“Because things have changed, and we’re tired of it. More importantly, we’re tired of being lied to.”

Those are the words of Hailey Fry, formerly a student at the University of the Sciences’ Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. PCP, as it’s known, is the country's oldest school of pharmaceutical medicine, a fact which makes the context of Fry’s speech all the more surprising—it was April 2022, and her school had just announced that they would no longer be offering birth control services

The students of PCP held a class meeting to protest this policy change. In a video uploaded to her Facebook—which has been blurred out, we can assume to protect the identities of the attendees—Fry can be heard speaking.

“I used to be really proud to say I go to USciences. I was proud of my education and my university. Unfortunately, since you announced we were being bought out, that has changed too,” she continues. There’s conviction in her voice, and venom, too, blended with resignation.

A subset of students, and not an insignificant one, have shared Fry’s journey from pride to disillusionment. They’re the former USciences undergraduates who ended up attending Saint Joseph’s University’s West Philadelphia campus. In short: the students who’ve graduated or will soon be graduating from a school that is, in some ways, totally different from the one they signed up for, caught in a clash between the religious and the secular.

Occupying a few blocks tucked in between the Woodlands Cemetery and Clark Park just southwest of Penn, the campus itself is small. The only remaining trace of USciences is an anachronistic multi–story sign gracing the front of the Living and Learning Commons, the last building completed by the school prior to the COVID–19 pandemic.

The circumstances that eventually led USciences to pursue a merger with St. Joe's, a Jesuit university whose main campus is located in northwest Philly, began years ago. As early as 2017, the school was facing a $4.5 million budget deficit. Compounded by a diminishing applicant pool and the loss of on–campus housing revenue, talks were opened between the two colleges during summer 2020.

From there, things proceeded quickly (in merger terms). An acquisition was officially proposed as early as February 2021, and was quickly met with backlash. However, administrators from both institutions assured that this was in their mutual best interest, and that the changes in terms of day–to–day student life would be minimal.

“This is an example of opportunity, not born out of necessity,” said then–president of St. Joe's Mark Reed in a statement to The Philadelphia Inquirer. St. Joe's office of communications declined to comment on this story.

His USciences counterpart at the time, Paul Katz, concurred: “This is not about shrinking. This is about growth and future potential.”

But those promises haven’t come to pass. Now St. Joe’s has cut its graduate research programs and sold off many of the buildings it acquired—literally shrinking its West Philly campus. While the last of the USciences–cum–SJU classes will graduate in the next couple of years, there are wider–reaching stakes at play. 

A few years ago, The New York Times reported on student concerns of LGBTQ safety and freedom of expression in the face of a similar merger between Watkins College of Art and the Christian Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Censorship of artwork and firing of non–Christian instructors were at the forefront of the community’s mind, fearful of being incorporated into an institution that was actively hostile towards their values.

The St. Joe’s expansion shows no indication of slowing down. In January of this year, they announced plans for another merger, this time with the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences in Lancaster, Pa. It will add nursing programs to their course roster, but the agreement poses the question of whether the future health workers under their instruction will be trained in providing care that conflicts with Christian teachings. 

University of the Sciences and Saint Joseph’s University officially became one institution on June 1, 2022. In an accompanying press release, St. Joe’s' adjective of choice to describe the merger was “transformative.” 

Emalie Rowles doesn’t exactly agree. “I don’t think so,” she pauses, chewing on her words. “I think if anything it’s transformative in the negative sense, in that we’ve lost so much.”

When we spoke earlier this year, Rowles was a fourth–year neuroscience major, then living through their first semester as a full–fledged student of Saint Joseph’s University. Although they’ll be the first to tell you they didn’t feel like one.

In high school, Rowles toured USciences as a prospective chemistry major and fell in love with the program, which was “insanely impressive” compared to other ones she’d seen. Her first–year fall was likewise optimistic: the University had just announced the construction of a new dorm building (the aforementioned LLC), and despite rumors of debt circulating, there was no potential merger on the horizon.

Things changed with the COVID–19 pandemic, which sent Rowles and over 14 million other college students home during the middle of the school year. Since campuses could no longer charge for housing—while still having to maintain their facilities—any pre–existing financial struggles were exacerbated. At the end of 2020, USciences had their debt rating downgraded by Fitch to BBB, changing their outlook to “Negative.” By the following summer, Rowles and most of their peers were aware of the proposed acquisition. 

“That’s when the petition came out,” she says. In fact, there were multiple petitions—two on Change.org—but Rowles is probably referring to the one started by pharmacy student Jacy Lieberum, which rejected the merger on the part of the USciences student body. Lieberum highlighted aspects of the school, like its science–centric curriculum and alumni connections, that could be threatened by a name– and brand–stripping acquisition.

The petition, which is still open as of writing, currently has 1,825 signatures, about 500 more than USciences’ undergraduate population the year it was published. Signees were also able to comment on their reasons for supporting the petition:

“I applied and committed to USciences because I wanted an education focused in the sciences with a small student body and individualized programs; I fear that these draws will be diminished or eliminated as the merger comes into place.”

“St. Joe's can release as many statements as they want on their website about being welcoming and accepting of differences, but those statements ring empty in the events and experiences of those who have faced discrimination there.”

“I don’t even go to this school and it pisses me off”

Although Rowles’ own course of study remained relatively stable, they share many of the same frustrations. “I don’t think I’m a St. Joe’s student because I’ve only attended there for one semester,” they say. “To not even acknowledge on my degree an institution I attended for three years, and signed up to go to, and paid to go to? Personally, it’s a little offensive.”

Olivia Lamond, another recent graduate and friend of Rowles, opted for more visceral language when I spoke to her towards the end of her senior year. “I feel like my education is being ripped from my hands—this amazing, diverse, open, almost too good to be true scientific education,” she says, her voice clipping over the phone.

Through a scheduling meeting with a professor during the 2022–23 academic year, Lamond caught wind of how extreme these shake–ups would get. They warned her, somewhat ominously, that “‘there are a lot of things that are going on, and that are going to happen, that are going to shake the entire university.’” 

Lamond has a flair for the dramatic that can sometimes tip over into hyperbole. She asserts that “our campus is not going to exist after this semester—no students, no classes, no professors, no campus, no anything.” While that’s not confirmed per any official university statements, it captures the feeling of something you cared deeply about becoming totally unrecognizable.

Throughout the entire merger process, Rowles notes a pattern of dishonesty and obfuscation on the part of both schools’ administrations. “At first they did tell us that the name wouldn’t change, that we wouldn’t even be really affected. Turns out that’s not true,” she says.

And a new name is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, sitting atop staff and faculty departures, in addition to the pruning of research and academic programs. “I know many people whose majors are basically erased, especially the smaller bio majors,” says Rowles.

Lamond isn’t as ginger: “The people that are in those majors and minors right now—they’re not allowed to finish it out. [St. Joe's] is just saying ‘fuck you and move on.'” Kids are stuck with extra credits and nothing to do with them.

In one case, USciences’ cannabis research program was cut for conflicting with the Catholic church’s stance on drugs, only to be re–established as a certificate under St. Joe's. Lamond’s read is that “they’re basically stealing the program and putting their name on it.” Erica Waldorf, who was the USciences MBA assistant director when the program was originally launched, is no longer with the university. 

Rowles also confirmed that student health services still don’t offer contraception or birth control—another consequence of St. Joe’s’ religious doctrine. “One professor literally sat down in the classroom with us and started crying,” says Lamond of the day the news got out.

These policies, though, have been met by a groundswell of students trying to improve their conditions from the inside.

“I know some of the fraternities have been taking that upon themselves, which is lovely, considering our frats aren’t huge,” says Rowles. “I know at every party I’ve been to there’s been free condoms at the door.” Even if the motivations of horny frat boys aren’t the most pure–of–heart, she and I agree that it’s probably a net good.

Another student I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, worked for St. Joe's' social media department, and has made an effort to represent students from the former USciences campus, or from marginalized backgrounds, who felt unrecognized by the school’s online brand. She’s been able to field concerns from fellow students—many of which she shares as a Muslim woman—and says it’s easier to address them from her current position.

Rowles and Lamond didn’t stick around quite long enough to experience these incremental quality–of–life improvements, which are at best quick fixes for systematic errors in judgment. As an example, perhaps the most damning part of the contraceptive saga is that it was never officially announced to the public. 

According to Lamond, “the only way that people found out was that the on–campus doctor at USciences reached out to students who were prescribed birth control individually.” This was confirmed by a former USciences faculty member who has since left the institution, and who asked to remain anonymous.

“People were really upset about that, because it made it seem like it wasn’t important,” she says. “It was being hidden from students who weren’t necessarily on birth control at that moment but would potentially be in the next school year, or who were considering doing it right then and just hadn’t done it yet.”

This professor—who now works at a nearby university—was up for a tenure position when the merger was first announced. Unlike the initial student response, the temperature among the USciences faculty was generally positive at first, although she now credits this to an assumption that “there would be a true merging, looking at the strengths of both programs and bringing them together.”

Offering some comfort was the assurance that any tenured professor would be “automatically grandfathered in” when the deal was finalized. In September 2021, six researchers submitted their tenure portfolios, essentially a life’s work in research. Obtaining tenure is a crucial step in the careers of many academics, one of only a few paths to job security and consistent financial support for their research.

By winter of that year, rumors started circulating that the original tenure deal wouldn’t be honored. The provost later confirmed this, and half of the candidates weren’t given return offers by St. Joe's at all.

The professor I interviewed was one of the lucky ones, but found her contract’s “opportunity” to reapply for tenure disrespectful. Not to mention, by this point she’d seen the writing on the wall: “I think it was related to St. Joe’s wanting to have more power to still get rid of who they wanted to get rid of.” She chose not to return in the fall, and was far from the only one.

“Everyone who did research is leaving,” she says, “but that’s not what St. Joe’s cares about.”

Whether they chose to jump ship or stay put, there was an abiding sense from the USciences faculty of being unheard and unacknowledged. I met with a St. Joe's chair who occupied a similar position at USciences before its acquisition, and who also served on a “chairs’ group” during the last year of the merger. 

At first, this monthly gathering of USciences department heads was called in order to hear the concerns of the faculty and advocate for them with the provosts and deans of both schools. However, they rapidly developed a kind of “learned helplessness” as issues continued to mount, a sense that “I don’t think that anyone cares about what I have to say, that the experience I have is valued in this system.”

This all came to a head with “Merger–athon.” After the definitive merger agreement was signed in the summer of 2021, the chairs of both universities were paired with their counterparts to discuss curricula and write vision documents and such. At least, that’s what was supposed to happen; in practice, the attitude from the St. Joe’s side was much more akin to “‘tell me how many tenure track faculty I’m getting from your department.’”

The chair tells me this is when it became clear to her, that “they had no interest in hearing about my department and what we did and continuing it.” The vision document she wrote was thrown out, which was disappointing, especially when she saw so much potential in the merger as a research endeavor.

“There’s nothing radical to the university model,” she says, “And this to me was an opportunity to disassemble two and reassemble them together.”

But research isn’t a part of the St. Joe’s credo. The Jesuit education model emphasizes lecture and didactic learning, while one of the fundamental ways USciences trained its students to be health care professionals was through research.

Now the plug has been pulled on the graduate biology research programs, research professors are leaving in droves, and students are feeling that absence. 

“It’s not clear that anybody really understands their needs, or how they’re different,” the chair says of the former USciences student body. The university’s research programs were one of the biggest draws when both Emalie Rowles and Olivia Lamond were applying to college.

That helps to explain why one of the most prevalent responses to the merger between University of the Sciences and Saint Joseph’s University was, of all things, puzzlement. Lamond puts it like this: “Why would a rich Catholic university want to buy one of the most historical sciences universities in the United States?” 

She may still not have the “why,” but now she’s painfully clear on the “what.” “All they’re doing is buying science and throwing it under the rug,” she says. It would scan as embellishment, if it wasn’t the truth.