By Amanda Weber
Assistant News Editor
President John J. Hurley invited the Canisius community to a Town Hall meeting that was held in Regis Room in the Student Center on April 20, 2017 from 3-4:00 p.m. Although the meeting did run over its scheduled time and Hurley was not able to address every single topic on his agenda, main topics of concern such as Governor Cuomo’s free tuition plan and the school’s budget were discussed. At the conclusion of the discussion, members of the audience were able to ask the President questions about the issues discussed or other topics that they wanted answers about.
To open the event a heroic event from one Canisius College staff member was honored by Hurley. Jacob Casell, garage mechanic in Facilities Management, was awarded with a “citation for saving a life.” Hurley described Casell’s actions as he sprang into action in order to save another man’s life: Casell noticed that an individual pulled another man out of a car. The man seemed unresponsive. Although CPR was being administered, Casell noted that it was not being done correctly. Therefore, he took initiative and, according to Hurley, Casell’s actions likely saved that man’s life. He thanked Casell’s family for being in attendance at the meeting and described him as a “fast-thinking, man of action” who was willing to help a total
stranger in need.
Hurley then addressed the memorandum he sent out to the Canisius community regarding the Excelsior Program, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal passed through the New York State budget. He made many of the same points in this town hall meeting as he did in the memorandum. According to his memo, “the Excelsior program is funded at $87 million.” Hurley made it clear that it was not due to lack of effort from those against the proposal that it was ultimately passed. He said that there was “active advocacy” demonstrated on his part and on the part of others, especially the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU). He also expressed his disappointment in Republican legislators who were originally against the proposal who ultimately ended up voting for it.
“It is not clear to me what the bargaining leverage was there and how it came to pass,” said Hurley.
Although the $87 million allocated to the program may sound like a lot of money, Hurley does not think that the effect will be as great and beneficial as some may think. While the CICU estimated that 900,000 families would be eligible for the program, the budget is simply not big enough to allow all who are eligible to receive the scholarship. Therefore, the governor’s office estimated that only about 32,000 grants from the program will be made. This difference in supply and demand means that only 3.5-percent of families who are eligible–earning an income of $125,000 or less–will actually receive a grant.
“We know that there’s going to be more interest in the program than there are scholarships available,” said Hurley.
Hurley noted that Canisius is already making an active effort in response to this proposal. The proposal is one which could harm Canisius by taking students away from already shrinking Freshman enrollments. One of the first steps the College has already taken is to send out a letter emphasizing the benefits of a Canisius education to the parents of every admitted student. He explained that the class size and the community fostered success in the students and addressed the fact that the graduation rates at SUNY and CUNY schools are “well below” those of Canisius. Additionally, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) will be added to the Canisius website that will address this issue. For example, the Excelsior Program may provide free tuition, but it does not cover fees, room and board, or books. Hurley hopes to highlight the differences that a Canisius education could provide in the College’s advertising and marketing programs.
Despite letters being sent to admitted students, one member of the audience voiced her concern about what was being done to preserve current students and make them want to stay here rather than embrace the benefits of the Excelsior Program. She stated that she had a meeting with a student that day where the student admitted that their friend, an upperclassman, had already made the decision to transfer to the University at Buffalo because of the free tuition. Hurley agreed that information should be sent out to the current students and noted that this has been an ongoing issue for the College and needs to be worked on. However, he believes that advancing further engagement between the students and the school, such as through services like the Griff Center, will help with this. However, other factors do play a role.
“Retention is an interrelated topic that involves finances, academic ability, and engagement,” said Hurley.
Although the school is making efforts, the future of Canisius and other private universities could potentially change dramatically due to this new plan. Hurley projects that this could potentially cost Canisius approximately 200 students, which is a serious decline. Hurley hoped to avoid this deficit by working with others, including the CICU, to increase the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), the previously leading form of tuition assistance for New York college students. Currently, Canisius students receive 2.3 million dollars in TAP. Despite the fact that Hurley wished to increase the maximum grant and income eligibility for TAP, his hope for “meaningful improvement” did not occur.
“You’ve got all these pots of money to finance higher education in New York, each with different conditions on them,” said Hurley, “and, ultimately, they are all going to compete for funding.”
The topic of the conference then shifted to the school budget, and enrollment and retention numbers. In 2012, the school discovered that the retention rate for the school was not what it should have been and had to take steps to improve this. In addition, a new enrollment strategy was developed to cope with the fact that the size of classes entering had declined enough from 2010 to 2012 to be of grave concern. Despite Hurley’s reassurance that other private institutions across the state were experiencing this same 20-percent decline, he still understood that changes needed to be made. The observations and suggestions that came from the consulting report at that time stated that administrative costs needed to be consolidated. The school was becoming smaller in regards to student population, which means that it needed to be a smaller college overall.
“Schools are being consolidated and jobs are [being] lost,” said Hurley.
Hurley made it clear that, although he was hopeful for the College and believes that the education received at Canisius is of great value, he is simply stating facts and addressing the reality of the current situation. The enrollment for the freshman class in Fall 2012 was 810. In Fall 2016, it was 602. This is an approximate decline of 25-percent. Although Hurley addressed accusations of a lack of transparency between administration and the rest of the campus community, he disagreed and noted that these issues were discussed in Faculty Senate Meetings and his Convocations. However, he did admit that communication could always be improved and it is not always perfect.
When Hurley opened up the floor to members of the audience to ask questions, one individual stood up and addressed his concern of the sticker price for tuition. He explained that he talked to some parents and told them that he taught at Canisius. Despite agreeing that Canisius was a great school, some students did not even apply to the school due to its high sticker price. Although financial packages help, the sticker price of the College is intimidating to some. The professor mentioned working to make the tuition more affordable. Hurley chuckled, then told the professor to “turn the recording on, because I’m about to agree with you.” Hurley stated he wants to work with the College’s financial aid consultants in order to make this possible.
“Frankly, I want to be the first in this area at least to do it [lowering tuition],” said Hurley.
Hurley concluded by thanking everyone in attendance for their past contributions to Canisius and for what they will provide going forward.