Although the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., has yet to be formally inaugurated as the 26th president of Niagara University, the campus community has been cognizant of his focus on increasing the university’s role as an economic development incubator since he assumed the President’s Office last August.
Fittingly, as part of Inauguration Week, a symposium on the role that higher education plays in a region’s economic development was held April 3, 2014, on the Niagara University campus in St. Vincent’s Hall.
The forum featured an esteemed five-person panel that included Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership; Patrick Whalen, COO of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus; Howard Zemsky, co-chair of the WNY Regional Council for Economic Development; Timothy Downs, Ph.D., provost at Niagara University; and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.
Dr. Bonnie Rose, executive vice president of Niagara University, welcomed guests and moderated the discussion.
Zemsky spoke first, touting the role that the region’s 21 institutions of higher learning have played in encouraging the Western New York community to take, what he called, a much greater ownership in the future of its economic development.
“The way we’re doing economic development in this area now is much different than the way it’s been,” he explained. “It’s no longer centralized, where Albany dictates everything we’re doing and how we do it. And it’s become much more collaborative and strategic.”
Added Whalen, “In the last 6 to 7 years, you can see what can happen with collaboration. We have 12,000 people working today on the medical campus, and that number is expected to continue to grow.”
Niagara University has taken numerous strategic measures to leverage its resources with those of area businesses, nonprofits and peer institutions as a means to increase the quality of life for local residents. Among them are the establishment of the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement and the forthcoming Global Tourism Institute, a project that was referenced often during the symposium.
Dr. Downs, who will oversee the GTI, said that the institute will examine ways to lengthen the average stay of visitors to Niagara Falls. “We want to transform visitors into tourists,” he remarked.
Utilizing NU’s faculty and student capital, along with its reputation as a premier hospitality and tourism training school, the GTI will work with its partners to offer asset mapping and research and workforce development, and develop forms of technology to inform visitors of what else there is to do in the area, along with seeing the international landmark.
Gallagher-Cohen, who spent several years as a marketing executive with The Buffalo News, also pointed to the role that colleges play in promoting the area, but from a different perspective.
“The impact of our universities to send so many of their alumni out into the world, those who have experienced all that Western New York has to offer, and can talk about it elsewhere – I think that has a tremendous impact on our future,” she said.
Mayor Dyster acknowledged the importance of scholarly change-agents as a means to accelerate the area’s “countdown-to-launch” phase. He praised the work of the Levesque Institute and ReNU Niagara, and said he looked forward to working in greater collaboration with Father Maher and Niagara University, referencing principles of urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who spoke during NU’s graduate commencement exercises in 2011.
“Scholars tend to reward the cutting-edge in society, and students have the tremendous power to define what’s ‘cool,’” he said. “Trying to revitalize a downtown without having students on the streets is like trying to make bread rise without yeast.”
In Father Maher’s concluding remarks, he noted that by 2020, almost 2/3 of American jobs (65 percent) will require some form of postsecondary education beyond high school. In addition, studies show that there will be 55 million job openings in the United States by 2020, and that 35 percent of them will require at least a bachelor’s degree.
Father Maher declared that Niagara University will perform an active and outcomes-focused role in driving economic development.
“It is incumbent upon us, as an institution of higher education, to be nimble, strategic and accountable as we continue to develop our region, our nation and our world.”