Catholic university students launch protests after school axes majors like math, English, religious studies

Students at a Catholic liberal arts university in northern Virginia say their concerns were brushed aside by officials who eliminated numerous majors at the school, ranging from religious studies to math.

The cuts by Marymount University, outside of Washington, D.C., have led to protests from outraged students who say the decision has rocked the school’s foundation as a Catholic institution that focuses on humanities.

Many fear that the fallout from the curriculum change will drive away potential students.

“The overall atmosphere of the Marymount community right now is just kind of dead, and it’s very tense,” sophomore politics major Ethan Reed told Fox News Digital. “It is just so clear that in every class I’m in, there’s a huge elephant in the room.”

Marymount’s board of trustees drove the final nail in the coffin for nine majors and one graduate program on Feb. 24, when it unanimously voted 20-0 in support of the plan to end the degrees. The school told Fox News Digital in a statement that “this decision reflects not only our students’ needs, but our responsibility to prepare them for the fulfilling, in-demand careers of the future.”


Marymount University’s decision to cut nine majors and a graduate program have sparked protests. (Grace Kapacs)

But Reed said that students and staff were only alerted last month to the plan that will cut bachelor’s degrees in theology and religious studies, philosophy, mathematics, art, history, sociology, English, economics and secondary education, as well as a master’s program in English and humanities. Students are still required to study the subjects as part of the school’s core program but are no longer able to select such areas of study as majors.

The plan quickly became a “really big topic” on campus, especially for those in the humanities department, and students, alumni and other groups began sending letters to President Irma Becerra urging her to reconsider the plan. 

Marymount University President Irma Becerra

Marymount University President Irma Becerra (Getty Images)

“Cutting portions of the School of Humanities as well as math and art programs would be detrimental to the diversity of our student body,” student-government president Ashly Trejo Mejia wrote in a letter to the school’s president. “We fear that removing programs will alter the foundation and identity Marymount University was built on.”


The school, however, has argued that eliminating the majors won’t affect Marymount’s mission as Catholic liberal arts school.

“Marymount will always be dedicated to the education of the whole person,” the school said in a statement prior to the vote to end the majors.

“Every one of these foundational subjects remain part of our core curriculum, which supports our mission and Catholic identity,” the statement added. “All University programs will continue to be grounded in the liberal arts and the Marymount University Board, President and Cabinet remain committed to continuously improving the student experience.”

A spokesperson for the school previously told Fox News Digital that Marymount “will reallocate resources from [the eliminated majors] to others that better serve our students and reflect their interests.” The school highlighted that the plan was “not financially driven” and would “provide the University the opportunity to redeploy resources to better serve students and areas of growth.”

Students said the school has been vague on where the money from the eliminated programs will actually go. The school did not clarify to Fox News Digital where the money from the eliminated courses will be reallocated when asked. 

“In order to grow as a university and maintain our place among the country’s best, Marymount must continue to innovate and focus on what distinguishes us from our competition. We must focus on our greatest strengths – the areas which have the most potential for growth, bring us distinction and acclaim and give Marymount a competitive advantage,” the spokesperson said, adding that “it would be irresponsible to sustain programs” with low enrollment and “lack of potential for growth.”

Reed, as well as fellow sophomore student Grace Kapacs, argued that canning the majors not only weakened the school but could also drive potential – and perhaps even current – students away.

“The first thing you do when you go to a school is you look at those majors they have,” Kapacs, a communications major, said. “And you compare it to the other schools you’re looking at. And you’re like, ‘Damn, this is the only one that doesn’t have English, math. Wait, it doesn’t have English or math? Hold on. That’s weird. That’s shady. That doesn’t sound like a good institution.’”

She is calling on Becerra to “reconsider” the decision.

Reed explained that he’s unsure if he even wants to stay at the school after the announcement.

A building on Marymount University's campus in Arlington, Virginia.

A building on Marymount University’s campus in Arlington, Virginia. (Google Maps)

“This is only my sophomore year, so I’m here for two more years. I honestly don’t even know if I want to stay here anymore because of what’s going on. And the blatant disregard for student concerns even though we’re the ones that are keeping the school up and running,” he said.

A spokesperson for Marymount told Fox News Digital on Wednesday that the school “has and will continue to work with our students, and we always want to hear their perspectives.”

“Multiple information sessions are actually being held this week with students as they will have the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns directly with Marymount administrators, including the president and the provost. Last week, a town hall meeting was also held with faculty and staff,” the spokesperson said when asked about the students’ comments.

The spokesperson added that the “decision was not made in a vacuum” and there “was community-wide involvement in the proposal approved by the board, and it was rooted in data and research.”

Concerns over the changes have galvanized students across the political spectrum. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans gathered ahead of the vote in protest last month, asking that the school reconsider and listen to their pleas to keep the majors.


“We’re angry because this is a Catholic school and how could you get rid of a theology major? And others were angry because our schools [were] built on a liberal arts core and it’s in our mission statement,” Kapacs said. “Others were angry because they got a degree in the humanities there and now they’re doing great things in the world, and they feel like others are going to miss out.”

The students said many professors are also disgruntled with the decision but are mostly staying quiet on the issue beyond face-to-face conversations. Multiple students told Fox News Digital they’ve already heard from some professors who are considering packing their bags and leaving the school over the decision.

The protests and outrage over the decision boils down to the students just wanting their concerns to be heard, junior sociology major Jonas Gleiner told Fox News Digital.

“We want not only the students but also the teachers to just have their voices heard and be treated as respectfully as possible and as if they matter as a part of the school to the president, not just a tool to be used,” Gleiner said.


Gleiner believes the majority of students at the school are unhappy with the decision but not “unhappy enough to take action to do anything.”

“Our goal now is to try to put pressure on the president to make better choices in the future,” he said.

Kapacs, who describes herself as a passionate student activist, said protests in recent weeks have been “to show that we support our school and we care” and to show the administration exactly who is standing against the move.

Students protest Marymount University ending nine majors and one graduate program.

Students protest Marymount University ending nine majors and one graduate program. (Grace Kapacs)

Marymount was founded in 1950 originally as a two-year women’s Catholic school before it expanded to its current university status with roughly 4,000 enrolled students through its campus located in Arlington, Virginia.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Arlington told Fox News Digital that the bishop “was informed of the university’s decision just prior to the public announcement” but that no one at the school asked for his input.

Bishop Michael Burbidge is entrusted with ensuring schools within the diocese stay true to their Catholic identity and instruction, but Marymount is an independent Catholic school, so he “has no authority over its operating governance.” However, the bishop accepts the school’s final decision on the majors, according to the spokesperson.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge (Katherine Frey / The Washington Post via Getty Images / File)

“It is our understanding that, despite not having a major or minor program for theology, there would still be required theology classes in the curriculum,” the diocese said. “Bishop Burbidge will continue to work with the leadership of Marymount in matters related to the Catholic identity of the university.”

For now, the students said they are focusing on making sure Becerra and the administration hear their concerns with any other potential proposals – though they might call for her resignation.


“There are some of the other student leaders that are trying to look into [calling for Becerra’s resignation] now because, at this point, it’s clear that this administration here is not working for the students,” Reed said. “They’re working for the money. They’re working solely for their colleagues up there higher up. And it’s just sad.”

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