Updated: Tuesday, August 25, 2015, 6:59 PM
La Salle University just welcomed the first female president in its 152-year history. The Dalai Lama will visit the campus in October, and students and staff are eagerly awaiting Pope Francis' arrival next month in Philadelphia.
But that excitement hasn't protected the Catholic university from enrollment struggles, as many small, private universities compete for fewer applicants.
Faced with a more-than-$12-million shortfall - the largest in recent school history - and a precipitous drop in the freshman class, La Salle recently laid off 23 employees, about 3 percent of the workforce.
And more changes, though not layoffs, are coming, said president Colleen M. Hanycz, who is less than two months into her tenure.
"It's not an overstatement to say that our sector [higher education] is facing a crisis at the moment across the nation, and we need to think about what we do, doing it better and doing it more wisely, and making sure that we are driven by the student experience," said Hanycz, who came to La Salle from Brescia University College in Canada.
Hanycz declined to list positions affected by the layoffs but said they were across the college and no faculty were cut. They include longtime employees, such as the college's spokesman, Jon Caroulis, and his boss, Karen Geus.
"It's a shock to the system. There's no doubt about it," said John Baky, director of libraries, a 35-year employee who has watched some cherished colleagues depart.
When she accepted the job last winter, Hanycz said, she was not aware of the extent of La Salle's financial straits. The $12 million shortfall represents about 9 percent of the $132 million operating budget.
The university, which starts classes next week, is projecting a freshman class of 725, well below its target, though the number could change in the coming weeks. That's 135 fewer students - about 16 percent less - than the 2014 freshman class of 860.
Total undergraduate enrollment is projected at 3,164.
"I knew that La Salle needed to make some changes, but I don't think anyone knew the extent . . . ," Hancyz said. "It was not something I anticipated fully."
Many universities have had trouble meeting enrollment targets this year, with the number of high school graduates dipping nationally, and the rising cost of tuition having sent more students flocking to cheaper public options. Catholic universities in particular have been hard-hit as parishes close and Catholic high schools consolidate.
St. Joseph's University, another major Catholic college in Philadelphia, expects an undergraduate enrollment of 4,557, about 75 fewer than last year. Officials say cuts, including some layoffs, are coming later in the fall, though the university ended last fiscal year with a surplus.
"Our board has been pretty conservative and wants to keep having that positive operating margin," said spokesman Joe Lunardi, "because in these times, living hand to mouth is not a good thing."
The freshman class - expected to number 1,188 - has slightly higher standardized test scores and GPAs than the previous year's, said Maureen Mathis, assistant provost for undergraduate enrollment. She said the school could have enrolled as many as 1,300 students but was not willing to sacrifice quality to bring in a larger class.
This summer, Drexel University announced it was laying off fewer than 50 employees, less than 1 percent of its workforce, as officials projected a smaller freshman class.
Hanycz said La Salle, in Olney, is looking at everything to improve efficiency in operations, including contracts and use of cellphones.
"We really are trying to find ways that we can behave in a more efficient way," she said.
One thing that won't suffer, she said, is the student experience.
"Certainly, the goal through all of this was not to impact the student experience in any way," she said.
Tuition at La Salle totals $40,400, and room and board exceeds $13,000.
Hanycz said she was not sure if the university will finish the year with a balanced budget. But she promised a stronger institution.
"La Salle will persevere, and with the courage of our faith and a keen focus on achieving institutional excellence, emerge stronger than ever," Hanycz wrote in a message posted Thursday on the university's website.
Baky, who attended a town-hall meeting recently where the president outlined finances, said the campus is "pinning its hopes" on Hanycz, a lawyer with a bachelor's degree in history who came to La Salle after a 21-month presidential search.
"I think people generally believe it will be for the better, but it's like getting a shot," Baky said. "Nobody likes a shot."
BY THE NUMBERS
Projected size of La Salle's freshman class. That's 135 fewer students - or about 16 percent less - than the 2014 freshman class of 860.
La Salle's total projected enrollment.
Projected size of the freshman class at St. Joseph's. Overall undergraduate enrollment is down about 75 students.
Read full story: La Salle lays off staff in wake of shortfall