departments each had double-digit projects. Current CEEP recipient John Federice told The Griffin that his grant helped to fund about half of what he did in the chemistry department, allowing him to earn valuable research experience and cultivate his interest in the field.

Despite the frequency of those fields, 40% of grants were for history, philosophy or some other social science project. Where hard sciences were concentrated in the three above departments, many social science departments, including history, psychology and religious studies were represented.

Dr. Bruce Dierenfield, professor emeritus of history and the author of eight books, said, “CEEP permits me to be a better historian, because these talented students have allowed me to investigate a given historical topic as thoroughly as my — and sometimes their — instincts and imagination allow.” His projects, most of which concern law and social justice, contribute to the college’s Jesuit mission. They also contribute to his assistants’ careers: he often endorses their application to graduate schools, particularly law school.

Though departments of the School of Arts and Sciences represent just over half of Canisius undergrads, they sponsor nearly all CEEP projects. CEEP funds such activities like “case study compilation for a business course” and “report writing or drafting,” but no Wehle School of Business departments were represented, and just two departments in the School of Education and Human Services were.

Efforts are being made to reach out to the other schools, but Lodi-Smith said that “differences in how faculty do their scholarship” limits participation from the former. And she pointed to certain professors from the latter, such as Dr. Barbara Burns, who are frequently willing to be mentors.

In addition, Wehle students can participate in the Golden Griffin Fund, which manages an initial allocation of $100,000 from the college endowment (it is now valued at more than $400,000), and the Western New York Teacher Residency program is available for teacher education students. To be fair, CEEP is best designed for future academics rather than teachers or businesspeople.

CEEP can spark interest in academics by making it real. No longer are academics purely for a student’s sake; they are actually helping a professor on a book they will publish. A student who did poorly before changing to a more suitable major, had one bad semester or simply isn’t able to achieve a 3.3 GPA should be eligible for that same experience. CEEP should also simply be open to more students.

Dierenfield, a frequent CEEP mentor, disagrees. He says, “Generally speaking, a high GPA indicates strong motivation on the part of a given student, and motivation is critically important to a successful CEEP project.” We agree in principle but differ on policy; though a professor should be allowed to not accept a student below a certain GPA if they wish, other professors should have the option to take on such a student. To protect the college’s money and interests, the committee that reviews applications can choose to not fund the project if they see a lack of motivation in the student. The right CEEP project could also spark motivation if a professor has faith in them. Like it is to apply to Canisius and to receive merit-based aid, in our view GPA should just be a (strong) consideration for CEEP.

Though we slightly differ on qualifications, we endorse Direnfield’s interesting point about funding: “I find that CEEP students complete their obligation to the program significantly faster than used to be the case, which means that the process of recruiting and training research assistants happens more often.” The current grants of $1,500 allow for, given a $12.50 hourly wage, about 120 hours of assistance. However, even that may be an aggressive estimate, as the time is no longer tracked hourly (it is more of an estimate) and professors may find it harder to enforce.

Lodi-Smith is pursuing more outside and institutional funding, and she’s working on expanding the program’s image. The new First Year Experience courses, which 93% of freshmen are enrolled in, advertise the program. Future accepted students days will tout it. However, the participation is currently capped: if they earn a few Bs instead of As, eager students could be rendered ineligible for the program. While the program is fantastic for those enrolled, more should be able to enroll. The money is there — it’s secure — and if Lodi-Smith has anything to say, it will be expanding.

As far as we can tell, the decades-old program is unique among local colleges. We spend millions every year on merit scholarships; investing more in, even doubling, the CEEP budget would be a comparatively small cost to retain and develop these high-achieving students. This could go hand in hand with increased eligibility in order to give opportunities to those not able to meet the minimum GPA.

The program is obviously in good hands and has a committed mentor base. It’d be a definite cause for kudos to Canisius, but many of us didn’t know about it until a few years into our time here. It didn’t even have a page on until a few years ago. CEEP students are required to present at Ignatian Scholarship Day, but this isn’t exactly a recruiting event. We recognize that not every student wants to or can participate; however, the same is true of athletics, and the college certainly markets those.

Professors get subsidized help; students get subsidized experience. Even from a financial, return-on-investment perspective, CEEP allows students to contribute to professors’ research and thus the college’s reputation. We think returns wouldn’t diminish until well past the current $100,000 budget, especially when so much is poured into getting these students here in the first place. The budget has been the same for years, per VP Kevin Smith, but the program has proved it deserves more. We agree with Dr. Lodi-Smith, who speaks as both a faculty member and administrator: “This is something that we absolutely need to not just maintain, but grow.”

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