What’s in a Name: Fisher becomes a University

July 1, 2022

On the cusp of its 75th anniversary, St. John Fisher College has become in name what it has been in practice for more than a decade—St. John Fisher University.

President Rooney announces Fisher's transition to a university.

President Gerard J. Rooney, joined by Board of Trustees Chair Tom Bowles ’71, revealed Fisher’s new status and logo during a celebratory event held on Monday, June 20. The date also marked the 73rd anniversary of the institution’s groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of Kearney Hall, Fisher’s original building.

“This is a momentous occasion,” said Bowles. “University designation is a recognition of all we have accomplished over the last several decades.”

Fisher’s decision follows the New York State Board of Regents’ new definition of “university,” which requires institutions of higher education to offer “registered undergraduate and graduate curricula in the liberal arts and sciences, including graduate programs registered in at least three of the following discipline areas: agriculture, biological sciences, business, education, engineering, fine arts, health professions, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences.” The Board of Regents approved Fisher’s university status during its meeting on Tuesday, June 14.

Fisher has long fit the new definition. In the early 2000s, two doctoral programs—the Doctor of Pharmacy and the Doctor of Education in Executive Leadership—were added to its academic portfolio, which paved the way for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to reclassify it as a Doctoral/Research University (now Doctoral/Professional University) in 2010. Since that time, Fisher has awarded more than 3,400 master’s degrees and nearly 1,600 doctoral degrees.

“Fisher’s university designation adds to our rich history of institutional achievements and accomplishments. It will convey greater prestige, allow us to build our reputation and impact, and better represent the type of institution we are today,” Rooney said.

For nearly two decades, The Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities in New York (CICU) has been advocating with the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to amend their rules governing an institution’s use of “University” in its name. Fisher participated in that work.

Diana Nole, past chair of the Board of Trustees and longtime member of the Board, was supportive of Fisher’s advocacy throughout her tenure at the Board’s helm, noting that as the institution has evolved and adapted, it has expanded its capabilities and strengthened its resilience. The results, she said, are well-rounded alumni ready to serve their communities.

“Our reputation is built around quality students who have learned how important it is to serve the community and welcome diversity, curiosity, and ongoing learning, all of which produces a rich individual,” she said. “Our status is a natural evolution of who we have become.”

The Arc of Fisher’s History

Fr. Kevin Storey, CSB, superior general of Basilian Order, reflected on the founders’ early vision for an institution of higher education that would serve young Catholic men from the Rochester area. In Fisher’s history, more than 80 Basilian Fathers have served in various capacities at the institution—as presidents, campus chaplains, and faculty and staff members— but most importantly as visionary leaders who fostered a sense of community and family.

“Our founders were not wallflowers,” said Storey. “They dreamed big and saw a property that could be utilized for the education of students in Rochester and beyond. In that sense, I think the founders would be delightfully surprised but I don’t know if they would be shocked beyond measure at how much Fisher has grown and flourished,” he said.

“This is a moment worth celebrating, and not just as a time mark, but as a real vision mark. Fisher becoming a university coinciding with its 75th anniversary is a lovely moment of celebration.”

As a member of the Pioneer Class, Jack Palvino ’55 recalls watching the steeple go up on Kearney Hall, which had no windows when students started classes in September 1951. After graduation, Palvino remained an active member of the campus community, serving for many years on the Board of Trustees. He noted that Fisher’s evolution was bolstered with the introduction of a new MBA program in 1983 which led the Board of Regents to approve the College’s charter change from an undergraduate to graduate degree-granting institution. 

In the 1990s, Palvino recalled that then-president, Dr. Katherine Keough expressed an interest in transitioning to a university. The timing wasn’t right, but that didn’t stop Fisher from propelling forward into the future.

“We’ve grown so magnificently since our humble beginnings as a little college on the hill, which attracted 108 of us back in 1951,” he said. “We could have never conceived of the wonderful expansion and growth of Fisher to where it is today. From classmates who become family to the camaraderie of alumni, there is a real spirit at Fisher that not all schools have.”

President Emeritus Dr. Donald Bain, who succeeded Keough as president, said that Fisher had been operating as a “university” for the better part of the last century, with several pillars of focus contributing to its evolution.

“There are constant themes that run through the broad arc of Fisher’s history,” Bain said. “Across the institution’s leadership there has been a willingness and ability to create programs that are attractive to students, sustainable, and serve the interest of the community, and our faculty have played a big role in meeting the intellectual and scholarly needs of students.”

Current Board Chair Bowles, who has served as a Trustee since 1993, credited Fisher’s substantial growth over the years to innovative academic offerings, directed philanthropy, and talented administration, faculty, and staff.

“Fisher has always embraced the student experience,” Bowles explained. “We have stayed true to our mission and purpose, and that has allowed us to be successful. You can see that in the consistent enrollment and retention of students and in the career successes of our alumni.”

From College Student to University Graduate

As leaders of the Student Government Association (SGA), current undergraduates Ian Klenk ’24  and Jenna Vinoya ’24 played a role in helping Fisher talk about the change with students across campus. Both are supportive of the transition, seeing expanded opportunities that the prestige of a university moniker can provide. 

“It’s not often during your college experience that you can be a part of such a big change,” said Vinoya. “And this is one of the reasons I joined SGA. I wanted to be a voice for students and implement changes that can affect positive change on campus. I’m excited for the transition. It signifies a new mark and shows who we are in a new light.”

Klenk was able to attend the campus celebration as the student representative on stage.  For him, regardless of the name, Fisher’s strong community of people will continue to shine through.

“This is an incredible campus where students from all around the region and beyond are able to find a really safe, loving, supportive community,” he said. “When I think about the interactions I have had with professors and my friends they have been some of the most transformative conversations I have had in my life; Fisher is just really special in that we have this supportive community.”

Remaining True to Fisher’s Mission

During the announcement, Rooney alluded to the fact that Fisher will remain committed to delivering a student-centered education while serving the best interests of the surrounding community—making an impact locally and, as its reputation increases, throughout the country and the world.

“As we embark on our seventy-fifth anniversary as St. John Fisher University, we will continue to make our students and alumni proud,” he said. “As a university, we will have greater opportunities to grow and develop the Fisher experience in ways that will help us produce graduates that will not only have successful careers, but will make positive contributions to the communities in which they live.”