It’s 11:30 a.m. on Dr. Jo Ann Rooney’s 54th day as the president of Loyola University Chicago.
The 55-year-old has already been in five meetings since she woke up at 5 a.m. Now she’s meeting with Margaret Callahan, the provost of Loyola’s Health Sciences Division, over lunch.
The last eight weeks of Rooney’s life have been a lot like this one. Loyola’s Presidential Search Committee chose Rooney, who is Loyola’s first female, layperson president, after a year-long search to find a successor for the Rev. Michael Garanzini, S.J. Since taking office on Aug. 1, Rooney has been taking a grand tour of Loyola’s campuses, while meeting faculty, staff and students.
But just from listening in on her conversation with Callahan, you wouldn’t think Rooney is wrapping up only her second month at Loyola. She knows names and places, and she’s hard — if not impossible — to fluster. Above all, you can tell she’s comfortable and in control.
The meeting with Callahan covers several topics about the Health Sciences Campus in Maywood: funding research projects, hiring new faculty and working with Trinity Health — the new owner of Loyola University Health System.
Still, the conversation keeps returning to how Rooney and Callahan can reinforce the idea that the Lake Shore, Water Tower and Health Sciences campuses are a part of a unified Loyola.
“We are three campuses, but there’s so many opportunities to find to bring us together so we’re seen as one university. There are logistical challenges sometimes, but frankly I find that you can work through logistics,” said Rooney.
Rooney said she’s starting to have those conversations with Callahan and Provost John Pelissero, who oversees academic affairs at the Lake Shore and Water Tower campuses. Before this year, Rooney said the president and provosts did not have regular meetings together — something that she thought was unusual.
“It’s really getting people to think about opportunities and [getting] colleagues reaching out [to each other],” Rooney said. “It’s bringing people together in the rooms to, if you will, force those conversations until they become natural and organic.”
This kind of dialogue between departments is already happening, according to Callahan. When she wanted ideas on how to set up health clinics around Health Sciences Campus, she looked to the education department for guidance. Callahan reached out to the dean of the School of Education to discuss how the school’s outreach program at Senn High School — a Chicago Public School near the Lake Shore Campus — is structured.
Callahan and Rooney also spoke about the logistics problem — the Health Sciences Campus is about 22 miles away from the Lake Shore Campus, and it’s off the end of the Blue Line. Callahan and Rooney both said extending the intercampus shuttle system or arranging shuttles to pick up students and faculty from the Forest Park Blue Line stop are possibilities.
Rooney said her wide portfolio of experience — which ranges from being the president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, to working at the Pentagon for the U.S. Department of Defense — allows her to question the status quo at Loyola.
“Just being able to naturally ask those questions really just leads to very different conversations and often, now, times where people have finally said, ‘Well, you know, I’m not sure why we do it that way,’” Rooney said. “I also think being a layperson and being female puts a different leadership style in front of the university and, where we are in our point in evolution, it’s probably a really good thing.”
After the meeting with Callahan runs a little long, Rooney rushes from her office in Lewis Towers to Corboy Law Center for a session with the Council of Graduate Schools. Her bag holds a raincoat and notebooks, and she could easily be mistaken for an unassuming professor rushing to teach a class.
But once she gets in the room and takes her seat in front of the council, it’s clear she can lead.
“I’ve been told I’m fair, but I’m tough,” Rooney said about her leadership style. “I don’t believe that I ask anything or I demand anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. I am one that really likes to be able to set goals and objectives and give people a great deal of authority, but I also hold people very accountable.”
Collaboration is key to Rooney, and so is listening, which she does a lot of during the day. After a brief introduction, she turns the floor over to the department heads — she wants to hear their questions and concerns.
The questions are slow to come at first, but quickly one of the group’s concerns becomes clear: finances. It’s one of Rooney’s priorities, too.
She doesn’t shy away from numbers. Loyola’s operating budget is approximately $500 million, while the permanently restricted endowment is roughly $250 million, according to Rooney. However, the permanently restricted endowment needs to be closer to $750 million, she said.
Rooney has a plan. First, the school needs to study its spending and ask if money can be better spent. Rooney said that might mean shifting the focus away from certain programs to others instead.
Then, Loyola needs to find new forms of revenue: research funding, new programs and fundraising for the endowment.
Fundraising for a $750 million endowment calls for a large-scale capital campaign, but that’s a long-term goal for Rooney — one that she said is about four years away.
In the meantime, Rooney said new emphasis needs to be placed on obtaining research grants. If another institution is willing to fund research, then that means Loyola doesn’t have to fund it. Launching new programs, or new combinations of programs, will attract new students, Rooney said.
Rooney answers other questions, too. The conversation shifts from how to improve alumni relations, to fear of program cuts, to how the new budget will be created. Rooney’s solution to these problems is simple: teamwork.
“I know I have to make certain decisions and I have to guide those and lead some of those, but they really need to be coming from a place of collaboration, dialogue [and] discourse, and then good decision making [follows],” Rooney said.
After spending the first half of her day on the Water Tower Campus, Rooney takes the shuttle — like everyone else — to Lake Shore Campus (LSC). Often, she said, the 20-minute drive between campuses is her only time to recharge.
Once she arrives at LSC, Rooney heads to the Damen Student Center to meet the Maroon & Gold Society — a group of 25 students in their senior year who organize projects and events around campus. Rooney said she’s had more than a dozen meetings with students since Aug. 1.
The meeting starts, and Rooney asks questions about the Maroon & Gold Society’s role on campus and how students communicate with each other. She takes notes on their responses.
Before too long, she goes back to listening.
Of course, the topic of tuition comes up. Last year alone, tuition increased 4 percent for all classes — first-years through seniors — while previous classes saw tuition increases between 2 to 3 percent.
However, Rooney said she’s known rising tuition rates were a problem since she got access to Loyola’s financial records during the search process.
“I watched how the expenses are going up. Then, I watched that the revenue was going up, but I didn’t see these other pieces I talked about: the research, the endowment, the new programs offerings. I didn’t see that going up,” Rooney said. “Then, I started to look and see what the tuition increases were each year … When I realized that the tuition increases basically funded the expenses, that’s when I really started to have those really hard discussions with the [Board of Trustees].”
Simply put, Rooney said the school cannot be funded through tuition increases.
But, she said it’s too soon to say whether or not there will be a tuition increase for the 2017-18 academic year. While a tuition increase of zero is one of the models the Board of Trustees is examining, Rooney said it won’t know whether tuition will be increased until December or January.
Another student in the Maroon & Gold Society asked what Loyola’s role in the community is. Rooney said the answer to that is complicated — especially in terms of addressing crime.
Loyola hasn’t been left untouched by Chicago’s crime problem. In December 2014, 23-year-old Loyola graduate student Mutahir Rauf was shot and killed two blocks off LSC. In January 2016, 19-year-old Khrystyna Trinchuk was shot in the lower back walking outside her apartment on North Clark Street. She was injured, but returned to school less than one month later.
This semester alone, there have been eight separate reports of sexual violence against the Loyola community — including both sexual abuse and sexual assault.
“If you ask me what keeps me up at night, it’s this, and for a lot of reasons: It’s the safety of our students, our faculty, our staff. It’s the safety of our neighbors and the neighborhood they’re living in,” Rooney said. “When you’re looking at something so complex that it’s [about] education, it’s about jobs, it’s about housing and homelessness and basic needs [all at once]. We have to be very affirmative about where can we play a critical role in that.”
Rooney said she cannot yet tell whether or not changes need to be made with Campus Safety, although she said she is proud of Campus Safety’s collaboration with the Chicago Police Department, students and the Rogers Park community.
Despite the challenges Loyola faces, Rooney says she remains optimistic. When she was interviewed during the search process, she said she could sense something different at Loyola — what she calls an “extra dimension” — that motivates everyone. Now that she’s on campus, that “extra dimension” is even more evident to her.
“It’s exciting, but it also is very challenging, because that’s got to be something that has to continue to drive what it is we are, and it’s truly at the heart and identity here,” Rooney said. “That’s a high bar, and it’s one that we need to have. It’s one that could also put us in a position where people will look to Loyola and [its] students and faculty and what goes on here as a leader in what a higher education can and should be. I think that’s a great goal to aspire for.”
After the meeting with the Maroon & Gold Society, Rooney leaves to give a speech at the Family Weekend opening ceremony. It’s a Friday, but she says she’ll be working again tomorrow.
She’ll rest on Sunday. Next week, she’ll do it all over again.