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Hofstra attempts to buff its image

Hofstra University hosted a debate between U.S. presidential

Hofstra University hosted a debate between U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in October 2008. (Oct. 15, 2008) Credit: Newsday File Photo / Kathy Kmonicek

Let's consider Hofstra University, post-football:

While the school attracted national attention this month for dropping its largest team sport, a more significant change has been reshaping the campus for a decade. Hofstra is aiming to establish an international profile.

It is opening a medical school, planning a public health program and investing in scientific research. It started an honors college, which allows the most accomplished undergraduates to work closely with a dozen professors. To compete with name-brand campuses on a par with schools such as Boston University, Hofstra also offers merit aid to talented high school students - up to tens of thousands of dollars each.

The results are starting to show. Last year, for the first time, nearly 50 percent of the students came from outside of New York State. And almost one-third of the freshmen were in the top 10 percent of their high school class - compared to less than one-tenth a decade ago.


LI students dismiss college

Still, Hofstra administrators are the first to concede that the school often is dismissed by ambitious Long Island high school seniors as an also-ran.

"It's difficult to change the image of a university," president Stuart Rabinowitz said last week. "The best way to change is with substance."

That substance will be enhanced by the $4.5 million Hofstra saves on football every year, Rabinowitz said. Rabinowitz has said that even as the school spends that much on the football program, it gets almost no revenue from playing in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as I-AAA.

An undetermined amount of the money saved will go to enhancing financial aid. The rest will go to what Rabinowitz calls "substantive niches" - programs where Hofstra feels it can be a leader.

To take advantage of its location in one of America's first suburbs, Hofstra is bolstering its National Center for Suburban Studies. To build on partnerships with North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, the school wants to start a nursing program to complement its medical school, which is due to open in 2011.

Rabinowitz also wants to increase the study of religion. Hofstra has begun to endow several chairs in the world's major religions, and recently hired a Catholic scholar who was also being wooed by Duke University. It is now looking for a Sikh expert.


College taking right steps

Scholars who study higher education say Hofstra is taking the right steps, but they caution that making dramatic changes is difficult at a time when costs are rising and donors are cutting back.

"Every school is trying to improve - if you stay still, everybody is going to pass you," said Tim Garson, the provost of the University of Virginia, who is overseeing that school's Commission on the Future of the University.

Garson said exceptional universities are ones that have signature programs that are recognized around the world while drawing students and faculty from all sorts of disciplines on campus. He said they are places with "truly outstanding faculty and truly outstanding students collaborating together."

By that definition, Hofstra still has a ways to go. Gabriella Zolezzi, a first-year student who commutes from Wantagh, sat recently in the student union with fellow freshman Bina Pirzada, who commutes from New Hyde Park.

Pirzada pronounced Hofstra "great" but Zolezzi said the school didn't do enough to involve commuters, who still make up 51 percent of undergraduates. "It's OK," she said.


School gets mixed ratings

Outsiders also give Hofstra mixed ratings. U.S. News & World Report rankings - which sometimes are cited and sometimes reviled by college administrators - place Hofstra in the "third tier" of national universities. Earlier this year, the university crowed that U.S. News ranked its School of Education, Health and Human Services in the "top 100." It was tied for 96th place with Iowa State University, the University of Colorado in Denver, University of Mississippi, University of San Diego, Washington State University and Loyola University in Chicago.

"We're attracting very bright, very dynamic, very creative kids," said English Professor Dana Brand, who studied at Columbia and Yale. He noted "enormous changes" at Hofstra during his 20 years on the faculty.

The pressure to get better has brought some turbulence. Several high-level people have been hired and fired in the admissions office in the past decade, but Jessica Eads, vice president for enrollment management, said Hofstra has made extraordinary efforts to let families know about developments on campus - with varying degrees of success.

"We have a much stronger brand in California than on Long Island," Eads said.

Even as budgets elsewhere tightened, the admissions office added a second international recruiter, who is combing countries like China and Argentina for prospective recruits.

"They've raised their standards considerably, and they're headed in the right direction," said Eileen Connolly, assistant principal for guidance at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore. She credits factors ranging from the presidential debate to the medical school for giving Hofstra "somewhat of a national reputation."

Yet she said some of Kennedy's best students won't even consider a school near home. "They don't always realize what they have in their own backyard."

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