By Janelle Harb
On Tuesday, Feb. 14, Canisius president and former Griffin Editor John J. Hurley sent an email to students and alumni encouraging them to take action against the Excelsior Scholarship Program by participating in a website that would send a letter condemning the program to local and national government officials.
This email was sent out after the unveiling of the proposed scholarship program on Jan. 3, 2017 at Governor Cuomo’s first proposal of his annual State of the State Address, and subsequent touring of SUNY and CUNY colleges promoting the plan. Governor Cuomo came to speak regarding his plan at Buffalo State University on Feb. 7, 2017 to a reported crowd of over 600 students and supporters.
The Excelsior Scholarship Program is a proposal by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, that would ensure free tuition at New York’s public SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year institutions to students whose families make up to $125,000 per year. Moreover, room and board would not be included within this program, as most people in New York State reside within 15-30 miles of a public college.
Statewide, this program is projected to affect 75.7% of the 942,186 college-aged students in New York. When broken down regionally, the number of college-aged students in Western New York is 68,712, of which 78.8% are estimated to be affected.
“We at Canisius College are greatly troubled by Governor Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship proposal which would provide ‘free tuition to students who attend SUNY and CUNY institutions,’” Hurley said in his email. “Stated simply, Governor Cuomo’s ‘free tuition’ proposal will be bad for Canisius College and all private institutions in New York and it will be bad for New York taxpayers.”
Outcry against this email and admonishing Hurley was almost instant, with some reactions on social media. For example, replies to The Griffin’s tweet requesting student feedback ranged from simply, “here’s a thought: it was bad” (@ryannagelhout) to more lengthy political statements. One alumnus and former Griffin editor, Jonathan Beck, ‘13 stated on Twitter, “Extremely disappointed in @CanisiusCollege Pres Hurley’s letter to Canisius community. He should be asking how Canisius can provide low and middle income families free tuition w[ith] state help, not lobbying against one of the few attempts to address growing inequality” (@jchasbeck).
“Setting aside whether or not one agrees with the Excelsior program, the tone of this letter is poor and it appears the concern is for Canisius and Canisius-like schools alone rather than higher education as a whole. An insult to the intelligence of the alumni, myself included,” stated alumni, Kevin Howard ‘15 (@KevinBHoward).
Another alumna, Kelsey Colwell ‘16, took to Facebook to share her thoughts: “As a magna cum laude alum of Canisius College saddled with $75,000 in loan debt, and no help from family, making $10/hr post grad… I am DEEPLY supportive of free state college tuition. If Canisius College truly wants to be competitive, then you MUST pay your adjunct professors a living wage, stop giving full ride scholarships to sports teams, start valuing humanities MORE, and start managing your tuition hikes.
“I’m frankly insulted that your office would beg alumni, many of whom have broken their backs to attend your college, to oppose free college education… Students are told that if we can’t afford an institution like yours, we should ‘just go to community or state college.’ Perhaps focus on lowering your tuition so students can achieve their dreams at your institution, and focus less on ripping the dreams away from other students. It is a matter of ego that your office is willing to oppose free education for anyone just so your institution can remain ‘competitive,’” Colwell stated.
Colwell’s statement highlights several of the main controversies circling our campus community, especially regarding the underpayment of adjunct professors, as well as the overcompensation for student athletes.
Canisius College Undergraduate Student Association President and College Strategic Planning Committee member Elias Ayoub sat down with The Griffin to offer a more moderate commentary on the email. He explained that President Hurley had been in discussion with various committees such as the College Strategic Planning Committee since the announcement of the Excelsior Scholarship in early January.
Ayoub described the President’s email as a “play it safe move.” Ayoub sees the Scholarship as more of a political gambit than a legitimate proposition by Cuomo, and that, at least at the present time, has doubts that it will pass. As such President Hurley is making a statement of opposition from the point of view of the college, and for the best interest of the college. Ayoub asserts that if such a scholarship were to be instituted it would be the demise of not only Canisius, but numerous other small to mid-size colleges statewide.
“I don’t think there is another college president who wouldn’t have done the same thing in his position,” Ayoub said, adding, “Don’t see this as Hurley striking out against Jesuit values.”
Ayoub speculated that if SUNY/CUNY schools were to become free they would become supersaturated with students. This would lead to either a lack of facilities to accommodate all of the students, or a stricter admissions screening which would disproportionately affect certain student groups such as minorities. Ayoub argued that both of these consequences would hurt the level of education offered at SUNY/CUNY, promoting an education level of lesser value which runs in contrast to the Jesuit promotion of education.
This does not mean that Ayoub is against affordable education or against liberal arts educations. Instead, Ayoub suggested a more realistic option to aid students in need to afford healthcare.
Ayoub stated that Canisius College has been working with The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, (CICU) a statewide lobby group representing the public policy interests of over 100 independent colleges and universities in New York. This group is advocating for the increase of the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Currently the TAP program is able to offer up to $5,165 in aid per semester to qualified students attending approved schools. This is a state grant and as such does not need to be paid back.
The CICU is fighting to increase this amount of aid for eligible students, making education more affordable to any student attending any college. This would allow for aid, as well as a student’s choice of college. Ayoub urges students to keep these things in mind when developing an opinion on Hurley’s email and the Excelsior Scholarship as a whole. He points to the increase in TAP allowances as a form of legitimate change towards affordable education, and urges students not to lose sight of it in the wake of the larger waves.
In the wake of this email there has been a range of responses from all members of the Canisius community, both current students and alumni. Regardless of the position one takes, it has been made clear that this is a key issue in and around the academic community and will most certainly remain so both within Canisius and nationally for some time.
“Please read and take action,” Hurley titled his email, and that is exactly what students and alumni have shown they can and will do through taking stances and making their voices known.