ALLEGANY, N.Y. — St. Bonaventure University president Sr. Margaret Carney, OSF, announced the school’s plan to begin a feasibility study with Hilbert College, another Franciscan school in Western New York, last week. The study was approved by the boards of trustees at both institutions, and the presidents of the schools made the announcement to their students, faculty and staff on Oct. 1.
Sr. Margaret and Hilbert College president Cynthia Zane purposefully avoided using the word “merger” in the announcements, claiming it is too early to speculate what a future relationship between the schools might look like.
“Of course people say, ‘you’re talking about a merger,’” said Sr. Margaret in an Oct. 2 Inside Higher Ed article. “All we can say is until we have that data, it doesn’t make sense to talk about anything.”
Thus far, the only action trustees have authorized is a study of finances and other obligations. Several HNP friars serve on St. Bonaventure’s board of trustees, including Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM, board secretary Frank Sevola, OFM, Thomas Conway, OFM, and Kenneth Paulli, OFM.
“I was part of a lengthy and very productive discussion at the last board meeting, which took place three weeks ago, on the topic of St. Bonaventure University potentially expanding and enhancing its alliance with Hilbert College,” John said. “I will be following with great interest developments on this topic in the months ahead. As the sponsoring religious body for the university, Holy Name Province has, of course, an important stake in these discussions.”
Hilbert College, located 60 miles north of St. Bonaventure, in Hamburg, N.Y., was founded by the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957 as a teacher training college for its members. The school, mostly nonresidential, has 1,033 undergraduate students and 41 graduate students, according to its website. St. Bonaventure has 1,837 undergraduate students and 422 graduate students, according to its website.
For more than 20 years, St. Bonaventure has offered out of its Buffalo Center weekend graduate-level classes located on the Hilbert campus, including those in the integrated marketing communications program directed by Basil Valente, OFM.
Preparing for Challenges
The decision to explore future collaboration comes as a response to a regional decline in enrollment. Western New York is projected to graduate one-sixth fewer high school students by the end of the decade. St. Bonaventure missed its enrollment target this fall, with 40 less students than hoped for. Enrollments have been off for the past three years, according to Sr. Margaret. Hilbert’s enrollment has been steady, but has not increased.
St. Bonaventure and Hilbert are two of 21 public and private schools in Western New York, seven of which are Catholic. Schools in the area have discussed the potential for more collaboration or merging due to the large number of schools there and the limited number of students. After the financial collapse in 2008 and pushback from Washington stating that colleges can no longer raise their tuition prices as they once did, colleges are looking for ways to combat rising costs and unpredictable returns on endowments.
“Enrollment has reached a point in Western New York that if any of [the Catholic colleges’ enrollment] goes up, it’s at the expense of one of our other institutions,” Zane said in an Oct. 1 interview with The Buffalo News. “There isn’t going to be any magical expansion of the number of people who might be seeking a college education in this region. Even though both St. Bonaventure and Hilbert recruit outside this region, there are only a few select states in the whole United States, where there is more demand than seats at colleges and universities,” she continued.
Both presidents emphasized that their schools are in good financial health.
“We are not doing this out of any financial desperation,” Sr. Margaret said in The Buffalo News article.
She and Zane hope that by considering these options now, the schools will be able to embrace the change that is approaching higher education institutions across the country.
“We think with the challenges we see on the horizon that we need to get out in front and proactively figure out how do we not just survive, but thrive and continue to offer our students a very high-quality, very cutting-edge education in the Catholic Franciscan tradition,” Zane told The Buffalo News.
Determining Future Collaboration
The study will largely examine the financial status of each institution, investigate legal issues and check the condition of the facilities and human resources, Sr. Margaret said in an Oct. 3 The Bona Venture article. Academic programs will be evaluated to understand the differences between programs offered at Hilbert versus those offered at St. Bonaventure. The first phase of the study will be conducted internally.
The study, that began on Oct. 1, will continue until the board of trustees meeting in December, where the findings will be presented to the boards. If more time is required to complete the study, the findings will be presented at the March board meeting. Dominic Monti, OFM, a former SBU president and a ’67 graduate, has been recommended to serve on the committee from Bonaventure’s board to monitor the process.
If the study finds that the two institutions can collaborate further, several committees will be established that will include both students and faculty, to address and take the necessary steps toward a furthered partnership.
“While the feasibility analysis is a ‘discovery process,’ we wouldn’t be investing in this effort, if we didn’t think there were likely some ways in which St. Bonaventure and Hilbert College could collaborate more closely and achieve greater synergies,” said the presidents in the joint statement released Oct. 1.
Even without the study, Sr. Margaret told The Bona Venture that the institutions can co-locate classes and broaden the options for coursework through use of new technology on both campuses. In addition, the schools could share and split expenses, when St. Bonaventure brings someone to campus for a special event.
Sr. Margaret expressed her desire to know what people’s concerns are in this process and emphasized that this decision is being pursued to better student education and experience.
“With the economy being what it is and there being so much pressure for colleges to bring down their costs, and still create affordable education and use student aid as efficiently as possible, everybody is sincerely trying to do that,” she stated.
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province and a 2012 graduate of SBU.