DePaul community divided on FOP cohort program
February 28, 2021
In the wake of last summer’s protests against police brutality and amid the ongoing calls for DePaul to divest from the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the university community remains starkly divided on the school’s partnership with Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
DePaul’s relationship with the FOP, Chicago Lodge 7, originated in 2016 to encourage members of law enforcement to pursue higher education at a convenient pace and discounted rate. The cohort program offers multiple degree options specifically tailored to members of law enforcement. Through the city of Chicago, officers in the program can receive up to a 100 percent tuition reimbursement, contingent on their final grade and other factors.
A sergeant from CPD was among the group of students enrolled in the university’s first ever FOP cohort. Though he wished to remain anonymous, the officer spoke with reporters in detail about his experience at DePaul.
“I was in the very first cohort, so there were a lot of bumps,” the officer said. “From beginning to end, for me it was a challenge. School was never really my forte.”
Despite the initial challenges, he stresses that the faculty and staff at DePaul were instrumental in his degree attainment.
“School is hard… that work-life balance is difficult,” he said. “But I had people at DePaul, regardless of all the noise in the background, that said ‘we have your back, you can do this.’”
The officer, who graduated from DePaul with a Bachelor of Arts in 2018, emphasized the personal importance of the FOP cohort program to him as a first-generation college graduate.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for the program at DePaul, I would have skipped my undergrad altogether,” he said. “My parents are still alive and they and my little brother all saw me cross the stage. I’m the first in my family, so to be able to do that and to have the backing that I did from DePaul, it really put a different perspective on humanity for me.”
Though the program’s appeal to officers is apparent, others within the university community are critical. Since the student-led protests last summer that called for an end to the university’s affiliation with Chicago police, there have been ongoing calls from students, faculty and staff for the university to sever ties with the FOP.
On campus, student organizations have been among those most critical about the university’s relationship with the FOP. DePaul’s Black Student Union (BSU) has been especially vocal about what they say are problems with this partnership.
Earlier this year, the BSU released a letter condemning DePaul’s lackluster response to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, concluding with a list of demands to help better accommodate Black students. Among these requests were that the university hire more Black professionals and increase diversity and inclusion training for faculty.
In an email to reporters, BSU President Keith Norward expressed his organization’s stance on the relationship between DePaul and the FOP.
“I think the [first] steps the university’s administration need[s] to take is listening to their students who have been calling for the end of this [relationship] for months,” Norward wrote. “BSU will continue to work internally and externally with other student organizations in the fight to be heard, understood, and for action to be taken.”
The Student Government Association (SGA) is one such organization that has been working alongside BSU in their ongoing efforts to bring students’ concerns to the administration.
SGA President Alyssa Isberto spoke to her organization’s official stance on DePaul’s partnership with FOP, blatantly stating, “We condemn it, we don’t agree with it.”
Isberto further vocalized her support of Black students across the university, releasing an official statement in solidarity with BSU’s demands.
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“BSU had a list of demands from the university so we wanted to endorse [the] list of demands and [to] object to DePaul’s relationship with the FOP,” she said.
As the SGA president, Isberto has the opportunity to voice concerns such as these during her meetings with the Joint Council, speaking directly to DePaul administrators like university President A. Gabriel Esteban and interim Provost Salma Ghanem.
“What SGA does is represent student concerns, and we do our best to meet with faculty, staff, administration [and] different partners that we have within the university to represent the concern,” Isberto said. “I’m given a space, not often, but I’m typically given a space to share student concerns [at Joint Council meetings]. This is one of the forefront of student concerns, so I definitely bring it up in those spaces.”
Yet, despite the proposals organizations such as SGA and BSU have brought forth, Isberto says university officials have done little to actually address these concerns.
“I’d like to see actual action and see that those ties aren’t there,” Isberto said. “It’s not just saying that we support marginalized communities, we support x, y and z student[s], but also… actually following up and doing things that if Black students and BIPOC students are calling for certain actions to be made to actually listen and take the time to address those concerns.”
While DePaul officials have been publicly sympathetic to concerns over police violence against persons of color, they have shown little initiative to change the university’s relationship with CPD or FOP.
On June 22, Ghanem issued a statement published on DePaul Newsline, addressing the calls to end the cohort program with FOP.
“Student petitions have requested DePaul stop offering courses to CPD officers. We understand this request is rooted in pain, outrage and the desire to take a stand against police brutality. We need to remember though, the actions of a few do not represent the students we teach,” the statement read.
Students, faculty and staff continue to critique DePaul’s partnership with Lodge 7, university officials and FOP representatives have failed to address the criticism.
DePaul’s spokespeople declined reporters’ requests to add any additional comment for this story. Despite the absence of a formal statement from university officials, according to DePaul’s FOP information page, the university considers itself a “proud partner with the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Lodge 7.”
Lodge 7 also declined reporters’ requests for comment. CPD did not respond to requests for comment by time of publication. CPD denied a request for documents outlining this relationship through the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds it had no relevant material. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a separate FOIA request.
Lodge 7 President John Catanzara’s recent divisive comments about the Capitol riots led to renewed calls for DePaul to end its FOP-sponsored program.
Students cite troubling comments from FOP leadership as reason not to support the cohort program.
“FOP President John Catanzara had just appalling comments with the attack on the Capitol,” Isberto said. “I agree that there shouldn’t be a relationship between our university and FOP, but especially with John Catanzara’s comments that he had made… [it] was even more evident that [the program] really does not align with our Vincentian values.”
In an interview, a federal law enforcement official in Chicago who graduated from DePaul in 2016 and served as a professional mentor for the first cohort of the FOP program, said not all officers support Catanzara’s statements. The official asked not to be identified because of his position.
“I know that the FOP has sometimes had some very public, very controversial statements and viewpoints,” he said. “Some I have personally agreed with, some I certainly have not. I wouldn’t fault the average FOP-DePaul student for the comments of one elected union leader.”
In addition to problematic comments from FOP leadership, students are also critical of the program because of the discount DePaul offers to members of law enforcement.
“For me, the most disappointing aspect of the relationship between the FOP and DePaul is that CPD officers receive a 25 percent discount in the DePaul Cohort Program,” Norward said. “But students, and namely students of color, struggle each year to afford their education… the money granted to the officers in the program should not only be invested into the students, but into our faculty and staff as well as our underfunded Black Studies departments and spaces.”
While the majority of officers’ tuition comes in the form of reimbursement by the city, according to DePaul’s College of Law website, the university “provides Chicago FOP members with a 25 percent tuition discount for the onsite [Master of Jurisprudence] program at the Chicago Police Academy.”
While the students enrolled in this degree program may be eligible for the 25 percent tuition discount from DePaul, the university does not offer discounts for any other cohort programs.
Though DePaul is not footing the bill, Norward’s point stands as officers have the potential to have some — if not all — of their tuition reimbursed by the city through their contract with FOP.
According to a provision of Lodge 7’s contract with the city of Chicago, officers in undergraduate programs that earn an “A” can receive up to a 100 percent reimbursement for the course through the city. Those that receive a passing grade for the class can receive up to a 75 percent reimbursement.
For those enrolled in graduate programs, officers who receive a final grade of an “A” will receive a 75 percent reimbursement, and those that maintain a passing grade can be reimbursed up to 50 percent.
As a result, FOP members enrolled in both the undergraduate and graduate cohort programs who earn an “A” in their courses can have 100 percent of their tuition covered. It’s because of this significant financial relief that some officers understand why students like Norward would be resentful.
“I can certainly understand how that would sting, you know?” the federal official said. “If you’re a DePaul student who’s been there two, three, four years and you’ve got $100,000 in student loan debt… and then along come these prima donna cops wandering around with guns stuck in their belt and they’re going there for — what seems to be — free? That would leave a rotten taste in my mouth too. I totally understand that.”
But police officers stress that the program is rarely entirely “free.”
According to information provided by CPD regarding their tuition reimbursement program, officers may be held financially responsible for their tuition costs under a number of circumstances.
“Somebody on the outside when they hear tuition reimbursement, they think ‘Oh, these people are getting a free education.’ Yes and no,” the CPD sergeant said.
As the sergeant explained, tuition reimbursements can be revoked for a myriad of reasons, including failure to meet the 30 day filing deadline, to maintain passing grades or to ensure a steady work performance while enrolled in the program.
Moreover, to satisfy their side of the contract, officers are required to work for the city for at least two years following their graduation from the program, or else their reimbursement will be revoked. Further, the city’s reimbursement covers no more than two courses per term.
With all these stipulations, the sergeant clarifies, “It is no longer ‘free,’ you’re still paying something out of pocket.”
Even so, officers say the education is well worth it. The federal law enforcement official said that along with other benefits, degree certification can help officers get promotions and make advances in their careers.
“I could not, literally, have the job that I have today, had it not been for DePaul,” he said. “I couldn’t even apply for [senior-level] jobs until I had a bachelor’s degree. So professionally speaking, I would not be where I am today without DePaul.”
Moreover, the official expressed other less tangible, but still important aspects to an education from DePaul.
“DePaul… practically speaking, it opened up the world to me,” he said. “Hearing from opinions and people who I didn’t generally have interactions with was really important to developing who I’ve become as a man. And very importantly, it has helped me a lot in developing who I’ve become as a leader.”
In addition to officers, other members of the university community recognize these benefits to the relationship with Lodge 7.
Rhonda DeLong, a professor in DePaul’s Department of Criminology and a part-time Michigan police officer, offered her support for the program.
“I’m always a big proponent of higher education for police officers, you know, it can only make us better,” DeLong said.
DeLong teaches in DePaul’s criminology department, focusing on subjects like police selection and training.
“To have officers in a higher education institution, I think, is so critical, and especially [because DePaul is] very unique in terms of the social justice perspective,” DeLong said. “I think that officers really need to have that and to be able to build on opening up their minds a little bit.”
Despite the SGA’s opposition to DePaul’s relationship with the FOP, Isberto said that she would not want to prevent anyone from pursuing their education.
“I would say that I’d never want to bar anyone from wanting to receive an education,” she said. “So I guess that is one benefit [of the program], if they want to better train themselves to not… be biased, and not be racist, and not promote any kind of supremacy over other people. I guess that’s just the benefit of having an education, I think, in general.”
DeLong, however, took a more adamant stance in support of officers on campus.
“I’ve talked to other people and students who just don’t like that, that [officers] shouldn’t be a part of DePaul,” she added. “And, you know, why not? Because if we start looking at what’s happening with police officers, they’re all being categorized in one group, and haven’t we done that historically, to other groups that we don’t particularly like, or [that] are different from us.”
The DePaul debate over the school’s program to educate police officers extends to differences of opinion over whether it agrees with the university’s commitment to Vincentian values.
Student leaders like Isberto argue that DePaul’s relationship with CPD and the FOP contradicts the school’s Vincentian mission.
“DePaul’s relationship with the FOP…it really doesn’t align with our Vincentian values,” she stated. “Especially if our students are hurting from racial injustice.”
In a recent editorial titled, “Cut Ties with FOP or Vincentian Values,” The DePaulia criticized the university for supporting the program.
“DePaul claims to uphold the values of St. Vincent DePaul, who spent his life offering service to the needy and suffering,” the Editorial Board wrote. “The violent words and actions of Chicago Police this year alone would have St. Vincent rolling in his grave; they’re antithetical to the compassion the university touts to secure tuition dollars.”
But in a letter addressed to the Interim Dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies last summer, the federal law enforcement official expounded on the university’s values as reason for choosing DePaul.
“One of the biggest driving factors [when choosing DePaul] was that DePaul espoused its Vincentian principles of integrity, belief in the dignity of all, and a commitment to building the community, among others,” he wrote. “It is for those reasons I was saddened to learn some at DePaul are calling for the school to end its relationship with the Chicago Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.”
He argued that the university’s central values are what make it the perfect environment to foster greater understanding between police and students.
“As members of the DePaul community, we must lead by seeking to understand, to foster and promote tolerance, and to better ourselves to better our community. DePaul can, and does, play a critical role in healing our city and our nation by giving all students a safe place to understand each other.”