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‘I’m Disappointed She Wasn’t The President We Had Hoped For’: Students and Faculty Reflect on Rooney’s Tenure as Her Final Year as President Begins

Courtesy of Natalie BattagliaLoyola University Chicago President Jo Ann Rooney, JD, LLM, EdD, on Loyola's Lake Shore Campus, August 3, 2016.

Loyola President Jo Ann Rooney announced Aug. 23 she will leave her position as president at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, The Phoenix reported. Faculty and students reflected on her tenure and legacy as Rooney’s final academic year began.

Some shared frustrations over how issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice were handled within the university. Others spoke about her historical title as the first woman and non-clergy member to lead the Jesuit university.

David Ingram, a philosophy professor and treasurer of the Loyola chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), described Rooney’s legacy as a “mixed record.” 

When announcing her departure, Rooney cited “deep reflection,” “some personal issues” and a “desire to ensure continuity of leadership” as the university implements a new strategic plan, The Phoenix reported. Susan Sher, chair of Loyola’s Board of Trustees, said Rooney offered to stay in her position longer if a replacement can’t be found within a year. 

Ingram said Rooney’s resignation came as a surprise to him and other faculty members especially after the recent resignation of Loyola provost Norberto Grzywacz in May.

Pamela Caughie, an English and women’s and gender studies professor, said she didn’t have an inkling Rooney would be departing but wasn’t surprised looking back because of previous unsuccessful searches for a new provost which led to Loyola switching to a one-provost model. 

Rooney was the first woman and first member of the laity — or not a part of the Catholic Church hierarchy — to become president of Loyola. Ingram said this was important because most of the undergraduate students — 67.3%  — are women and come from varying religious backgrounds. 

“When President Rooney was hired, I was excited, I was thrilled,” Ingram said. “I remember the faculty convocation, that first one. In retrospect, I’m disappointed that she wasn’t the president that we had hoped for.” 

Caughie, who previously served as president of the AAUP,  expressed similar feelings when Rooney was hired. She said she was thrilled when meeting the new president in 2016. 

“I was one of the faculty invited to meet the new president,” Caughie said. “We didn’t know who it was going to be. When a laywoman walked in, I thought it was a real, very important sign that the university is going to be more open, diverse and willing to move away from the tradition of having to have a Jesuit at the head of the university.” 

Hugo Acosta, a junior communications major who transferred to Loyola during the pandemic, said he felt disconnected from Rooney — only seeing her name occasionally pop up in emails. But, Acosta said he thinks Rooney made a lot of the “right calls” in handling the pandemic. 

“I felt like there wasn’t much of a connection, obviously, because there’s so many other hands that are passing down messages,” Acosta said. 

Tuition Increases

In her 2016 inaugural address, Rooney said Loyola should stop relying on tuition increases and suggested it look for funding from donors and other means. However, during her five-year tenure, tuition increased by more than 13% — while her salary neared $800,000 — The Phoenix reported

Tuition was one of the issues brought up by some students in discussing Rooney. Lily Buchen, a senior majoring in digital media, said she was happy to see Rooney leave. One of the major issues Buchen said she had with Rooney was the tuition increases. 

“I would say that was probably the biggest problem that I’ve had with her,” Buchen said. “She’s raised tuition every year since I’ve been here; raising tuition last year when we weren’t even on campus was one of the most ridiculous things that I’ve ever seen.” 

President Rooney was not available to be interviewed for the story. 

Loyola spokesperson Anna Shymanski Zach said in an email to The Phoenix that the tuition increases, especially during the pandemic, were in part due to the decision not to furlough or lay off any faculty during the pandemic. Although the university didn’t lay off faculty, it did reduce spending by furloughing at least 52 staff members and laying off at least 44 others, The Phoenix  reported

Shymanski Zach also said  during the pandemic, $250 million in financial aid was distributed to students, the most seen in Loyola’s history.

Racial Justice

Rooney’s 2016 speech also touched on diversity, saying it was “expected by students” and “required by society.” Loyola’s latest 2019-2020 diversity report shows an increase in students who report they’re Hispanic or Asian while the number of students who report they’re Black has fluctuated between three and six percent of the student population for the past 10 years, The Phoenix reported.

Despite the overall increase in diversity, the 2020-2021 academic year saw hundreds of students participating in protests calling for better support for Black students and employees at Loyola.

Their demands included cutting ties with the Chicago Police Department, providing better funding for Black student organizations on campus, hiring more Black faculty members and having a public forum with Rooney, among other others, The Phoenix reported.

William Bazzone, a sophomore journalism major, said he wished Rooney would have said more in support of racial justice at the university earlier on. Rooney didn’t issue a statement until 11 days after the protests began on campus, The Phoenix reported.

“You shouldn’t be political in your job,” Bazzone said. “But when you’re living in a city where a lot of political issues are coming up like that, I think the least you could do is acknowledge that it’s happening, and not turn a blind blind eye to it.”

Shymanski Zach said the university is open to “healthy debate and disagreement.” 

“We welcome this debate and the diverse perspectives it brings,” Shymanski Zach said. “There are disagreements, but there are also places where we have been aligned and made good progress.”

Ingram praised Rooney’s actions and words regarding racial justice — including her response to harsh immigration policies under former President Trump, her statement made after the murder of George Floyd and the establishment of an Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI).

“When she speaks on these issues, she’s often spoken very eloquently,” Ingram said. 

Loyola’s ARI started following the 2020-2021 racial justice movement. 

The three goals of the initiative are to “Create a safe, respectful, inclusive environment for students, staff, and faculty of color,” “Facilitate Black student, faculty, and staff success” and “Enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion in Academic Affairs.”

Buchen said the ARI was a good first step but was skeptical about its results. 

“It sounds like Loyola is doing something but it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any actual change going on,” Buchen said. 

While some promises in the initiative haven’t come to fruition — such as the Office for Black Student Success, which was set to open this fall, but wasn’t — other goals within it have been met. 

Loyola implemented online anti-racism training into every University 101 course, an intro to college class all first-years are required to take. The university also increased mental health resources for students of color — including hiring two counselors to provide academic support for those students. 

Shymanski Zach defended Loyola’s record on racial justice, highlighting the ARI and recommendations made by Black Cultural Center. She also stated 79% of the 39 full time faculty hired between August and May identified as people of color. Within Loyola’s current first year class, 49% identified as people of color. 

Shared Governance and Academic Freedom in Rooney’s Tenure

Ingram said Rooney’s tenure lacked shared governance, an idea in which university executives and faculty share the responsibility for running the university. 

“Another issue has been decisions that have been made in a kind of a top down manner without adequately consulting faculty and other employees at Loyola,” Ingram said.  

Ingram said some of these decisions included the switching of university healthcare plans to Aetna insurance, closing Loyola University Museum of Art, and downsizing International Student Services

Caughie also talked about these decisions and said this top down approach was one of the major issues she and some of her colleagues had with Rooney. 

“It didn’t seem to be part of any mission, any vision for the university,” Caughie said. “They just came out abruptly. We had to constantly, as faculty. be reacting, rather than participating in the process” 

These and other decisions, Caughie said, led her to believe Rooney and others in her administration were out of touch with the academic side of the university and more interested in the business end of it. 

Ingram also shared concerns about academic freedom during Rooney’s tenure, mentioning Loyola’s media policy — a past policy requiring press to go through Loyola spokespeople for all contact with members of the faculty and staff,  which he said he considered “an infringement on free speech.” 

This policy, which also included restrictions on The Phoenix’s reporting practices, was eventually altered, allowing faculty to talk to reporters without going through University Marketing and Communications if they choose, The Phoenix reported.

Shymanski Zach said a committee was formed more than two years ago to review shared governance procedures at Loyola and issue recommendations. She said Rooney and the interim provost recently received these recommendations and plan to review them in the coming weeks. 

Loyola’s Next President 

Looking ahead to who might replace Rooney as Loyola’s president, some students said they want to see a president who is receptive to students and represents Loyola’s diversity.  

Bazzone said he wants a president who’s more conscious of social issues and puts students first when making decisions. 

“They don’t want to be raising tuition, they want to be understanding, because this is still a really hard time for [the people] that are going to the school here,” Bazzone said.” And I think they need to be a bit more generous in that regard.”

Ingram said a new president might help stabilize university leadership, particularly in the Office of the Provost.  He also mentioned the need for having a president committed to ideas of shared governance. 

Caughie who also said a commitment to shared governance was the number one thing she hoped to see in a new president. 

“If you have a president who makes unilateral decisions, who doesn’t respect faculty, you’re in for a really difficult tenure as president,” Caughie said. “A president has to reach out to the faculty, and has to take faculty council as the representative body of the university seriously and work with them. That’s going to be crucial to the next President.” 

Caughie said she hopes the university will show they’re committed to diversity in the search for a new president and remain open to having a lay person as president. 

“I hope that somebody will just stabilize the ship, give us a chance to have a shared vision and adjust to it,” Caughie said. 

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