By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor
President John Hurley, then a staff reporter covering Canisius’s cross-country team, entered his first words into The Griffin on September 20, 1974. Last week, nearly 50 years later, he spoke with Opinion Editor Patrick Healy for his final Griffin interview as president of the college.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).
The Griffin: You said after your appointment in 2009 that you hoped to take Canisius to the “next level of excellence in Catholic Jesuit education.” Do you think you’ve done that?
Hurley: I think we’ve established ourselves firmly in the ranks of great Catholic, Jesuit universities in the country. We are firmly focused on the Jesuit mission here, and I think we’ve done well on that score.
Where we have struggled is, our academic reputation is strong, but the financial challenges the college has faced over the last 12 years have made substantial investments in things that would be more transformational for the institution difficult to pull off. So we’ve had to make a lot of choices along the way. As with anything, it’s somewhat of a mixed story. There are some things we’ve had to cut back on. … I don’t think it harmed us irreparably, but it would’ve been better if we hadn’t had to cut them.
The Griffin: And that includes in 2020 when you eliminated about 90 positions? Knowing what you do now with federal bailout money and higher enrollment than expected during the pandemic, would you still make the same decision now?
Hurley: Absolutely. Because what we projected at that time in terms of an operating loss for Canisius has actually come to pass. So what we did, … if we hadn’t done that, it would have been very, very difficult right now.
The Griffin: Even with the federal money?
Hurley: Let’s be clear about the numbers. The federal money, it amounted to about $1.3 million in fiscal year ‘20. And it meant about $2.3 million in fiscal year ‘21, and then it meant $3 million this year. So that has helped somewhat with the cash flow, but it didn’t eliminate the operating losses that we suffered in those years.
The Griffin: As far as enrollment, in 2010 you said “nothing else came close” to enrollment in terms of concern. It’s fallen by about half since 2010, the largest loss among local private schools. Did your concerns shift, or were you simply unable to stop the enrollment decline?
Hurley: Enrollment was the most important thing and it remains the most important thing. But we suffered enrollment losses.
The Griffin: With your “Excellence Within Reach” program in 2017, are you satisfied with the results?
Hurley: No. It didn’t result in a bounce in enrollment, and that was the hope: that we would open it up. I don’t think the final chapter has been written on that initiative. I think the growth that we’ve seen in the last two years in out-of-state markets can be attributed in part due to the reduction in sticker price. I think people are discovering, “Oh, there’s a high-quality Jesuit school in Buffalo, and the tuition is a fraction of what it is every place else.”
But that came a few years later. So the price point for new markets I think ends up being an attractive thing. But in terms of the markets that we were in back in 2017, it didn’t do what we thought it would do there.
The Griffin: Was that your biggest regret?
Hurley: No. It didn’t hurt us. It was a decision that we hoped would deliver enrollment results. But it didn’t hurt us.
The Griffin: But it brought in less money.
Hurley: No, it didn’t. We brought in less money because we had fewer students but not because the net tuition revenue per student was lower.
The Griffin: Because there was a proportionate decrease in the amount of aid given out?
Hurley: We were reducing the discount rate as well. Net tuition revenue stayed roughly constant.
The Griffin: When you ran for USA president in 1977, your campaign statement declared that, “In a word, the problem facing each and every student at Canisius is MONEY.” Do you still think the same?
Hurley: It’s one of the biggest issues facing this country: how young people get a college education and come out without being saddled with excessive amounts of debt that will hurt career choices or life choices. I think Canisius has done absolutely heroic work in keeping its education affordable for students.
For the quality of education students get, the level of personal attention, all of the services that are provided, I think we are providing an excellent education for the price. Now, can every student afford a Canisius education? Not every student can; I understand that. But it’s not for lack of trying. We do everything possible to make it affordable.
The Griffin: Is Canisius especially threatened by public colleges and free tuition?
Hurley: The Excelsior Scholarship program cost us about 50 students in our freshmen class in the first year, from which we never recovered. So free tuition at public universities is not a good thing for private schools.
The Griffin: Will Canisius have to continue to increase its graduate program in order to subsidize the undergraduate program?
Hurley: Canisius has to continue to expand its graduate program offerings. The future is going to be in graduate education. Undergraduate demographics are going to continue to shrink in the Northeast.
The Griffin: What do you think in the next 10 years will a successful Canisius look like: still open, given declining enrollment?
Hurley: That’s not much of a vision. So merely surviving isn’t the plan. Some of what we’ve been through, … we’ve had to hunker down and get through a couple of rough patches and then you move on. And we continue to move on, but I think going forward in the Northeast, given the demographics, there is going to be a consolidation and a reconfiguration of all of private higher education; … of all of higher education, public and private.
We’re seeing it already in the Pennsylvania state [university] system, with the reconfiguration of those campuses. They’re grouping campuses together with shared leadership. But I think among private schools we’re going to see a consolidation, and it’s going to take a lot of different forms. The challenge for Canisius going forward is to remain very flexible and very creative in its approach and look for new ways of doing what it does.
It has to be — and this is primarily on the graduate level — a focus on online education as a way of expanding markets outside of narrow geographic footprints. Not so much on the undergraduate [level], because the undergraduate product, if you will, that we are marketing is a residential, face-to-face experience. That’s going to be kind of a declining program, so how to keep that one going while filling the graduate program is going to be the big challenge.
The Griffin: Could that include working with local schools around here so we don’t have duplicative programs?
Hurley: Yes. Everything needs to be on the table.
The Griffin: Including a merger?
The Griffin: Could that mean merger of physical campuses (for example, with Medaille) or a merger like the one in Pennsylvania, where they have shared leadership?
Hurley: Everything has to be on the table.
The Griffin: Do you think Canisus should proactively explore that? Should we be in talks right now?
Hurley: We should continue to do what we’ve been doing. We’ve been very entrepreneurial and creative. We don’t have a lot to show for it yet, but we have been very much involved in these discussions across the country.
The Griffin: How often do you talk with other local college presidents about the issue of declining enrollment?
Hurley: We have been talking about this pretty much non-stop for the 12 years I’ve been president. The question is, what do you do about it, and that’s where we have to remain flexible and creative in our approach.
The Griffin: What is it you’re most proud of?
Hurley: Well, I’ve got kind of a short list. But I think the growth in new programs primarily on the graduate level — the accrediting of the physician assistant was huge, the development of cybersecurity and data analytics and things like that on the graduate level. Because we had gone through a period of time where we weren’t developing new programs.
The endowment has increased from $74 million when I took office to $170 million this year. So we had successful fundraising all along. All of our work in mission and identity and making this place have a stronger sense of identity with both Catholic and Jesuit at a time when that was kind of difficult to do [given] the declining Jesuit presence on campus. But I think we have a much clearer idea today of what it means to be Catholic and Jesuit.
The Griffin: What do you want your legacy to be as president?
Hurley: You need to get some perspective on what has happened in order to really assess what the lasting significance is. …
We could talk about the fact that I was the first lay president and guided us into this new period of lay leadership at the college that defined a new way of working in collaboration with the Jesuits to keep Canisius strong, Catholic and Jesuit.
We could talk about a new business model for the college that saw us drive out costs in every single corner of the college to keep it affordable for students and … I think that work has also been heroic because it’s helped to keep the place affordable.
What I see each year at commencement in terms of the accomplishments of our students and what they’ve achieved with their education and what they go on to do after commencement, I think is amazing. And while I’m not in the classroom delivering the education, it’s part of this great enterprise that, year in and year out, delivers excellent, excellent results.
Students go on to do great things in the world, and I take a great deal of satisfaction in that. I know I have my critics, but at the end of the day, all God can ask you to do with your life is to do your best. That’s all I’ve tried to do, is my best. If it wasn’t good enough, I understand that, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Sometimes the stars don’t line up the way you want them to. Not everything is perfect, but it’s important as you go along to find successes where you can find them and celebrate the successes and step back and look and say: at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty darn good school, and we’ve got a lot of really great things going on here.
I was over in the chapel with a parent who told me, “People don’t realize that we’ve got such a great school here.” Too many people are concerned about tearing down and denigrating and criticizing. I’m all about positivity: building up, celebrating success and building for the future. That’s what we’ve done here.