Strengthening educational programs at Niagara University in the wake of the closing of its nursing program and boosting the school's enrollment are top concerns of the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque as he begins his tenure as president.
Levesque, about a month into his term as 25th president of the institution, has taken over the helm at Niagara on the heels of the bad news. Not enough students in the nursing program meant it had to go, much to the dismay of the health-care community in Niagara County and beyond.
But Levesque, who is a former professor and dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Niagara, says he has high hopes for improving other programs at the school.
"I want to continue to strengthen the university in the ways that we can," he said.
In part, it means that the university is transforming a section of St. Vincent's Hall into a teaching kitchen and state-of-the-art facility for the university's Institute of Travel, Hotel and Restaurant Administration.
The modernization of the top floor of St. Vincent's is part of an $8 million renovation that will include an information technology center and other student support services on the first floor as well as new classrooms on the second and third floors.
"And we want to make it a center of excellence for the community," said Levesque.
Levesque is just starting his term as 25th president of the university, but the place is no stranger to him.
He spent 15 years at Niagara, so, he said, "It's really like coming home."
Although he was born in North Tarrytown and grew up in Tarrytown, in Westchester County, Levesque said he has spent a lot of his time in the Niagara area.
He was provincial superior of the Eastern Province of the Vincentian Community from 1990 to 1999, based in Philadelphia.
Levesque, who is described by friends as very outgoing and very popular, has also spent some time on boards of area charitable organizations. He served terms as president of the Health Association of Niagara County and the Ecumenical Task Force of the Niagara Frontier.
He served on the boards of Christ the King Seminary, Stella Niagara Education Park and the Pope John Paul II Residence in Buffalo, a diocesan home for men considering the priesthood. He was also a member of the Buffalo Diocesan Liturgical Commission.
"I would say that we at the university feel very confident about him . . . I think all the pieces are in place for a very successful and a very positive administration on his part," said the Rev. Francis X. Prior, vice president emeritus at NU.
Levesque told his staff as well as the students that he wants anyone with suggestions to sit down and talk with him.
"I think they'll take me up on it and let me know what their own thoughts are," he said. "I want to do the listening first, but I want to continue the excellent programs that we have."
Levesque takes over the office from the Rev. Paul L. Golden on the heels of the final decision by the school board to close the College of Nursing, effective December 2002.
"The board studied it very carefully before this decision was made . . . . The lack of numbers says to us, for the good of all students, that this is the direction to take," Levesque said.
He said that NU has a new dean of the School of Education, Debra Colley, and that the university is seeking an accreditation for the College of Business program.
"We sought it as a way to strengthen the College of Business," he said.
In the meanwhile, Levesque is also trying to think of ways to increase the university's enrollment.
"We try a lot of different things. We keep on talking about advertising" and which routes the university should take to attract students.
The school currently has 2,357 undergraduates and 583 graduate students, for a total enrollment of 2,940. Five years ago, that enrollment was 2,865. Ten years ago, the number was 3,065.
Levesque said the university is also looking at trying to attract Canadian students. However, with finances favoring the Canadian side of the border, enrollment by Canadian students is not as high as he would like it.
On taking over the reins from Golden and from the interim president, the Rev. Richard J. Devine, Levesque said: "Clearly, I would want to continue to emphasize the fact that we are Catholic."
James V. Glynn, chairman of Niagara University's board of trustees, said he is confident in Levesque.
"He's very familiar with the City of Niagara Falls itself and knows an awful lot of people in the city. He's very cognizant of the economic plight in the area. He, I think, is going to make a very good president for the university," Glynn said.
Gary D. Praetzel, director of the university's Institute of Travel, Hotel and Restaurant Administration, said that he believes Levesque will fit into the Niagara University mold quite well.
"What we're stressing at Niagara right now is Niagara University's relations with the community . . . . We're looking to build on his commitment to bring Niagara into the community, Praetzel said.
"He reaches out to all communities, and Niagara, to me, is a very inclusive institution. It reaches out to people."
Praetzel said that Levesque epitomizes the spirit of St. Vincent, who emphasized concern for others.
"He does have the heart of the servant of Christ, and that's something that all of us are asked to take out into the community," said Praetzel.
Nancy E. McGlen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at NU, said Levesque will help the school with growth. "I think he's going to be very supportive."
She, too, spoke of Levesque's excitement about his leadership role at the university.
"I think he will be able to take that excitement out into the community," she said.