In a day when some smaller Catholic liberal arts colleges struggle to survive amid spiraling education costs, certain others thrive and even grow – all the while remaining true to their Catholic mission and identity. Three such exemplars are the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas; Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Ca; and the University of Mary in Bismarck, Nd
A University of Dallas education centers on its Core, a rigorous and integrated program that emphasizes the Great Books of Western culture, with common coursework in more than a dozen disciplines ranging from theology and philosophy to Western civilizations, literature, art, languages, and the sciences.
“The University of Dallas is justly celebrated for its Core,” said Dr. Jonathan J. Sanford, UD’s provost and a professor of philosophy. “Our goal is that our students receive an education that enables them to understand the differences between the different disciplines but also, and more significantly, how all knowledge is interrelated since it proceeds from and converges upon the same source: God.”
More than 80 percent of undergrads spend a semester abroad on UD’s campus outside Rome, usually in their sophomore year. It’s an experience referred to as “the Core of the Core,” Sanford explained, “because it is there that our students are enabled to see how all their studies in the Core are anchored in some way in Rome.” Students, he said, return “transformed in mind, body, and spirit.”
The Core provides an excellent general education that “liberates the mind from ignorance and trains the character to be free from slavery to the passions,” thus equipping students “to do great works in service to God, country, Church and community,” Sanford said. What completes the UD education, however, are the academic majors, which encompass the humanities, the sciences and business. The fruit of this excellence is evident in the high acceptance rates of UD grads in law schools, doctoral programs and med schools, as well in their professional success.
Unlike some colleges that rightly celebrate the reclaiming of their Catholic identity, the University of Dallas never lost sight of its own since its founding in 1956, Sanford said.
“You might think of us as like a cradle Catholic who keeps maturing in his faith, as opposed to a revert Catholic who had some wayward years and has come back home,” he explained. “The University of Dallas’ early leaders held firmly to their aim to make of us a great university, and to do so as a faithfully Catholic university, and we not only live out but are building on that legacy now.”
Located along the picturesque California coast, Thomas Aquinas College has long distinguished itself for its Great Books curriculum, its small classes governed by Socratic Method dialogue, and its unwavering fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church. That all now extends to the east coast with the opening of a branch campus this fall in Northfield, MA, just 86 miles west of Boston.
The establishment of the New England campus “marks a milestone in the life of the college and provides dramatic evidence of the college’s growth and evangelical character,” said Dr. Michael F. McLean, TAC’s president. “We are grateful for the opportunity to make our education available to a greater number of students who are able and willing to undertake our academic program and to graduate more young people who will serve their communities, their country, and their Church.”
Nearly 60 students will be enrolled in Northfield in August, and hopes are to swell those numbers to 350 or so by 2029, effectively doubling the total student body.
“When our founders designed the College’s curriculum, they wanted to give students the best possible guides in the study of the various disciplines,” McLean explained. That meant eschewing textbooks and going straight to the source: the original writings of the great thinkers who have shaped our civilization.”
Studying thinkers like Aristotle, Euclid, Shakespeare, our Founding Fathers, and Aquinas himself invites students to grapple with important questions about nature, humanity and God.
“We do not want our students simply to accept what they read,” McLean said. “We want them to think deeply, to ask questions, and to challenge conclusions that do not seem correct, all with the goal of coming to a deeper understanding of what the author is saying, and then of forming a reasoned judgment about whether it is true.”
This pedagogy is ordered to freedom, which is the purpose of Catholic education, McLean said.
“One of the aims of the college is to make each student, to the extent possible, a ‘self-mover’ in the life of the mind,” he said. Understanding the principles of each particular discipline and undertaking lively discussions in which they shape, defend, and articulate their views “gives them the power to make truth their own, to become intellectually free.”
The curriculum “introduces students to the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition and helps them to understand and appreciate the harmony between faith and reason,” McLean added.
VISION AND INNOVATION
The University of Mary is in the midst of an impressive growth trend of its own. Last fall, it welcomed 533 freshmen to its Bismarck campus, a 22 percent increase from the previous year, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Eight satellite campuses – three in North Dakota, one each in Montana, Kansas, and Arizona, and overseas in Rome and Peru – raised enrollment to some 4,600 students last year.
The university demonstrates confidence in its continued success in forming Catholic professionals for the 21st century workforce. Its YearRound Campus program allows students to complete a bachelor’s degree in 2.6 years or a master’s in four. Its Catholic Studies program, with 160 students last year, is the nation’s largest outside of seminaries. New master’s degrees are offered in Virtuous Leadership and in Catholic Bioethics. And the university broke ground this spring for a new $12 million engineering facility to open in fall 2020.
Those are gutsy initiatives considering the financial and cultural challenges faced by liberal arts colleges today, particularly those with a Catholic identity. Yet “as the beneficiary of a 1,500-year legacy of Benedictine education, we at the University of Mary believe that panicked reactions to the current challenges can be dangerous to a school’s actual survival,” Monsignor James Patrick Shea, the university’s president, wrote recently in Prairie Business magazine.
“As a Catholic university, we gain wisdom from Scripture, and so we remember the book of Proverbs, which says, ‘without vision, the people perish,’” he added.
The satellite campuses extend a Catholic university education to regions where it might not otherwise be available. One of these, Mary College, operates from an old brick church in Tempe, AZ, offering theology and Catholic studies courses in partnership with Arizona State University. A small program with major ambitions, it’s “an innovative model for Catholic higher education going forward,” Monsignor Shea told America magazine.
Providing a solid education within an authentically Catholic context defines the mission of the University of Mary, said Jerome J. Richter, vice president for mission advancement.
“By sharing with our students the truths and beauty of the Faith in an integrated way, they are able to recognize that life without the Church and its sacraments leads to a life less than what it was meant to be,” Richter said. “The University of Mary provides its students with intentional experiences abroad, in the classroom, and in service, so no matter where they are in the moment, they know they are part of something with eternal meaning and hope.”
These experiences “provide each with a greater meaning, a greater hope, and a greater witness to a full breadth of life,” he added. “That is why we consider ourselves to be faithfully Christian, joyfully Catholic, and gratefully Benedictine.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.