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CHICAGO — Loyola University graduate students blocked the entrance to its administrative offices in protest Monday, calling for the school to treat them like employees and increase their compensation.

“I refuse to have my voice silenced,” Loyola graduate student Alec Stubbs said. “I refuse to let this just be a Loyola for them. It’s time that it’s a Loyola for us.”

Police breaking up the protest arrested seven of the students Monday afternoon after they refused to make space in front of a doorway. They were later charged with disorderly conduct.

The debate comes down to a definition: are people who work as teaching assistants while studying to earn graduate degrees students, or workers? Or both?

“I refuse to be the cheap labor that keeps tuition flowing into this university,” Stubbs said.

Their protest is also based on what many say is a major issue in higher education: increasing tuition combined with limited compensation for student-teachers leads to many incurring sizable debt while pursuing an advanced degree. The students are calling on the school to recognize them as workers instead, so they can organize and negotiate better wages and benefits. But the school says it will not recognize them as a union because it sees them as students, not employees.

“We only negotiate with people who are workers. In this definition, they are students, through and through,” Graduate School Dean Fr. Thomas Regan said.

Regan says there will not be negotiations with graduate student-workers.

“Our stipends are competitive with our competition, we don’t have the multi-billion dollar endowments that some of the Ivy Leagues might have and so we gave them the nest possible package that Loyola can afford,” Regan said.

In the course of picking up her PhD in philosophy,  31-year-old Jean Clifford says she’s racked up over $130,000 in debt. She’s borrowed money to pay for tuition, and says her stipend from the university doesn’t begin to cover costs.

“Right now, the max you can make as a grad at Loyola is $20,000,” Clifford said. “We want to see that number hit $26,000, we want to see that a living wage, and if we can hit that, I guaranteed you the amount of debt acquired by graduate students will drop significantly.”

During their protest Monday, the student protesters were warned by Chicago police to make way for people coming through, before being taken away in handcuffs.

Those left behind left the demonstration with a demand: “Enough is enough. If Loyola Administrators has not agreed to work toward a fair contract by April 24, we are prepared to walk out for our students and for ourselves,” Graduate student Liza Distefano said

“We hope that would not happen, because it harms our undergraduates and our mission is to all of our students,” Fr. Regan said.