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Sunday Sitdown: Loyola’s ‘Father Mike’ aims for poor to get 2-year degrees debt-free

The Rev. Michael J. Garanzini — just Father Mike around Loyola University Chicago — will step down at the end of June after 14 years as president and chief executive officer of the Jesuit institution.

But the 66-year-old priest and educator says he’s just getting started on some of his most ambitious work.

Garanzini, who will move to chancellor on July 1 after ending his tenure as Loyola’s 23rd president, plans to raise money to help ensure the success of Loyola’s new two-year Arrupe College at the university’s Water Tower campus. Loyola’s aim with Arrupe College — named for a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life to the poor and marginalized — is to enroll financially needy students and allow them to graduate debt-free with a two-year associate’s degree in business, arts and humanities or social and behavioral sciences.

Garanzini also will be helping to open more Jesuit colleges worldwide as part of his secondary job — secretary for higher education for the Society of Jesus.

Question: How does Arrupe College differ from typical community colleges?

Answer: We want kids to have jobs, to come to school on a regular basis and to benefit from small classes and a rigorous curriculum. The very students who need to catch up. With our model, they do homework in class, so they get the kind of immediate response and attention that helps them learn. One day each week is left open for advising and reviewing sessions or for working outside of school.

We are essentially doing a boot camp for kids who need to get the character and discipline to succeed.

One of the things higher education judges itself on is how many minorities come in the door. It’s more important how many go out with a degree . . . how many start and how many finish.

We started from a study that showed the more structured a junior-college program is, the most likely the student will stay to get the degree.

We have already received more than 500 applications, even though the college will initially take 50 to 70 students.

The Rev. Michael Garanzini, who is stepping down June 30 after 14 years as Loyola University Chicago's president and CEO but hardly retiring. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

The Rev. Michael Garanzini, who is stepping down June 30 after 14 years as Loyola University Chicago’s president and CEO but hardly retiring. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Q: You are already traveling more to set up Jesuit colleges throughout the world. What’s the goal?

A:  We have a proposal for a college in Hong Kong and one in East Africa. We are starting schools in Asia and Africa.

Q: You are a family therapist by training and in your early career experience. How did you use that to turn around Loyola?

A: The climate when I first got to Loyola was, “We’re broke.” I had to say, “We need to invest $9 million into the student information system, or we will remain broke and stupid. And we cannot worry solely about how we cut back. We have to invest, too. We cannot take our eye off investing in the work force. Otherwise, you make your bills more expensive and cripple yourself later on.”

When I arrived, the expectation was that a productive faculty member was one who was teaching fewer courses of primarily graduate students. Well, that’s not healthy. We were able to shift the focus to the undergraduates who pay the bills.

Another shift was to focus on our core mission as an institution that stresses social justice. Lots of faculty are attracted here because we are a mission-based institution.

Q: You not only changed the culture, you turned around the institution.

A: It was more fun than painful. When I first started, our freshman class totaled 889 students. The next fall, we enrolled 1,424. And in fall 2014, we enrolled 2,292.

We added faculty and staff. We went from several thousand part-time students to just a couple hundred today. We have nearly 4,200 students living in dorms, compared with 1,200 when I started. Half of our students are Catholic; half are not.

It’s more expensive. [Tuition for students starting next fall will be $39,130, up from $18,814 in 2001.]

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I like to cook. I go to the Devon Market supermarket. It’s very neighorhoody. It has great produce. I cook what’s fresh — fish, chicken.

I like to get dinner ready in under an hour. It’s got to be fresh and quick. Everything starts with soup, risotto and pasta, then I add a medley of stuff. Sometimes, vegetables are more important than the main part.

I like being with students. I was a teacher for the first 15 years of my career. I like staying young. I lived for 26 years in a freshman dorm.

My thing is getting the students to realize how wonderful vegetables can be. You have to help the vegetables come out — peas have to be with onions. It’s all about combinations. My meals have to be in courses. You don’t slop it all down.

I like to travel. My favorite country is Italy, but I go all over. Last Christmas, I went to South America and, the Christmas before that, to Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Cruises need priests at Christmastime.