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Legatus Magazine

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Judy Roberts | author
Sep 01, 2009
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Thomas Aquinas College: Building on a legacy

TAC honors work of its late president, Legate Thomas Dillon, after his untimely death . . .

Dr. Thomas Dillon

Dr. Thomas Dillon

Thomas Aquinas College has faced numerous challenges over the last 40 years in its quest to become a solidly Catholic institution. But perhaps none has touched the tight-knit campus community as deeply as the death of its second president.

Dillon’s legacy

Just weeks after a stunning new $22 million chapel was dedicated on the 131-acre campus in Santa Paula, Calif., Thomas Dillon, the college’s president since 1991, was killed in an auto accident in Ireland on April 15.

Dillon, a Legatus member who joined the Thomas Aquinas faculty in 1972, shepherded the college through a period of growth that included the addition of nine buildings — among them the chapel, library and science building. He raised nearly $100 million and gained national recognition for the college’s Great Books program.

Although shaken by the loss, the college has had a process in place from its inception that should not only insure a smooth transition, but the continuation of the course Dillon set.

Under an unusual succession plan, the president is selected from among teaching faculty with permanent status. (Such status is typically granted after five years when faculty members are deemed to be committed to the college’s mission.)

The choice of a new president from the teaching faculty is tied to the college’s character and its understanding of Catholic liberal education, which would be difficult to find in an outside candidate, explained TAC’s interim president Peter DeLuca.

Central to the college is its conviction that the Catholic faith illuminates understanding and guides intellectual life. As the school’s website says, “A college dedicated to Catholic liberal education is responsible first and foremost for helping its students perfect their intellects under the light of the truths revealed by God through the Catholic Church.”

By providing a program that is firmly Catholic and academically superior, Thomas Aquinas is making a valuable contribution to Catholic higher education, said Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization committed to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America’s Catholic colleges and universities.

“There is today a strong mindset among many Catholic academics at the larger universities that one can only have an authentically Catholic college if it is small and inferior in its academic program,” Reilly said. “But many of the smaller Catholic colleges that have been established in the last 40 years — and Thomas Aquinas College is a real leader in that movement — actually provide a much stronger curriculum. They focus on the liberal arts in the way the larger universities did decades ago.”

Catholic mission

Thomas Aquinas was founded at a time when American Catholic institutions of higher learning were becoming increasingly secularized and detached from the teaching Church, according to the college’s founding document, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, known as the Blue Book.

DeLuca, a founder of the college and its first principal administrator, said many of these schools also had drifted from their original purpose. Hence, he added, “Right from the beginning, a major concern has been how to keep the college true to its mission.”

Selecting a new president from within is somewhat restrictive, but DeLuca acknowledged that “it’s more important to have someone who understands the mission of the college from the inside and who can maintain that mission and be true to it in the future.”

To insure that TAC remains on track, the president answers to the board of governors, and seven of the 30 board members are either founding members or faculty. In addition, the Blue Book is incorporated into the college’s bylaws. “It is to be read and defended by everyone in the college, including the board and faculty,” DeLuca said. “That’s been invaluable for the college in keeping it on mission.

“It’s been almost 40 years since we first opened an office, and the college is still doing exactly what we started out to do,” he said. “We credit much of that to the existence of that document.”

Another reason the college has been able to stay on mission is that it offers a single curriculum and degree in Liberal Arts with no majors and no departments.

“It’s a very finite, self-contained operation,” added Anne Forsyth, a 1981 Thomas Aquinas graduate who serves as director of college relations. “We don’t anticipate adding new departments or graduate programs, so we will remain what we are.”

The college also has stayed intentionally small, admitting only 102 freshmen each year for a total enrollment of about 350. This allows the college to provide classes in which students and faculty members (known as tutors) can discuss, evaluate and analyze together what they are reading in the classics.

“They’re trying to understand the truth,” DeLuca said. “People have to say what they really think, not what they think someone wants to hear, or the position of some group.”

This means students and tutors have to know each other, DeLuca added. “We try very hard to make this a community of friends, where it’s small enough that everyone can know everyone else.”

Moving forward

Everything that defines Thomas Aquinas College, combined with the leadership Dillon provided over the last 18 years, seems to indicate that the school will continue to flourish under a new president, Reilly said.

“It’s a tightly developed program,” he said. “The college has very clear traditions, not just in terms of the campus life, but with its academic functions, its curriculum, its operation. It’s simply a matter of the right person coming in and picking up where [Dillon] left off.”

This is not to say, however, that Dillon’s loss isn’t felt deeply.

As well as being a great leader, “Tom Dillon had the additional ability of being a great fundraiser,” added Legatus member Nick Healy, president of Ave Maria University. “It’s a rare president that can embody the full academic vision and also be a talented fundraiser. God will inspire them to choose a worthy successor.”

TAC’s nominating committee is made up of board of governors members and a faculty committee. The latter will interview the teaching faculty and choose two candidates, to be voted on by faculty members with permanent status. Ballots are then sent to the nominating committee so the panel can assess the faculty’s preferences. The nominating committee may consider both candidates or dismiss them and ask for additional names. Finally, the panel chooses a candidate and forwards the name to the full board for consideration.

DeLuca expects that if all goes smoothly, the new president will be named at the Oct. 24 board meeting and assume office at the end of December with a formal inauguration tentatively planned for April 2010.

Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.


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From humble beginnings

Formed out of the conversations that a group of philosophy professors had been having about the future of Catholic liberal education in the late 1960s, Thomas Aquinas College began offering classes to 33 students in 1971.

The college met for seven years in leased facilities in Calabasas, Calif., in what had been the Claretian order’s novitiate and college seminary, before moving in 1978 to its current location near Santa Paula, 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

There, development of a master plan began with construction of St. Joseph Commons and continues today with the recent completion of a new chapel. Still to be built are a lecture and concert hall, a second classroom building and a gymnasium.

Today, the college is recognized as a leader in higher education nationally and is consistently listed in “top 10” rankings by the National Catholic Register, Crisis and Insight magazines.

In August, two national organizations ranked TAC among the nation’s top colleges. U.S. News & World Report’s annual college guide, America’s Best Colleges 2010, put Thomas Aquinas in the top tier among the nation’s liberal arts colleges. TAC is ranked No. 68 out of 112 schools in Tier 1.  The Princeton Review ranked TAC No. 1 in the country for “most religious students.” The Review also features TAC in the 2010 edition of its popular guidebook The Best 371 Colleges.  The Cardinal Newman Society consistently features the college in its annual publication The Newman Guide to Choosing  Catholic College.

—Roberts

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