CHICAGO — Loyola University abruptly canceled its graduate program in social justice and community development over winter break, and now students who say they've been blindsided by the decision are using tactics learned in class to protest the change.
"It feels so very surreal," said current student Sophie Vodvarka, 26. "I also think it’s really sad that we have to fight for ourselves and for our voices to be heard in our education, rather than fighting for something like fair housing" or the rights of the homeless.
The university's Institute for Pastoral Studies announced to students in an email sent over winter break that it would dismantle its five-year-old degree in Social Justice and Community Development.
Instead, the university would continue to offer a scaled-back degree in social justice "to better focus on an area of strength for the University," university spokeswoman Maeve Kiley said.
But students say what would be lost is an education in practical approaches to community organizing and activism that have been stripped from the program.
So alumni and many of the 42 students enrolled in the nixed program have put their education to use to form a coalition — called "Loyal to Justice" — and planned a protest for noon Tuesday outside the university's Water Tower campus.
Even though the university says it would allow all current students to finish out their degrees, students worry the quality of their classes would suffer.
"We’re putting a lot of pressure on the university. We have so much at stake," said Vodvarka, who was considering dropping out of the program she loves and for which she came to Loyola.
The university also ended its partnership with the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, which students said provided the program with curriculum and instructors.
The university contends, however, that "the quality of classes and course work will not be impacted," Kiley said.
Graduate Erin Kane, 27, said she was outraged by the lack of communication about the decision from the director of the Institute of Pastoral Studies, Brian Schmisek.
And now she says she won't back down.
"It is just so ironic — he’s trying to get rid of this program that people are training and earning a degree [in] how to organize themselves," she said.
Kane said what she had learned in the now-dissolved program got her a "dream job" with the United Methodist Church, where she ensures women in the church are treated fairly and equally.
"I never thought the first time that I would be using these skills — all of these practical skills — I never thought I'd use them against the institution that gave them to me," she said.
Yet Schmisek said in a letter to students, faculty and alumni that the decision to dissolve the program was "a reflection of the University's long-standing commitment to social justice, and the strategic role it will have in forthcoming years."
He also said a dual degree program — social justice and social work — was in the works.
At Tuesday's protest, the students and alumni hope to catch the attention of University President the Rev. Michael Garanzini and inform him of a program that has been "unjustly dismantled," said alumnus Jessica Bouboulis, who graduated from the program in 2008.
She said she'll do it for students like Mackensey Carter.
Carter, 23, said she decided to drop out of the program entirely after the news and is now pursing a degree in social work.
"I felt really, like, betrayed and hurt," she said, adding that the university wasn't following the Jesuit values it preaches. "It just feels like we’re not being treated with that same justice."