Four Years On: Loyola Under Rooney

Courtesy of Loyola University Chicago

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When Loyola’s Presidential Search Committee announced Jo Ann Rooney was its pick back in the summer of 2016, her elevation marked the beginning of a new chapter in the university’s history. Of 23 presidents to come before her, Rooney would be the first woman and the first non-Jesuit to take the top job.

Rooney had big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, President Michael J. Garanzini, was a competent administrator who successfully expanded Loyola while also setting the university on a much stronger financial footing. His personal lifestyle also embodied many of the Jesuit social teachings — such as living in a dorm on campus and donating every one of his $659,260 paychecks to the Jesuit order known as the Society of Jesus, which was founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola back in 1540 and which went on to found Loyola University Chicago.   

Working in the shadow of a well-liked predecessor is never easy. Yet, when Rooney made her first inaugural address to Loyola, her priorities were well placed. During her speech, she highlighted two issues specifically; tuition and diversity. She stated that Loyola needed to end its reliance on tuition increases to balance the books, while it simultaneously worked to expand and retain its population of African American and Hispanic students.

Unfortunately, four years on, Rooney’s administration has made very little progress on either issue, and worse, it’s found itself increasingly at odds with a myriad of social justice movements on campus.

So far, her tenure has been characterized by a departure from the school’s Jesuit roots and a leap toward the corporate model that’s taken over so much of American higher education. 

This corporate model is characterized by several elements, including but not limited to; an ever-growing administrative bureaucracy, a push to expand the university infinitely and a tendency to treat students like customers.

At Loyola, tuition is a good example of the acceleration of this trend. Despite her initial intentions, over the past four years Rooney’s administration has raised tuition four times. In 2016, tuition cost approximately $40,700 a year. In 2020, it costs about $45,500 a year — a nearly $5,000 increase.

Compared to the tuition hikes of her predecessor Garanzini — who raised tuition about $12,000 in his 14-year tenure — she’s already on track to likely exceed the increases he enacted.

One can also find evidence of Loyola’s corporatization by looking at what it’s invested in and cut funding from in recent years. In late 2019, the university offered contract buyouts to 200 full-time faculty members in an effort to cut costs, and ultimately 80 of them accepted.  In another case, back in 2018, the university canceled its annual Colossus show, which was a two-night event held every year for the students, usually showcasing one musician and one comedian. 

At the same time, Rooney’s administration has invested $47 million into a new residence hall, in part to fix a housing crisis it created by accepting more first-years than the university had housing for, forcing thousands of students into cramped converted triples and doubles. Taken together, these financial moves bring the university’s priorities into sharper focus. 

Throughout the Rooney administration, Loyola has consistently prioritized expansion over providing a quality experience for the students it already has. This tendency has only heightened tensions between the university and some parts of the student body, especially as university policy has increasingly come into conflict with Jesuit and progressive values of social justice. 

Our Streets LUC, a Black Lives Matter-inspired protest movement calling on Loyola to cut ties with the Chicago Police Department — among other things — is but the latest expression of this discontent. Yet, the roots of this conflict go back to issues that predate Rooney’s presidency.

Loyola’s association with Aramark, Loyola’s investments in fossil fuels and Loyola’s association with the Chicago Police Department are all issues that predate Rooney. The problem is that the school has not given in an inch in any of these areas since she came to office. 

And worse, additional issues have surfaced during her time as president.  In 2019, The Phoenix published an explosive investigative piece detailing the university’s failure to adequately or honestly deal with instances of sexual assault on campus. 

That same year, seven Loyola students, including myself, were arrested during a sit-in calling for Loyola to recognize its Graduate Student Union as workers, in line with a 2016 decision made by the National Labor Relations Board. To some extent, Rooney’s personal attitudes and her personal history as a corporate executive and Pentagon official explain the university’s responses to these controversies.

In 2013, President Obama nominated Rooney to become the next Undersecretary of the United States Navy. During questioning by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand D-NY., about Rooney’s views on how sexual assault should be handled in the military she said, “A judge advocate outside the chain of command will be looking at a case through a different lens than a military commander, I believe the impact would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline.” Controversy generated by that comment partially sank her nomination. 

Yet, it isn’t only Rooney’s views on sexual assault that matter, it’s also her personal conduct. In contrast with President Garanzini’s on-campus housing, Rooney lives in an opulent $1.137 million condo located in the Loop. Whereas Garanzini’s living situation made him seem approachable, Rooney’s comes across as disconnected. Furthermore, the president’s refusal to publicly say “Black Lives Matter” has only served to further alienate the Our Streets LUC movement. 

For the good of the university, Loyola’s president and her administration should change course. Instead of attempting to hide its problems from public view, the university should embrace transparency on every issue from sexual assault to its board of directors and its financial situation. 

Instead of spouting empty platitudes when confronted with an action that contradicts Loyola’s social justice mission, the university should take positive steps to correct course, especially on issues that are easy to fix like its relatively small investments in the fossil fuel industry. 

If President Rooney wants to fix her relationship with the student body, then she has a lot of work to do. If she doesn’t then these conflicts will continue and the university will suffer as a result. 

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