By M.C. Thomas

On December 7, the last day of classes in the fall term, 500 students filled Loyola University’s Centennial Forum for the largest protest on the Lake Shore Campus since the Vietnam rallies of the early 1970s. The students and faculty who spoke called the occasion a teach-in; it was their chance to have a say on issues that trouble the campus–such as the school’s shrunken endowment and rising tuition, its course reductions and faculty layoffs, its reputation. The ultimate target of the speakers’ concern and anger was Loyola’s president, the Reverend John J. Piderit.

Students had amassed over 1,000 signatures on a petition calling for Piderit’s resignation–a significant number at a university with 7,643 undergraduates and a total student enrollment of 13,359. The Princeton Review had ranked Loyola fourth among 200 schools for having the least happy students.

“It’s become a depressing place to be,” said graduate student Stephen Stinson after the teach-in. “The students are depressed.”

The root of this distress is Loyola 2000, a budget-cutting plan approved by the board of trustees. In the past year Loyola has cut $16 million from a $218 million budget, but to do so dropped more than 100 course sections and eliminated 116 jobs. Some professors are teaching extra classes because colleagues took early retirement.

The next three years are to bring another $6 million in cuts. The College of Arts & Sciences will lose eight professors, eight teachers, and four staff members. The operating budget of the graduate program will decrease by 26 percent and its assistantship budget by 15 percent. Piderit has said that the number of graduate students will be reduced.

“We’ll be more selective of the doctoral students to whom we give scholarships and stipends,” Piderit said. “Everyone who currently is a graduate student will continue to receive their funding. This is a policy most major universities have implemented over the past few years.”

Meanwhile, tuition has skyrocketed. In 1994, when Loyola was considered a bargain for a private school, it was $11,000. This year it’s $17,750; next year it’s going up to $18,265.

DePaul University charges $14,670 for tuition.

Piderit said he plans to begin using graduate students to teach classes at Loyola, another unpopular move. “[Loyola] has a pretty small student to faculty ratio. It’s one of the reasons I came here,” said senior Matt Carlson, an editor at the student newspaper, the Phoenix. “If we lose that, we’ll be just like every other university–with an $18,000 price tag.”

Hired away from Marquette University, where he’d been corporate vice president, in 1993, Piderit came to Loyola during a time of change. For decades Loyola’s medical center in Maywood had operated as part of the university and turned over healthy surpluses, an average of $25 million a year. But cost cutting was imposed at the medical center in ’93, and two years later it was made a wholly owned subsidiary of the university so that it could form a partnership with a west suburban medical organization. Since then, hospital surpluses have stayed in Maywood, and they’ll continue to stay there even though the partnership has broken up.

In 1998 a Loyola capital campaign raised $23 million and half the money went to the medical center. Critics of Piderit say it all belongs in Chicago, the profitable medical center having received $50 million of Loyola’s $450 million endowment when it left the fold. Since then, Loyola’s endowment has plummeted another $100 million to the current $300 million. This happened because the trustees raised Piderit’s spending ceiling of endowment funds during Loyola 2000, which runs its course in 2003. David Meagher, vice president of finance, explained where the money went. He said that in normal times the vast majority of the spending out of the endowment is for small capital expenses–such as new computer labs or decorative gateways. Larger projects must be approved by the board and are often financed by selling bonds or finding donors.

But in recent years, Meagher said, Loyola has committed itself to a number of large capital projects that donors were expected to cover but didn’t. These included a $40 million school of medicine and a $12 million athletic center, completed about three years ago after the university dipped into its own pockets for some $9 million.

“It doesn’t take many of those [to deplete savings],” said Meagher, adding that Loyola has cut its capital expense budget from $12 million in 1995 to $4 million this year. If it weren’t for the booming economy, he said, the endowment would have taken even more of a beating.

A 1999 study of 508 endowments (including Loyola’s) found that universities were seeing huge returns on their investments–18 percent in 1998 and 20.2 percent in 1997. While Loyola’s endowment shrank, DePaul’s almost doubled in size, from $86 million in 1996 to $160 million today.

Over the past three years, Loyola has struggled to increase its enrollment by drawing more students from out of state. But while the percentage of out-of-state students has risen from about 11 percent of the student body to about 35 percent, the overall student population has stagnated, actually declining this year by 5.8 percent. And the national campaign increased Loyola’s annual recruitment costs from $10 million to $30 million.

As Loyola operated in the red, it continued to spend in ways that Piderit’s critics challenge. Loyola hired professional consultants recently to draw up a plan for Morse Street development for a Rogers Park community group. It has bought buildings “that were a nuisance” in order to tear them down, said Piderit. “We have consistently received high marks in the Rogers Park and Edgewater communities for our property purchases. We’ve been considered a good neighbor.”

Many teachers complain that money spent on real estate and public outreach could be better spent on salaries. And they complain that the faculty has been left out of the decision making.

Communications professor Tim Harder, chair of the Academic Council of the College of Arts & Sciences and a teach-in speaker, said that in 1997, when Loyola was exploring the purchase of Mallinckrodt College in Wilmette from the Sisters of Christian Charity, the academic council advised the university against it, “considering the current financial situation.”

The council never received a reply. In December 1998 the board of trustees authorized the purchase for $11.6 million. “Real estate we’ve purchased has all been debt financed, so it’s not come out of the endowment,” Piderit said. “We have purchased properties that have been, or will be, productive for us. The School of Education is growing dramatically at Mallinckrodt.”

The Mallinckrodt Campus was projected to operate in the black, but Piderit claimed he couldn’t say if it’s a moneymaker. “We don’t do our books that way.”

While Loyola has slumped, the other big Catholic university in the city, DePaul, has made itself more attractive by offering new business and computer courses. Loyola will follow suit, hoping to attract new pools of students through professional certificate programs. One example is a new program in philanthropy and not-for-profits. Students take three courses, complete an internship, and get a certificate.

“They’re geared for people who already have BAs. It’s kind of like graduate courses, but not really. But people pay for them is the thing,” said Craig Greenman, a graduate student in philosophy. Another teach-in speaker, Greenman is credited with single-handedly creating Loyola’s Graduate Student Coalition, which last month sent a letter to the board urging Piderit’s removal. Other groups that have asked for Piderit’s resignation include the Academic Council of the College of Arts & Sciences, the Loyola chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the Council of Graduate School Programs, and the Lake Shore Student Government. The Loyola Faculty Council, representing all Loyola departments, submitted a letter urging a change in “senior administration.”

“[The administration] says it’s a small number of disgruntled faculty,” Harder said. “It’s a big group of disgruntled faculty and a growing number of students.”

Whatever the size of the opposition, its leaders hailed the teach-in as a launchpad for an organized opposition to Piderit. Speakers promised that the movement to oust the president would intensify after the holiday break.

The opposition isn’t new. But Harder said it widened and hardened during the fall, as information leaked about Loyola’s problems. The leaking itself brought him to one of the faculty’s biggest complaints, which is that the administration hasn’t been honest and open about its failures.

“Last spring we were told that the financial problems were nearing an end–we’d turned the corner,” Harder said. “But this fall we found out that they were worse than we were ever told. You start to feel like you’re just wasting your time when you sit on one of these committees.”

The faculty took a no-confidence vote last May and 36 percent voted against Piderit, 33 percent in his favor. The trustees promised to back him no matter how the vote went, and they did. Piderit’s supporters portray him as a victim of circumstance, the bearer of bad news.

“A vibrant university is home for many conflicting opinions,” said Piderit. “Critical voices of me can still be spoken by people deeply committed to Loyola and the students of Loyola. I recognize that, the trustees recognize that, and those who support my plan recognize that.”

Harder said that he’s getting ready for a “concentrated series of protests” this month. Senior Becky Sinnett, vice president of academic affairs in the student government and one of the petition organizers, said she’s heard students talk about going on strike from classes. It’s an idea she doesn’t support. “It’s still my hope he will resign,” she said.

“Survival for its own sake is not good enough,” said Stephen Stinson. “If we can’t maintain academic excellence, let’s close it down. The thing is, Loyola is a great place. It’s a place worth fighting for.”

Otherwise, “I could just transfer to DePaul.”