In ten years as president of Canisius College, President John Hurley has never faced a challenge quite like the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There’s absolutely no question,” President Hurley said via video conference last month. When talking about risk management at the college, “we never calculated on a pandemic that would essentially shut the world down and everyone along with it.”
The global coronavirus outbreak has thrown a wrench into what was supposed to be a celebration of Canisius’ 150th birthday. “We’re dealing with something that we’re not prepared for, nor obviously no one else was prepared for. What do you do with that? You take it one day at a time,” President Hurley said.
Classes were moved online in March. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference cancelled its spring sports seasons; the NCAA followed suit. Canisius cancelled Giving Day, one of the biggest fundraisers of the year. Commencement for the 2019-20 year was moved to Oct. 10.
“We have some incredibly dedicated people at senior ranks of the college who are making things happen, kinda quietly, but things are going on and I think they’re making the best of the situation,” President Hurley said. He especially credited the school’s Crisis Response Team and Patricia Creahan, the director of the student health center, for their contributions to the ongoing crisis.
President Hurley was named president of the college on July 1, 2010, the first lay person to be put in charge succeeding the Rev. Vincent Cooke, S.J., who was retiring.
“It’s a great honor to serve in this office,” President Hurley said. “One of the things that [Cooke] told me that this can never be about you. It has to be about the college and about the important role that the college plays for lots of people.”
Knowing that it’s about the college and its reputation has kept him “grounded,” he said. President Hurley believes one of his proudest moments at Canisius came in 2012, when the “Legacy of Leadership” fundraising campaign netted the school more than 90 million dollars.
“That was a big feather in the cap for Canisius College because we set out to raise 90 million dollars and we raised 95. Our previous campaign we had a goal of 30 million dollars and we raised 35,” President Hurley said.
“I think a lot of people said, ‘well, maybe they’ll reach 90 million dollars, maybe they won’t,’ so that was a big accomplishment for us.” Under his leadership, Canisius’ endowment rose from 60 million dollars to 136 million dollars at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year.
But President Hurley knows that a bigger challenge is already upon him, one that has been brewing long before the coronavirus outbreak.
“In the whole time I’ve been president, we’ve been battling demographic decline in the northeast. Simply put, there are fewer students. And there are some that would say we need to do a better job marketing. Well, you’ve got a classic supply and demand situation in the northeast. There are too many colleges and universities and not enough students,” he explained.
A 2018 study by The Hechinger Report projected that the number of college students would decline by 15% after the year 2025, due to birth rates falling in the wake of the 2008 recession. Eleven small colleges closed in 2017, and a report from Moody’s Investors Service predicts the percentage of small colleges closing will tick upwards each year.
President Hurley believes that students are much more picky about their colleges, desiring a plan that will put them in the real world with a job and certain payoff. It’s led to decline in certain liberal arts programs in colleges across the nation.
“That’s not poor marketing, that’s a question of student desires and families being very concerned about the cost of college and what the payoff is. This has fundamentally changed the relationship between the college and its students,” President Hurley stated.
How will Canisius combat these changes? It’s up to the campus community to convince prospective students that life is more than just getting a job, without ignoring that new demographic.
“In every era, Canisius has faced challenges,” President Hurley said. “Jesuit education is at its core pragmatic. We need to be creative and open to possibilities. We can’t sit back and say ‘I want to get back to the way it was.’ We have to look forward and say, ‘how do we adapt to what this has given us and remain a really high quality institution?’”