Faith, Justice, Leadership

July 7, 2022
John J. Hurley

John Hurley studied history at Canisius College. And then he made some as its first lay president.

His first memory of the college is shining the brass buttons on his brother Paul’s ROTC uniform. That was 60 years ago, when John was six. Since then, fair to say, he has made more memories here.

This summer he will step away after 25 years of service to his alma mater. John J. Hurley ’78 arrived in 1997 as vice president for college relations and general counsel. He was named president in 2010, and now takes his leave as the longest-tenured president currently serving Western New York’s colleges and universities.

There are many ways to measure a career in higher education. The college’s endowment ($49 million in 1997; $179 million today) is one way. But numbers never tell the whole story. Biography is better for that.

Hurley is one of six sons who all earned their degrees at Canisius. His immediate family boasts 19 Canisius degrees. That counts his own plus those of his siblings and their spouses — and of his and their children. It is a lot of blue and gold.

John was nine when Paul took him to his first Canisius men’s basketball game at Memorial Auditorium. At 11, he began going to Griffs games on his own, riding the Main Street bus from its first stop (at the city line) to its last (at the Aud) on cold Saturday nights.

Then, in 1974, as a senior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, Hurley visited Canisius to take a tour and go to some classes. This happened to be the day that The Griffin published its so-called “Centerfold Issue,” which contained a cartoon of a nearly nude Rev. James M. Demske ‘47, SJ, then the college president. This pen-and-ink parody of a Burt Reynolds pose from Cosmopolitan magazine put the campus in an uproar.

“I was editor of the St. Joe’s paper at the time,” Hurley says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go to Canisius. Looks like a lot of fun down here.’”

He studied English and history in the college All-College Honors Program and served in student government — and, like his brother Dan before him, became editor of The Griffin.  John was also a founding member of the Independent Student Coalition, a student lobbying group in Albany, and served a six-month term as its executive director. It was only the beginning of a lifelong fight for students at independent schools.

As it happens, Hurley got a second education while an undergraduate at Canisius. He lived in his senior year with five Jesuits who chose to live in a college-owned home at Main and Humboldt, next door to Campion Hall, rather than with the other Jesuits on campus at Loyola Hall.

“Every night we had serious talks around the dinner table,” Hurley says. “We talked about housing issues in Buffalo. We talked about issues in Central America. This was all new stuff for me. These aren’t things that were talked about in the suburbs.”

Hurley’s year of living Jesuitically came not long after a worldwide congregation in which the Society of Jesus publicly connected its educational mission to the promotion of social justice.

“I learned this is what life should be: You should be plugged into the major issues of the day,” Hurley says. “And because I was living with priests, we talked about these things from a Catholic perspective.”

Hurley graduated summa cum laude in 1978 and went off to Notre Dame Law School, where he met Maureen O’Connell, whose late father had played big-league baseball for several teams, including the Milwaukee Braves. As it happens, the Atlanta Braves are John’s favorite National League team, which is one among many reasons their marriage was meant to be. (Three more: Caroline ’11, MS ’17; Brian, Notre Dame ’13 and Millie ’20.)

John and Maureen graduated from Notre Dame Law and worked at law firms in Chicago for three years. Then they moved to Buffalo, where John worked at Phillips, Lytle, Hitchcock, Blaine and Huber, and Maureen worked at Rich Products, where she rose to executive vice president and chief administrative officer. (She retired in 2016.)

Hurley spent 13 years in bankruptcy law at Philips, Lytle and worked his way up to partner. He served a term as president of the Canisius Alumni Association and was about to be become chair of the Board of Regents when Rev. Vincent Cooke, SJ, the Canisius president, asked Hurley to be his right-hand man.

“I was reaching the point, as I was approaching 40, where I didn’t know if I wanted to practice law until I was 60 or 70,” Hurley says. “I loved the college and I thought I could help.”

He arrived as Canisius was in the midst of a capital campaign with a goal of $30 million. The campaign ultimately raised $39 million, and much of that money was put into a renovation of Old Main and the transformation of St. Vincent’s into the Montante Cultural Center.

“I think it was a transition point for the college,” Hurley says. “We had a building plan. Enrollment was going up. The endowment was going up.”

Another campaign commenced in 2007 — with a goal of $90 million. A collapse of the financial markets in 2008 didn’t help but by 2012 the Legacy of Leadership campaign had raised $95.5 million. Much of that was used in the transformation of the former Sears building into Science Hall and to build the college’s endowment. Canisius has invested more than $175 million into the campus since 1994. The college has also invested in the Hamlin Park neighborhood through a program that helps employees who buy homes near campus.    

Hurley’s tenure has coincided with a time of disruption in higher education, from rapidly rising costs to demographic trends that mean a smaller college-age population in the state. “This has been a very difficult time for all of us in higher education,” Hurley says, “and Canisius has not been spared.”

Tuition accounts for 90 percent of the college’s revenue. Falling enrollment in recent years exacerbated by the global pandemic resulted in a projected $20 million budget shortfall in summer 2020. This led Hurley to the painful decision to cut some positions and some courses in the humanities while adding courses in other disciplines.

“You need a sense of urgency when things aren’t going well,” Hurley says. “You can’t sit by and hope things get better; you have to do things to help them get better. We made hard decisions under difficult circumstances. It has meant a decline in positions, which I feel bad about it. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pleasant but when you have fewer students, you are going to have fewer people.”

When news broke, in 2018, about how the Diocese of Buffalo handled clergy sex-abuse cases, Hurley spoke out. He and Maureen are among the founders of The Movement to Restore Trust, a group of concerned Catholic lay people. He urged the Church to do more to empower women. The St. Thomas More Guild of Western New York, a group of Catholic lawyers, gave him its top award in 2019. The citation hangs in his office alongside his diplomas from Canisius and Notre Dame.

Hurley has spoken out on a range of issues during his tenure as president, from global poverty to violence in Nicaragua to the dignity of LBGTQ people to the college’s support for “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. He has accompanied Canisius students and faculty to Central America and the Philippines to stand in solidarity with the marginalized world.

These are the kinds of things that were spoken of around the dinner table at Main and Humboldt all those years ago.

“It gave me a perspective on the Jesuits I never would have had by just being a student here and having Jesuits in the classroom,” Hurley says. “I learned that it is important to be engaged in the issues that matter.”

That year steeped him in Jesuit values, including a commitment to magis — Latin for “more.” It means challenging students to go beyond what is expected in the hope that they will go out into the world with generosity, excellence and empathy.

“It is said that the perfect Jesuit graduate is a person whose life is marked by character, competence, conscience, compassion and commitment to the cause of the Gospel,” says Rev. Joseph M. McShane, SJ, the outgoing president of Fordham University. “John Hurley is all of that and more.

From a Jesuit’s point of view, he is a revered and admired ‘companion in mission.’ John has been an indefatigable fundraiser, an eloquent ambassador, and a very nearly perfect embodiment of the values that have always defined Canisius and its graduates.”

Hurley finds comfort in these words. He worried when he came aboard as the college’s first non-Jesuit president that some would see it as a loss for our Catholic-Jesuit identity.

“I felt all eyes were on me: the Bishop, the provincial, the Jesuit community, the Jesuits nationally, the alumni,” Hurley says. “They were all wondering, ‘Is this layman going to screw up the Catholic piece?’ Perhaps the greatest compliment I received was in year three or four when someone said to me, ‘You know, we’ve talked about Catholic and Jesuit mission and identity more in the past three years than we did in the previous 25.’”

Hurley will pass the baton to Steve Stoute, another layman, who will become the college’s 25th president in July.

“Steve represents a new generation of leaders in American Catholic higher education,” Hurley says, “and I couldn’t be more hopeful about the future of Canisius.”

Those dinnertime conversations at Main and Humboldt are a lifetime ago — and ever with him.

“I hung on every word,” Hurley says. “Not understanding everything completely but understanding enough for it to shape my life.”

Sometimes a full understanding of things can wait. As a boy, John tried to read his brother Paul’s college philosophy books. He did not understand them, of course. But he found himself intrigued by the notions these books suggested — of deeper meanings and of the nature of knowledge.

“It was the ’60s,” John says. “It seemed like every other course at Canisius then was philosophy.”

College, as we know, is about more than Heidegger and Kant. It is also about collegiality and friends made for a lifetime. John remembers how Paul’s pals would pick him up in the morning for their carpool to school. John would press his nose to the window as they set off. He longed to go where they were going. Not so many years later, he did.

And the boy who once buffed his brother’s brass buttons grew up to be a president who put a golden gleam on our Golden Dome.

Story  by: Erik Brady '76