Classical Tragedy | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Classical Tragedy 

Students and teachers form a chorus of disapproval as Loyola moves to cut its highly regarded classics department.

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By M.C. Thomas

Peter DeRousse, a doctoral candidate in the classical studies department at Loyola University Chicago, says he's "trapped between a rock and a hard place." Three years ago he transferred from Johns Hopkins University because he felt Loyola had a better classics department, and the school promised him a four-year assistantship. But in February he learned that his assistantship would end this year, and on March 13 the school's senior administration announced its plans to disband the classics department, terminating its highly regarded doctoral program and scattering its six tenured professors among the history department and other related departments.

"I'm angry beyond words," says DeRousse. "I came here under certain assumptions, and they've changed the rules. This makes it very difficult for me to finish my degree, and it also makes me feel betrayed." He could transfer to another school, but he'd have to take more classes and put in even more years. So now he's scrambling to finish his dissertation, on the primary sources of the Roman historian Tacitus, and hoping his three faculty sponsors will stick around long enough for him to earn his PhD.

DeRousse was one of eight students who disrupted a meeting of the university's Strategic Coordinating Committee on March 22 at the Water Tower campus, bringing with them some 300 letters from angry alumni and others in defense of the classics department. Some alumni threatened to withdraw their financial support, and one high school guidance counselor wrote that she would stop recommending Loyola to her students. The editorial pages have been equally withering in their response to the decision; on March 30 the Tribune accused Loyola of "administrative bungling" and observed, "This has all the earmarks of a university imploding."

Loyola has been wrestling with financial problems since 1995, when it decided to turn its Maywood medical center into an independent subsidiary so that the center could form cost-saving partnerships with other hospitals and health-care organizations. As part of that restructuring, Loyola had to sacrifice $50 million of its $450 million endowment, and between 1998 and 2000 that endowment plummeted by another $100 million, even as most university endowments were growing in response to the booming stock market. The school is enduring a second year of deep faculty and program cuts to compensate for the shrunken endowment, and the resulting firestorm of protest has driven its president, Reverend John J. Piderit, to announce his retirement this June. His replacement will be Reverend Michael J. Garanzini, currently a professor of psychology and special assistant to the president at Georgetown University.

Dismantling the classics program has proved especially controversial in light of the school's Jesuit mission. Saint Ignatius Loyola, who founded the order, wrote, "Since both the learning of theology and the use of it require, especially in these times, knowledge of humane letters and the Latin and Greek languages, there must be capable professors of these languages, and that in sufficient number." The academic council of the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola has voted unanimously to oppose the closing of the department.

"Cutting classics has made other departments very nervous," says Hugh Miller, a philosophy professor who chairs the academic council, "because here is a department that is central to the school mission, and it could be cut. What's next?"

Some faculty are dismayed that such a severe move is being implemented by an administrator who's being forced out by student protests and faculty votes of no-confidence. Communications professor Mark Pollock, who serves as vice president for the chapter of the American Association of University Professors that governs Loyola's campus in Rogers Park, says the AAUP has passed a resolution urging that cuts be postponed until the new president takes over. But Timothy O'Connell, whose Committee on Academic Review and Planning (CARP) recommended some cuts in the classics department last fall, isn't interested in waiting for Garanzini. "If it's a good idea, we should proceed whether or not the new administration is here," he says. "If it's a bad idea, it shouldn't be done now or ever."

Garanzini is popular with the faculty who have met him, and some faculty leaders have discussed the classics situation with him behind closed doors. But the incoming president, contacted by E-mail at Georgetown, says he's too busy in his current position to understand exactly what's happening at Loyola. "The review processes have a long history, and I know faculty have been involved throughout this time," he writes. "Were they fair or meticulously followed? I cannot tell from here. The mail I receive concerning the classics department is so full of contradictory information, that is, information that contradicts what I know to be some of the facts, that I have decided I am not in a position to comment on the adequacy or the wisdom involved here."

The debate on campus will continue until at least May 15, the earliest date Larry A. Braskamp, Piderit's senior vice president for academic affairs, can take action to close the classics department. He refuses to comment before then, calling the matter a faculty issue, yet Hugh Miller says many faculty are upset that Braskamp recommended the closing without informing or consulting the academic council. When DeRousse and the other students crashed the SCC meeting on March 22, Braskamp said he wasn't aware of the council's unanimous vote against the decision.

Throughout the school's financial crisis, the faculty has been represented by CARP, which was founded by the university-wide academic senate in November 1999 to advise Braskamp and Piderit. The committee convened for many hours over the following summer, assessing the university's 46 undergraduate programs, 63 masters programs, 38 doctoral programs, and 3 professional programs. In October 2000 it released a report on each department judging it by five criteria: its centrality to the school's mission, its potential for social justice, its intrinsic excellence, the student demand for its courses, and its cost.

"What we found in very many CARP reports was that the first three criteria were a gimme," says Miller. "'You're central, you're great, you do good work.' Where the rubber met the road was the last two, cost and demand." Out of about 5,500 graduate students at Loyola, the classics department has 11, plus 25 undergraduate majors and minors. Yet over 600 undergraduates are currently registered in classics courses, some of which satisfy the university's core literature requirements. And contrary to the impression left by a March 15 story in the Tribune, CARP endorsed the classics curriculum. "The committee...argues strongly for the continued independence of the department," its report reads. "It should not be folded into some other department, but rather should be encouraged to flourish in fulfillment of its mission."

The bloodletting at Loyola isn't over: the school estimates its operating losses for the current academic year at $22 million (closing the classics department will save it $50,000 to $80,000 annually). And although its financial officials most recently calculated the endowment at $331.9 million, there's a great deal of disagreement among faculty about this estimate. In the last two years overall enrollment has dropped from 13,811 to 12,605 (though like universities across the nation, Loyola is enjoying a rise in student applications this year). Last spring's faculty cuts were characterized as the last the university would have to tolerate, yet this March another round of cuts was announced. The College of Arts and Sciences must cut 14 faculty members by next fall. "How do you lose 14 faculty in one year?" asks Mark Pollock. "Communications has gone from 22 to 15 full-time faculty in six years, and my guess is we may lose another next year."

Perhaps most disturbing is a study that senior administration commissioned from Pappas Consulting Group, which conducted interviews and even held a retreat with school leaders. Its report, appended to an SCC document, says that decision makers at Loyola operate in a vacuum, managing through "idea du jour," and that the school's political systems lack the authority they need to function. "LUC has made some very bad decisions, such as abandoning the city public schools with the moving of the School of Education to Mallinckrodt," the report notes. "People feel that nobody really is in charge and no one knows what to do....There is a lack of respect for students, faculty, and staff and for their governance structures." At least one academic department head circulated a memo asking those who had read the report to keep quiet about it, but it was leaked to the school newspaper, the Phoenix, last week.

"They've done a pretty good job at scaring the hell out of people about talking," says Pollock. "The world has been divided into good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are anybody who has made us look bad in the media, and they're going to get the bad guys while they can."

"If you talk, your grants don't go through," says Jeff Harder, a professor of communications. "That's the kind of place we work at." He claims that many staff cuts have been "politically motivated" but that these secretaries and low-level administrators had to sign confidentiality agreements to get their severance pay. Bren Murphy, head of the communications department and a vocal supporter of the student protests, claims that the administration is withholding approval of her department's funding until she steps down. "That's what I've been told by a third party," says Murphy. "I have to say I've had no run-ins with the [senior] administration, because they don't communicate with me."

According to Miller, the friction is driving good teachers away from Loyola. Jacqueline Long, an assistant professor of classics, is one of two tenure-track professors who may lose their jobs in May. She says that she loves Loyola, and a recent impartial academic review of the department recommended that she be tenured ahead of schedule to prevent losing her. But now she may leave the university even if the department survives.

"[They're] not playing by the rules, and they know it," says Peter DeRousse. "They tell everyone they're following the process, but I don't think anybody I talk to believes it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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