“The college couldn’t afford to run and still remain viable.” President John Hurley discusses recent layoffs, faculty morale, future of core curriculum

(Katie Hosgrove/The Griffin file photo)

Citing a “sense of urgency” to balance Canisius’ budget, President John Hurley on Tuesday defended the administration’s decision to cut 23 professors and 71 additional college employees this summer as part of an overhaul of the college’s core curriculum.  

President Hurley admitted that these decisions were made without following all of the procedures listed in the faculty handbook, which he said were “elaborate” and could take up to two years. 

“One of the things that some of the faculty are saying is that we couldn’t do any of this without declaring a financial exigency. In fact, the process for getting to the point of a recognized financial exigency takes about two years,” President Hurley said. 

“Well, that seems to me to cut directly against the definition of an exigency. An exigency is something dramatic and urgent in the here and now. There just isn’t the time to do that.”

The source of the urgency was a projected $20 million shortfall in the college’s budget, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. President Hurley said the Board of Trustees determined that $12.3 million in budget moves was immediately required to address the deficit. 

“We saw a very sharp drop in revenue which created a potential budget deficit that, quite frankly, the college couldnt afford to run and still remain viable. So, that was driving the planning was a sense of urgency about that,” he said. 

The Board has a final say in decisions regarding the college, he said, and has the ability to go around procedures in the faculty handbook. 

“I said at the outset that we were going to do our best to observe the spirit of the handbook and its procedures, even if we couldn’t fulfill every single procedural restriction. I don’t think any of these things are drafted with the idea of a global pandemic, and that’s the problem we are facing,” President Hurley said. 

“Now, I’m not saying we threw [the handbook] out, there was consultation with the faculty here. We have in the academic program board guidelines and a recognition that we are entitled to eliminate programs and the Board ultimately has a final say in that.”

According to a memo from the Core Curriculum Committee (CCC) of the Faculty Senate, dated July 28, the administration did not notify the committee of the upcoming decisions prior to President Hurley’s letter to the faculty on July 20. 

The CCC is responsible for hearing changes to and amending the Canisius core curriculum. 

The memo alleges that the CCC was not involved in the development of the plan to revamp the core curriculum and that it is unclear how the committee will be able to meet a Fall 2021 deadline to determine a new core, especially considering two of its original six members have been let go. 

“It is a body of academic studies, the procedures for changing it involved hearings by the committee and faculty forums,” Dr. Betsy DelleBovi said in an interview on Aug. 2. 

“For the Board to have said they are going to make the core smaller, without the counsel of the committee, was unfortunate,” said Dr. DelleBovi, who served as co-chairperson of the Faculty Senate and was laid off this summer in the round of cuts. 

President Hurley alleged that the CCC notified him via email over the summer that its members would not do any more work as committee members until the administration released faculty contracts. “There really wasn’t a committee to consult with,” he said.  

“His claim that the CCC was not up and running in the summer is true, but he should have been involving them much earlier, and if there are to be cuts to the core in this coming year, hearings with committee and the faculty should occur,” Dr. DelleBovi added on Wednesday. 

The administration will meet with both the CCC and the Educational Policy Committee going forward, starting this week, on how to change the core curriculum, President Hurley said. The original plan was developed over a course of weeks. 

Dr. DelleBovi also served on an ad hoc Faculty Budget Welfare Committee, which met with President Hurley, Vice President for Business and Finance Marco Benedetti, appointed VP for Academic Affairs Dr. Sara Morris, Dean of Arts and Sciences Dr. Thomas Chambers and Interim Dean of Education and Human Services Dr. Nancy Wallis. 

This group met weekly to provide input and discuss the school’s budget, but was disbanded in July. 

“We finished the consultation and we got their input on the decisions about to be made and everyone on the table agreed there was nothing more for the committee to do,” President Hurley said. 

The decision to go around the faculty handbook has drawn sharp criticism from academic groups, including the Canisius chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which has blamed the budget deficit on decisions made by President Hurley’s administration and not just the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a July 28 release, titled “A Decade of Failed Leadership,” the AAUP noted a 40% rise in administrative expenses from 2014-2018 at Canisius. President Hurley said this was a “conclusory statement” and he has not seen the basis for the figure. 

“I’ve seen that figure cited again and again and I’ve never seen the basis for that statement. … Spending on administration has not increased 40% in this period. They’re looking at some number and I don’t know where they get the numbers and how they draw that conclusion, but it is just not the case because in the period from 2014-2020, we were steadily reducing administrative expenses,” he said. 

An AAUP spokesperson said Thursday that the numbers are self-reported by Canisius to the Federal Department of Education and reported by the
Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

The AAUP joined the Faculty Welfare Committee of the Faculty Senate in calling for President Hurley’s resignation in the July 28 statement, a call that President Hurley said “doesn’t feel great” but will not lead him to step down. 

“I’m staying focused on doing my job with the understanding that I have the complete backing of the college’s Board of Trustees,” he said. “I was directed to develop this plan by the Board and implement it and the Board is backing me up on it.”

President Hurley also noted that he has spoken to a large number of alumni, the majority of which support his tenure as president. 

“Frankly, I think that would not be in the college’s best interest right now, not because I want to preserve my job, but I just don’t think a change in leadership at a very sensitive and critical point like this is a good idea,” he said. 

Streamlining the Core

Many of the layoffs are related to the administration’s desire to “streamline” the core curriculum at Canisius, which President Hurley believes is currently “difficult to understand for the average student.”

In 2010, early in his tenure as president of Canisius, President Hurley conducted a rapid listening tour of each academic department. He asked department heads of their opinions of the core curriculum as part of the tour and said he received both good and negative feedback. 

“My conclusions based on all those discussions was that there was a lack of consensus among the faculty at Canisius about goals of the core curriculum and the value of the core curriculum,” President Hurley said. 

“And, frankly, that’s troublesome because it composes such a large part of a student’s curriculum and education and, frankly, I’m a big believer that the core curriculum should be the defining characteristic of a Canisius education.”

President Hurley emphasized that the school will not “abandon” the liberal arts at Canisius, but will look to “streamline” the core curriculum so that the college will not have to offer all the courses currently offered to allow students to fulfill the core. 

“What I’m talking about is not eliminating things or abandoning things, but making it more coherent and making it better,” he said. 

In addition, President Hurley said he believes that the recent changes will allow the college to focus on programs such as the chemistry department, where the school is looking to add a dedicated biochemistry professor. 

“There is a strategy involved here and the strategy is we need to let go of some things that may have been successful in an earlier day and I understand that is painful and I wish that weren’t the case,” he said. 

“There’s more that we are looking at. It’s skinny down some programs that we haven’t had real success with and are not likely to have success with going forward and invest in your marquis undergraduate programs, maintain the strong core curriculum but streamline that and make it more consistent and coherent and develop graduate programs.” 

Fall 2020 and beyond

Returning Canisius students are bound to notice some familiar faces absent from the college’s classrooms, including Dr. Bruce Dierenfield, who served as director of the college’s Honors Program for years. He will remain director of honors theses, though.

President Hurley emphasized that the cuts weren’t as black and white as it might appear on the surface. 

“People keep talking about this ‘mass firing’ of 25 people. It wasn’t that, there were some positions where faculty members were in the last year of a phased retirement and they agreed to a buyout of that last year,” he said. 

“There were cases where people voluntarily took the retirement incentive and people said, ‘well you forced them to take it.’ Well, maybe, but they weren’t far away from retirement and they were able to do it.”

Amicable departures or not, President Hurley noted that faculty morale is a cause for concern going forward, especially with the Faculty Senate voting “no confidence” in the administration on July 23. 

“Yes, that has been an issue we are trying to work on,” he said. “I subscribe to the notion that when we are able to stabilize the enrollment of the college and get into a predictable budget pattern in which people can feel they are being compensated for what they do and there is more security here, then morale would be better.”

President Hurley added that the administration allowing professors to teach remotely instead of mandating in-person instruction is an example of easing morale. 

“We had to be more flexible with people as a result of that, and that’s an example of trying to understand the mood of the faculty and not exacerbate existing anxieties as a result of that.” 

He also said that the layoffs were nothing to take lightly and disagreed with the notion that they were like the “Hunger Games,” a term coined in a post about the layoffs on the academic blog “The Professor is In.” . 

“There’s nothing fun or funny about it, it’s a situation of people looking and saying I’m in a position where I can do this or I elect to do it because I want to preserve the position of a junior member of our department and the future of the college. And I think those are noble moves by the people involved,” he said.

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