A Conversation with President John J. Hurley, J.D.

By Aidan Ryan
Editor-in-Chief

hurley-frontThough I haven’t spent much time in the Canisius Presidential Suite — yet — I’ve found that the chairs in the vestibule are somewhat more comfortable than those in President Hurley’s office. Perhaps this is an accident; perhaps design. But I think it’s more likely that the atmosphere of our meeting influenced the support of my lower back, the depth of the cushion beneath my rear.

Out in the lobby, I was relaxed. I sat back. I avoided the dish of peppermint candies, surely a trap that would result in only childish crunching and minty fish-faces. After all, I was there on a mission; I needed to appear dignified. My head spun with the voices of friends and acquaintances among the students and faculty – complaints, requests, obscenities, opinions.

Then I was led into the inner sanctum, met President Hurley, in shirtsleeves and a striped tie – classic white with a bolder neon turquoise – and shook his hand. Quite suddenly I was a single student, armed with nothing more than my own opinions, a pen, and an empty Moleskine notebook. Naturally, some stale winter air had to be cleared. The President floated the prospect of a “long year.” We both agreed that this was less than ideal. Thus, on our first patch of common ground, we began the exchange – what I hoped would be an open and frank discussion, man to man, scholar to scholar.

The first topic of discussion was – unsurprisingly – the ad campaign.

I knew no other way to begin but to point out what I saw as “the obvious”: that the rebranding has been costly, incoherent, and misdirected; that, though the target audience is not the current student body, many of these students find it to be an insult, a misfortune, or a potential detriment to their careers.

The president did not share this view. He pointed out that the ad campaign was thoroughly researched, the result of massive student and prospective student polling; that I had not polled students on their response; and that my analysis, then, amounted to little more than a generalization grounded in the narrow sandbox of The Griffin opinion section (my words, not his).

Needless to say I had certain reservations about this, but I conceded at the very least that I had not polled student opinion. I realized that I was no longer in the Ivory Tower, that I had instead found myself wandering somewhere in Wehle.

I asked the president to articulate what he perceived as the message of the ad campaign.

“It’s all in the viewbook,” Hurley said.

Perhaps my blank expression spurred him to expand. “It’s having challenging academics as well as experience outside the classroom,” he said.

I suggested that this message has not been reaching prospective students – specifically, that we haven’t met our desired enrollment numbers.

“Do you know what the desired numbers are?” Hurley asked.

“We’ve given up the goal of recruiting freshman classes of 800,” I said. “The paradigm has changed, somewhere.”

The president pointed out that “80 percent of the [high] schools we recruit from have reported smaller graduating classes.”

I nodded. This is indeed the case. I recalled a Resident Assistant training session in August in which Bob Hill, Director of Marketing and the man behind the ad campaign, explained a plan to reach out to wider audiences and fresh markets.

The president agreed. “Let’s reach out,” Hurley said; although he noted, as did I, that this task was “exceedingly difficult.” I wondered, though, what the ad campaign said to those out-of-state students, who know Canisius but little, or not at all. We would return to this later.

“What is our strategy in the long term?” I asked. I saw shrinking class sizes, shrinking operating budgets, shrinking departments.

“No one talks about the long term in higher education any more,” Hurley said.

This was perhaps a generalization, I thought; or perhaps a fact. Acknowledged or unacknowledged, Canisius is in a maelstrom, a cross-current of broad cultural changes and institutional restructuring, all while our transnational sunset paints the wave crests red. Or, to put it plainly, we’re hurting for money and looking for answers – like everyone else. Either way it presented, to me, a problem.

I referenced the recent decision to end Presidential Scholarships, and to redistribute the wealth among a wider stratum of students. “Won’t the top-performing students be lured away by Fordham or UB,” I asked, “lowering the college’s academic profile? And with a lower academic profile, won’t fewer top-performing students be attracted to the college in the first place?”

“The profile, theoretically, would dip a little bit.” Hurley said.

“Is this a concern?”

“No,” he said.

“We were concentrating an awful lot of money on a few students,” Hurley expanded. “Students with a 90 average have a few more dollars in this scheme,” and ultimately, he sees it as “a better allocation of resources.”

The president related his own story – that of a high school student with an 88-92 who left Canisius with honors.

“The redistribution of school funds should not be interpreted at all as any diminution of our academic excellence,” he said.

“It’s a matter of saying we’re ‘worth it?’ ” I asked.

“We’re worth it.”

I couldn’t fault this sentiment. Canisius is worth a lot. But so are scholarships, and I knew I wouldn’t have been sitting in that office if I hadn’t been given such a generous offer by the school.

.     .     .

“I’m seeing a broader narrative,” I said, “of a slipping focus on academics.” I cited concerns voiced at the spring faculty meeting, and mentioned, aside from the loss of scholarship money for top students, the ad campaign, the drop in course offerings and increase in class sizes, and the recent push for online education.

The president called my disparagement of online classes “elitist.”

“I couldn’t disagree more,” he said, and argued that a position against online classes amounted to “sticking your head in the sand.”

I pointed out that online courses do not foster the same level of debate as classrooms, that students can acquire knowledge – if knowledge is what they seek – in a library or in a free online course taught by a professor from Stanford or Columbia, and that students who take online classes are paying, essentially, for the credit. An online chatroom, I thought, was not conducive to free exchange, to Hegelian synthesis.

Hurley mentioned asking professors who teach online courses to rate their experiences, and found that “the pedagogy had the same degree of rigor that we would have in a classroom environment,” he said, referring to online chat rooms used for academic discussion. He added that, “The student who would sit in the back of the room and not participate suddenly becomes the most vocal.” He made the case that motivated students will succeed anywhere, in a 20-person classroom or a 300-seat lecture hall. “Some people don’t find face-to-face interaction as critical as you might have thought,” he said.

It seemed to me that while the desire to keep up with the times was noble, the end result looked very much like an education of quantity over quality, and ease-of-access over depth of exploration. But the president felt we could continue to offer quality in the 21st century, and further added that online courses would not form the bulk of the undergraduate courses.

“This place is all about academics,” he said, “We’re in the knowledge business.”

I disagreed. While the slogan “go exploring” could be entirely mental, I considered this to be rather abstract. The pictures in the ad campaign, at least, conveyed not groundbreaking research, but having fun in a safe, urban environment. For me, this was merely one sign of a cultural problem next to which Canisius’ woes look like a mountain in the mouth of a cave.

After reminding me that the phrase is not Canisius’ motto, Hurley continued to explain the academic connotation of “go exploring” – that it referred to “exploring the outer limits of what you know, what you can do … it’s very sophisticated messaging,” he said.

“You say it’s an evolving process,” I said, referring to the campaign. “What changes would you make, if any?”

“None,” he said. “I’m not a creative guy.”

I suggested that the campaign did not convey much about Canisius’ identity, and referenced several articles by senior Dan Radwan. I asked if the president had read a Griffin feature by Brett DeNeve, taking an in-depth look at how the campaign was created, which suggested that it reflected the personalities in “Team Canisius” more than the college itself.

“It was too long,” the president said.

I conceded the point, but I wondered if our character was nonetheless lost in the wash of color.

“Students seem attached to ‘Where Leaders Are Made,’ ” I said, “Canisius students are leaders in Buffalo, leaders in their respective fields. It carries a truth and a relevance that ‘Go Exploring’ doesn’t.”

Hurley dispelled what he saw as a fantasy: people complained about “Where Leaders Are Made,” too.

“A lot of schools were doing leadership things,” he said. “We weren’t alone.”

Hurley conceded the influence of Canisius in Buffalo, but pointed out that this loses relevance as Canisius seeks to expand into wider markets. “That’s a Buffalo thing,” he said. “It’s still important for us. But it’s a Buffalo thing.”

Beyond this, members of the Canisius community quibbled over whether or not leaders could be “made,” or were simply “born.” (One faculty member suggested the motto, “Where Leadership Is Thrust Upon You,” but this was deemed too long.)

.     .     .

Certainly, though, I thought that our Jesuit identity was not emphasized in the campaign. I inquired about Fr. Michael Tunney, S.J.,’s new position as Director of Mission and Identity.

“We needed to be much more intentional about our motives and our thinking about our Jesuit identity,” he said, referring to his choice to create the position. “[Tunney’s] job is to develop programs and otherwise operationalize, in many different ways, our Jesuit identity.”

“What does it mean be a Jesuit college?” I asked.

The president looked baffled. Then he reached to his shelf and handed me a booklet on Jesuit colleges.

“Thanks,” I said, “but what does it mean to you?”

Again, he looked puzzled. After a pause, he said, “It means everything.”

What followed took me quite by surprise. The president began to wax poetic on the meaning of Jesuit spirituality, and its place in higher education – we discussed this for quite some time. The gist, though, was that Canisius offers a “transformational education” – a phrase he admitted was “perhaps overused,” but which had real resonance at Canisius College. A Jesuit education combines academic rigor and spiritual exploration and development with a constant awareness of the movement of God in one’s daily life. In the end, Canisius students are have the “highest ethics” and are prepared to “make the tough decisions.”

For Hurley, preserving the school’s Jesuit identity is a top priority: he stepped in when he thought the ad campaign didn’t emphasize it enough.

“I pushed back, I didn’t think it was addressed properly,” he said.

At this point, Hurley was passionate, but I could tell that this was no superficial excitement. The new topic had animated him from within, and I had the feeling that, for the first time, I was talking to the man, and not the president.

“When you look at student behavior, with drinking and drugs and sex,” he said, “do you see Ignatian discernment?”

Well. I wasn’t quite sure what ‘Ignatian Discernment,’ meant, but I gave him the point.

“Do you feel more of an impetus to preserve our Jesuit identity as the first lay president?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s not like anybody’s hassling me,” but “I’m energized by the opportunity. We have to constantly remind ourselves that the laity is in fact the church.”

The president, at least, seemed to be living this example: the books on his shelves were about equally divided between higher ed theory and Jesuit spirituality.

“It’s a question of self-preservation,” he said. “The only way this is going to survive is if the lay people take up the cross.”

.     .     .

Once the president started fiddling with his shoelaces, I figured it was time for me to leave. We had been talking for about an hour and fifteen minutes.

Although Hurley was unconvinced when I cited “general student opinion” on the ad campaign (as it was “not statistically valid”), he said that what he had heard puzzled him. “There are lots of bad things in the world to get worked up about,” he said. “I’d rather save my energy.”

He went so far as to say that other colleges should be “jealous” of our ad campaign.

When I went to check on this, officials from Niagara and LeMoyne declined to comment, but an anonymous administration official at Medaille took issue with Hurley’s claim. “Nobody but the people at Canisius can judge whether or not the campaign is or will be effective,” he said, but “I don’t know if the campaign reflects the reality of a Canisius education.”

Although the president sees the ad campaign as “very sophisticated,” I am still convinced that it does little to set the college apart. Other colleges that have used 160-over-90 to “rebrand” ended up with campaigns very similar to ours: filled with platitudes and clichés. Loyola Maryland trumpets “Be the Future,” and “Know Yourself to Know Others.”

Michigan State University ads say, “Spartans choose their own adventures,” but the school manages to stand out by highlighting the academic, research, and service accomplishments of its students.

UCLA declares, “The only type of student you won’t find at UCLA is one that just goes to class.”

The worst offender is Notre Dame, proclaiming “We invite you to explore,” and “explore different angles.” Worse still, the ND ad campaign uses the same font found in our viewbooks and literature.

All told, we seem to be lost in a morass of generic hipsterdom: we think “out of the box,” we break convention, and, most absurdly, we attempt to lay claim to uniqueness.

Any student of history knows that this track ends in Dada: incoherence.

However, Hurley pointed out that few students make a decision on college “based on a billboard.” “The billboard is a door,” he said, “an invitation.”

He asked, “Who’s going to be attracted by a billboard of six kids huddled over a library desk?”

“Well, I would,” I said.

I’m not sure if the president heard me.

.     .     .

After the interview, I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s lines, from “Tangled Up in Blue”: “We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.”

It’s very clear that on many issues, the president and I could find little common ground. Where we stood together, though, we found firm footing indeed: a love for Canisius. A basic dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. A desire for “magis” (the Jesuit term for “more”).

The fact is, the college is in trouble. To deny this would be rank absurdity. The entirety of higher ed is in trouble – and we’re caught up in the changes with everybody else.

As such, all members of the college community need to step up. We’re one of 28 Jesuit colleges in the United States, but we’re not yet in the top tier. Colleges gain prestige on two fronts: academics and athletics. And right now, Jim Baron has a better chance of increasing enrollment than any ad campaign, no matter how “sophisticated.” But that’s not to say that Mr. Baron has to shoulder the responsibility alone.

Fans: start coming to Canisius athletic events. Our teams, by and large, had a great showing this year – they deserve your support, and they play better when you cheer harder. If we want to be a Marquette, a Xavier, a Gonzaga, we need to start supporting our Griffs.

Other top-tier Jesuit schools, though, are known more for their academics than anything else – I’m thinking Fordham, Boston College, and Holy Cross. However, much of these schools’ appeal comes from their location, their age, and their endowment.

We can compete if we keep a laser-like, adderall-driven focus on academics. There is still a gap between the theoretical decline of the college’s academic profile and the future the president presented. We need to watch this academic profile closely in the coming years: someone needs to think in the long term, even if we are to focus our attention, prudently, on the problems of the present.

We are great at encouraging student efforts. But the faculty and administration need to communicate. Freely. They need to work together to deliver quality education more efficiently and at a lower cost – without cheapening the education itself. For that matter, we cannot continue to alienate adjunct faculty members. Frankly, I think ideas and information flowed more freely at Canisius when Father Demske hosted a yearly Christmas party in Loyola Hall.

Alumni (and this includes current seniors): we appreciate your generosity. I, personally, have benefitted from anonymous alumni donors just as much as anyone here. But we need a bigger endowment if we are to continue to lure the top students. (And, further, we oughtn’t be dipping into the endowment fund any more than we have.)

Students must keep in mind that we hire the administrators to make the tough decisions. This means that we have to accept some belt-tightening; but it also means that we have a responsibility to make our thoughts known. Teachers and administrators, for their part, would do well to keep in mind that we pay their salaries.

I’ll graduate next year, but I’m with Canisius for the long haul. I’m a Griffin. I’m an “explorer.” Maybe someday I’ll be a leader. I may not be able to solve all of our particular problems; nor can The Griffin staff, nor any individual student. But, in rather broad strokes, I know where we’ll find the answer: in community, in shared governance, and in faith.

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Comments

  1. Chauncey says:

    Great piece. While I’m still critical of the new ad policy and the general trends in academics and tradition, I am critical because I love the Canisius community as much as the people making these decisions. We all do, and we all need to openly acknowledge that our headbutting is over what we feel is best for the College.

  2. Victoria says:

    Well done. I’m truly proud to be an alum of a college where students are genuinely concerned and critically analyze the changes that occurring in their school community. I do agree that while we are in college, we should “explore”; college is a time for us to come into our own identities, however, it would be nice to see our marketing show what forms of this we have to offer (for example, spiritual retreats and service trips). Yes, we may “explore” in other ways, but I think the college needs to pinpoint what type of student they wish to attract: hardworking, motivated students, students that come to college to “explore” outside of the classroom, students that want to make a difference or maybe all of the above!
    Either way, I do think they need to adjust their marketing strategy to a more inspiring and motivating message. Canisius is about getting a high quality, Jesuit education while being men and women for others and I think we need to include that in our message. There may be students out there willing to pay the high tuition to “explore” but I know that personally I chose Canisius because I knew I was getting a good education for the amount of money I was paying. If I wanted to “explore”, I would’ve started at ECC where the programs are set up to help students pinpoint what they’d like to do. I’m not saying that ECC’s not a good school, but Canisius isn’t a school designed like ECC. It’s a school designed for kids who want a high quality education and are willing to pay for it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the elusive Wiseau would be the most difficult subject I’d yet interviewed (beating out my former college president by a long shot).  I wasn’t worried that I’d upset Wiseau – he’s a kind […]

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