Niagara University's new president has hit the ground running, all the way to Vietnam. Since taking office last August, Father James Maher, CM, has taken the first steps to opening the school to students and educators from Asia.
Father Maher, the 26th president of the Vincentian institution, has made his first priority to establish a worldwide presence for NU. In July, he traveled to Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand, to conduct a listening tour with prospective partners.
He returned to Vietnam and South Korea in November to sign international memorandums of understanding bonding the good will between NU and six institutes of higher learning - Hanoi College of Tourism, Vietnam; Vietnam University of Commerce; Catholic University of Korea; Kyung Hee University, South Korea; Myongii University, South Korea; and Sogang University, South Korea. Father Maher sees Turkey as another viable prospect.
"We're creating partnerships," he said. "One of the initiatives that we're undertaking at Niagara is the beginning of an intentional effort to recruit international students to Niagara. We think Niagara has a great experience to offer all students, but particularly international students because of the pretty campus, the people of Western New York. There's a warmth and a welcoming spirit within the general culture of Western New York."
Asians seek out American universities to learn global business practices and to experience the individualism that is encouraged in the States. NU's tourism and hospitality program also appeals to international students. In turn, a mix of cultures will help the local students who hope to enter an international workplace. Niagara's class size of 15 students per instructor provides personalized attention that aids international students who might have language or cultural barriers.
"At the core of a Catholic university and a part of the culture and the faith dimension is the dignity of the human person and the care of the human person," Father Maher said. Parents can know that their son or daughter is going to be cared for by a whole host of people that will be looking after them and making sure that they're doing what they need to do. "If you're going to send your son or daughter halfway around the world you really want to be able to know that they're in a place where, first of all they're going to get a very high quality education, second it's a community, third they're going to be cared for, and fourth their going to be in a web of relationships with people who are really concerned about their son or daughter."
During his most recent trip, Father Maher met with Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mán, archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Auxiliary Bishop Peter Nguyen, to offer greetings and well wishes, and to explain NU is an institution committed to global education, the role of faith, and to building partnerships.
"We wanted to just talk a little about Niagara University," Father Maher said. "I had been to Vietnam a number of times when I was at St. John's University (in Queens). We had a number of study abroad trips to Vietnam to work with the Daughters of Charity and Vincentians to set up service learning projects. Our vision and hope is to do something similar with Niagara as we go forward, and to be able to recruit students from Vietnam, as well."
The Socialist government controls religious practices in Vietnam. During a dozen trips there over the past 15 years, Father Maher has seen improvement over the issue. If he wanted to speak with the cardinal 15 years ago, a government official would organize the meeting, and probably sit in and take notes. Today, a direct call to the cardinal is possible.
"The work of the Church in Vietnam is very vibrant and visible, both in terms of worship and service to the poor, evangelization, catechesis. There are limitations and challenges for sure, but I think the recognition is everyone's interest, to allow people to worship and to gather as a community of faith. Hopefully things will continue to evolve and grow in an even greater way," Father Maher said.
Father Maher has been listening to faculty and students to understand their hopes for Niagara University. His own plans are to grow the education, the service and the quality of the interaction to make NU, not only a place for Western New York, but make it a national university and a global university.
"It's good that people challenge private higher education," he said. "It's also important that people realize the role that schools like Niagara play in terms of putting money into the economy of Western New York and the contribution that is made annually in terms of direct and indirect benefit to the state."
He reiterates the commitment to Niagara Falls that his predecessor Father Joseph L. Levesque, CM, pledged 14 years ago in his inaugural address.
"We have a great opportunity with the grant that we received through the New York Power Authority, the Global Tourism Institute, to begin to contribute in a very significant way to the revitalization economically and socially of the city of Niagara Falls. If you want to know what I think a Vincentian University does, that's what it does. It contributes not only to the knowledge to the graduates and the contribution that they make, but also to the larger region and in a particular way to the poor."
The veteran of 11 New York City marathons is organizing a 3-mile run in April to raise money for Heart, Love and Soul, a local food pantry and dining room.
Father Maher came to Niagara following a 23-year career at St. John's University in Queens, including two years as executive vice president for mission and student services. He had spent nearly three years as a member of Niagara's board of trustees prior to being named president.