Remembering Gerard M. Mahoney, C.M.

I have always found it difficult to write about Father Gerard M. “Jerry” Mahoney, Niagara’s twentieth president, without a touch of nostalgia affecting my words. Father Jerry was only 57 years old at the time of his death in January 1991, having served the previous nine years as superior of the Eastern Province of the Vincentian Fathers and Brothers. He had planned to return to Niagara in the near future, and I was delighted at the prospect of once again working closely with him. I served as academic vice president during most of his presidency, and kept in frequent contact with him when, as provincial superior, he assumed the role of chair of the university’s board of trustees in the summer of 1981.

Jerry Mahoney’s accession to the presidency in August 1976 occurred at a turbulent time in the university’s history. A faculty union had been formed just a year before largely in response to a pay scale overwhelmed by inflation and a set of rules governing the conditions of employment ordained by the administration alone. Tough negotiations lay ahead. Moreover, the union leadership, arguing that teachers in religious orders lacked a “community of interest in salary and fringe benefits” with their lay peers, had excluded Vincentian faculty members from the original bargaining unit, an act wholly unsatisfactory to the board of trustees and to the new president personally. Further, the debt arising from a decade of tremendous physical growth had gradually eaten into income for operations, and the university had slipped into the deadly habit of balancing its budget by internal borrowing from endowment. Such a crowded agenda would soon reveal whether the leader had the right stuff.

Niagara knew little about its new president. A native New Yorker, Jerry Mahoney was ordained in 1961, and by 1964 had earned a doctorate in canon law at the Catholic University of America. Over the next 10 years, he occupied himself mainly in seminary instruction in Albany and Germantown, Pa., before his appointment in 1975 as superior of the Vincentian student residence in Niagara Falls. Modest yet assured, he held some things strongly. But he would explain his views softly, at times almost experimentally. At the root of his influence was his integrity: if he gave his word, he kept it. He allowed his officers the freedom to manage their own sectors though he expected and appreciated close and frequent consultations. His officers returned his confidence with deep loyalty, sensing that he cared as much about their work as he did his own. He could be impatient with those who used grand phrases for small matters or whose late afternoon “crises” (or “heavies” as he called them) could not be postponed for a fresh start the next day. As he listened, he would fix his eyes steadily, through large dark-rimmed glasses, on a speaker without causing the slightest embarrassment. He gave the impression that he had time for everyone when in reality he was the busiest person on campus. His charm was in his voice – sympathetic and unmistakably born in Brooklyn. 

In public or private, Jerry Mahoney’s tempered reserve governed any inclination to say too much or say it sharply. He had a way of choosing his words and calculating their effects perfectly. At his first general faculty meeting, a professor told him that, given the current faculty mood, he was “sitting on a time bomb.”  Unfazed, the president quoted the title of a popular song — “We’ve only just begun” — and followed with a pledge that he would work closely with faculty to solve long-standing problems. 

Negotiations with the faculty union began in May 1978 after a federal appeals court declared Vincentian faculty eligible for union membership. Each side had entered the negotiations with somewhat unrealistic expectations of the other’s generosity. Over the next five months, differences over  issues of salary, grievance, and retrenchment stalled the process, but in January 1979 a tentative agreement had been reached. For the first time in the university’s history, a collective bargaining agreement defined most of the important relations between the administration and faculty. Three separate faculty votes in a near astonishing sequence had been necessary to obtain a final agreement: a defeat; a tie vote; and finally a massive majority in favor of the new contract.

A long era of informality at Niagara had ended. Unionization brought an entirely new set of relationships to the governance of the university, embracing almost every aspect of faculty life from employment to retirement. Relationships between faculty and administration could be cordial, even respectful, but they could never again be individualized or improvised.

Change, someone said, can be at once a penalty and privilege. Jerry Mahoney recognized the need for a new kind of academic leadership to forge within the faculty a sense of its own corporate importance; this would be the path to shedding the insularity which hindered broader professional development. Accrediting teams tended to describe Niagara’s academic programs as “solid” or “traditional” and conducted in a friendly, even congenial, atmosphere. But was this enough? The university seemed afraid to trust its own instincts for experimentation, confusing freedom from curricular agitation with academic distinction. Tradition had become the final arbiter of institutional excellence.

In one of our first meetings, I proposed a series of significant changes, the most important of which called for an end to the artificial and outdated rivalry between “teaching or research” as the faculty’s main responsibility. Previous chief academic officers had described research at Niagara as “subservient to good teaching.” Our new position would value teaching and research as two faces of the same thing: instructional excellence. For years, no one had seemed concerned that treating research as a useful adornment, at best, might have affected the quality of instruction. Change was imperative, and if the university expected the faculty to become more active researchers, it must provide, systematically, money for travel to professional conferences, equipment, and research assistance, a substantial increase in the number and stipend of summer research fellowships, and reductions in teaching load. At the same time, the university would establish a fund for the improvement of teaching to encourage new techniques in instruction. In short, we instituted the first formal faculty development program in the university’s history. Just a few years later, an accrediting team would describe our program as “a potential model” for peer institutions. Jerry Mahoney did not intend to change the university’s fundamental teaching mission. But he was committed to making research an essential ingredient for improving the intellectual climate of the university. 

Niagara was in a hurry in the late 1970s as a kind of loose-reined yet purposeful thinking dominated in the top offices. We were determined to fix our attention on academic quality and hold it there long enough to take root. The criminal justice program was reorganized, radically shifting its focus from law to the study of criminal justice as a social science. Social work separated from sociology as its own department, and new undergraduate degree programs appeared in psychology, biochemistry, and biotechnology. A master’s degree program in business administration neared completion. We adopted a plan to obtain every available professional accreditation for the academic disciplines, beginning with social work. And we applied for, and received, a federal grant of 1.5 million dollars enabling us to end our dependence on time-sharing terminals from local industries and establish our first academic computing center in St. Vincent’s Hall. In a single year, 1979-1980, an entirely new element of Niagara’s academic culture -- computing facilities for students and faculty -- had been created. The next year, a degree program in computer and information sciences followed the creation of the academic computing center. 

The president often paraphrased Dickens, saying that “we live in the best of times and worst of times.” He wisely discouraged the rhetoric of fear about diminishing enrollments heard increasingly on the campuses of other small and mid-sized independent universities. Niagara would do a limited number of things but do them well. The university would position itself as a first-rate undergraduate institution offering selected but strong graduate programs mainly in education and business. This stance was not simply intended as an insurance policy against enrollment decline. It reflected, rather, an assertion of Niagara’s character and strength, avoiding what contemporary critics were describing as a “reactive orientation” dominant in colleges searching for a market on which to build a program. These colleges, Jerry Mahoney would say, had it “exactly backwards.”

Niagara’s history can never be reduced to its factual core alone. That would prevent us from understanding the ways in which a president responds to the emotional crises which inevitably find their way to university campuses. On a Sunday morning May 1977, four young women, all sophomore residents of Seton Hall, were killed instantly as the vehicle in which they were driving home on mother’s day collided with a truck on a highway in southern Erie County. Two other women in the same vehicle also died in the accident. It would be difficult to find someone more reassuring to distraught parents and the entire university community in such a tragic situation than Father Mahoney. Although it is hard to recapture the depth of feeling which enveloped that event, it is easier to remember the grace with which he tempered shock and sudden loss with the strength and hope of a supernatural future. In similar fashion, he admired the quiet courage of the 21-year-old captain of the varsity basketball team, Phil Scaffidi, in fighting the cancer of the adrenal gland which, in March 1980, took the young man’s life. Father Mahoney’s serenity, his power of bringing the infinite into everyday life, deeply moved the huge throng of students and faculty who attended the funeral mass. Within weeks, he announced that the gymnasium near the rear of the campus widely used in intramural sports would be named Scaffidi Gymnasium.

Our best intentions notwithstanding, Jerry Mahoney was convinced that we would “probably spend more time than we would like putting out fires.” The fires came and continued to burn, but he skillfully contained them. Two of them deserve special mention. In 1978, the Niagara County legislature revived a plan to reactivate the old Hojack Railway Line, a portion of which ran through the center of the campus, so that trains could carry coal to a fossil fuel plant to be built in the nearby town of Somerset. The tracks had lain dormant for years, and the university hoped to remove them. Now we faced the prospect of a train one hundred cars long rumbling through the campus at a speed of five miles per hour once each day. This was more than the university could bear. The president mobilized the campus community, our neighbors, area politicians, and alumni to fight the proposal. The incident had its lighter moments. During a public meeting, Donald Doyle, C.M., vice president for business affairs, vowed that the Hojack Line would be revived “over my dead body.” A student supporter urged Father Doyle to reconsider, as he had planned to be “lying on the tracks behind Father Mahoney and Father Doyle of course.” The proposal eventually met its death, and the university was finally successful in removing the tracks. But the cost in time and legal fees had been enormous. 

The trauma at Love Canal began in April 1978, and it shocked the nation. But Love Canal was seven miles from the university, and the president could assure the campus community that it was safe from the hazards at that site. However, there were other sites in the area; the one nearest the university was known as Hooker Hyde Park. Run-off from the landfill had contaminated a creek visible from the south end of the campus known as “Bloody Run,” a name dating from the colonial era of the American history. In October 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency sued Occidental Chemical Corp., Hooker’s parent company, for millions of dollars in clean-up and remediation costs. Four sites in Niagara Falls were named in the suit, including Love Canal and Hooker Hyde Park. The linking in the public mind of the two sites as equal threats to their respective populations was something the university had hoped could be avoided. EPA had now put the university in a perilous position. 

Hooker Hyde Park, of course, was not Love Canal but rather a threat that could be contained. Still, a poorly-worded, careless, or inaccurate statement from a federal or state health office or regulatory agency could deal a very damaging blow to the university. Jerry Mahoney remained in control of the matter. In such a sensitive situation, a clumsy hand might have caused irreparable harm. His letters and remarks to the university community and parents, based on the hard evidence of clean air, water, and soil samples, is reaf  reassured his audiences that the university was safe from the effects of contamination. Through a combination of geological good fortune — bedrock and thick upper surface soil which prevented exposure to contamination -- and prudent management, particularly in the most critical early stages of the problem, a crisis had been avoided.

The night before a board of trustees meeting in New York City in December 1980, Father Mahoney told me that he would likely become the next superior of the Eastern Province of the Vincentians. The first round of voting among the confreres had placed him far ahead of any other candidate, and his lead would probably hold on the second ballot. He felt honored by the confidence shown him by his peers, and yet he was ambivalent about leaving Niagara at a critical time. The following morning, on our way to the meeting, we drove past the Dakota apartments in mid-town Manhattan. John Lennon had been shot when he had entered the building the night before, and a large crowd had begun to gather outside. I think we both felt an undertow of sadness watching this event unfold. As best I can recall, Jerry said that “we live in a crazy world. Things can change so quickly.” The respect and affection for Father Mahoney extended well beyond his confreres and university colleagues. An epic coffee drinker, his early morning visits to the student center usually included a friendly chat with anyone standing nearby. Few students held him personally responsible for the university’s strict dormitory visitation policy. Faculty spoke frequently of the spirit of change and experimentation in academic life on campus. Community and diocesan leaders praised his willingness to serve in their various organizations.

Niagara’s self confidence rose noticeably during the Mahoney years. Faculty self-perception, stimulated by new and more aggressive academic administrators, began to change. Faculty began to show their scholarly wares in the form of publications and presentations of their research to their peers beyond the campus. The inwardness of the past, focused almost entirely on good teaching and amiable relationships with students, would now be matched by an outward focus on scholarly achievements and recognition. Niagara entered the 1980s confident that it had at last found its academic footing. 

There was an enlarged humanity about Jerry Mahoney. He never forgot that as university president a lot of people depended on him for their livelihood. Yet, he never thought of himself as the pivot on which everything turned. He appreciated the good qualities of those with whom he worked, and almost unconsciously drew out the best in them. In later years, he would occasionally lament that he had not spent enough time raising money. Perhaps. I remember telling him that I needed $25,000 to make an early start on accreditation for our social work program. Several days later, at the university Christmas party, he handed me a $25,000 check from an alumnus. He would say, too, that he should have been stricter in controlling expenses. Perhaps. But I wondered how many university presidents had to absorb a 40 percent increase in professional salaries within a five year period. He never thought much about his place in Niagara’s history. Higher interests were at stake, and the waves of contemporary praise and blame would soon fade. He made his influence felt at the moment and in the manner in which it was most needed. He probably would have smiled hesitantly if anyone had described his leadership as transformational, if by that term we mean causing a radical change in the inner character of the university. His presidency ignited a set of changes in attitude and behavior — not to mention policies and programs — which stir this university to this day, and their end, fortunately, is still not in sight. That is his legacy.

Dr. John Stranges served as Niagara’s academic vice president from 1977 until 1994. He remained a lifelong friend and colleague of Father Mahoney.