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Canisius College will enroll fewer students and probably need fewer buildings by 2020, but its academic profile will be stronger and the college will become “one of the true innovators in American higher education,” Canisius President John J. Hurley said Thursday in an address to the campus.

Hurley offered a sobering recounting of the past three years of financial challenges at the largest private college in Western New York, while sounding confident about Canisius’ ability to thrive in the “disruptive environment” facing all of higher education.

To do that, the college needs to consider revising its core curriculum, must do more to help students enhance their job prospects and will pursue “strategic alliances” with other colleges and universities to become more efficient, Hurley said.

Hurley spoke for about 40 minutes in the Montante Cultural Center as part of the college’s annual convocation ceremony marking the start of a new academic year.

About 300 faculty, staff, students and alumni attended.

Like many area private colleges and universities, Canisius has experienced enrollment declines in recent years.

Hurley said this year’s entering freshmen class of 640 is down from 705 in 2012, and the number of graduate students at Canisius has fallen by 26 percent over the past two years from 1,767 to 1,304.

To account for the lost revenue from tuition and fees, the college has cut $12 million from its core operating budget, primarily through a 15 percent reduction in the number of full-time faculty members, administrators and other employees.

“There is no question that we have been through a trying period of transition and reorganization. I often wished that things could have been otherwise, but there is no getting around it: American higher education is undergoing enormous change and we must adjust accordingly,” Hurley said.

Canisius is not alone among Western New York schools. A recent News analysis of college enrollments found that enrollment fell by nearly 5 percent between 2008 and 2013 at 11 private colleges and universities in the area.

Other college and university officials said their campuses, too, are in the midst of significant changes to help them confront the new complexities facing all institutions of higher education.

“We’re trying to turn that boat right now with new programs,” said John Crawford, vice president for college relations at Medaille College. “We have to make sure our programs are relevant to the job market.”

Medaille College had the steepest five-year decline in enrollment – 860 students, or 27 percent – although all of that drop-off was in graduate students. The declines contributed to a $2.2 million deficit last year and prompted college officials in May to shut down the college’s satellite campus in Amherst. Crawford said the college will unveil new initiatives in a few weeks.

Many colleges and universities that have costly campuses to maintain find themselves facing growing competition from online educational programs.

“Fifteen years ago you could identify your competition as the 17 schools around you. Now, you’re also looking at the University of Phoenix and Kaplan and all these online schools,” said Jacqueline Matheny, chief enrollment officer at Trocaire College in South Buffalo.

Hurley said Canisius will adjust by introducing new graduate programs, primarily in “online or hybrid formats.”

The college’s online programs will be marketed nationally and globally, he added.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Canisius spent tens of millions vastly expanding its footprint on Main Street, near the Scajaquada Expressway.

But Hurley suggested in his talk that the campus could get smaller in the future.

“Our somewhat lower undergraduate enrollment and the online nature of our graduate programs will likely make certain peripheral buildings expendable,” he said. “The developments at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus have changed the dynamics of the downtown Buffalo real estate market and will give us many more options to reshape the footprint of the campus to make our operations even more efficient.”

Hurley also said the college will be a “major player” in the Medical Campus, as life sciences companies demand innovative degree and certificate programs and “industry-specific courses” that can be provided by Canisius.

To become more student-centered, the college recently opened the Griff Center for Academic Engagement, which focuses on assisting students both academically and in career development, from the moment they step onto campus.

St. Bonaventure University, outside Olean, also has beefed up its career and professional readiness center to help students land internships, develop professional portfolios and hone their interviewing skills, said Sister Margaret Carney, president of the university.

No matter what innovations they make, however, due to demographic trends, Hurley and other college officials acknowledged their campuses likely won’t be seeing significant enrollment growth anytime soon.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com