On April 15, Tom Dillon, president of Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula, Calif., died in a car accident in Ireland. The college’s second president, after Ronald McArthur, Dillon took office in 1991, and under his leadership the college’s student body grew to its maximum size. Numerous ambitious building campaigns were brought to completion; just last month, the college dedicated Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, which many hope will set a precedent for Catholic architecture in America. Dillon’s presidency is testimony to what Catholic administrators can accomplish if they set their minds and hearts to being faithful to the Catholic vision of liberal education.
I recall arriving on the campus of Thomas Aquinas College for a (successful) job interview in the early months of 1987 and wondering to myself, “Where is it?” At that point, TAC had only one permanent building, which housed the cafeteria, chapel, and a small library. The rest — dorms, classrooms, and faculty offices — were all temporary trailers. There were fewer than 100 students in the entire school.
Tom Dillon was then dean, and hence he became my boss. He quickly also became a friend, a valued adviser about teaching and the formation of students, and, depending up how teams were selected, a teammate or foe on the outdoor basketball courts, where he loved to compete in the afternoons. A devoted husband and father of four, Tom had a ready wit, a zest for conversation, and a love of the give-and-take of argument.
He embodied the college’s commitment to learning through Socratic inquiry — a commitment that pervades the school’s seminar discussions of great books and is perhaps best exemplified in the question periods following Friday-evening lectures, periods known to go on for hours.
TAC is certainly not the only viable model of Catholic undergraduate education, but it exhibits the characteristics of authentic Catholic education in every time and place. It constitutes a genuine community of learning, embodied in a rigorous and coherent curriculum, succored by customs of student life that foster the practice of the intellectual and moral virtues. Students who come to TAC, which accepts no federal funds, will not be offered a menu of course options or majors, will not take notes on the lectures of professors, and will not be asked to purchase expensive and unwieldy textbooks. They read the books of the greatest intellects in a host of fields of inquiry, study these texts through shared conversational inquiry, and take a common curriculum for the entire four years. The results are impressive. Recognized as a “best buy” by the Princeton Review, the school regularly produces students who earn the highest possible scores on the GRE; even more stunning is the high percentage of graduates with vocations in the priesthood and vowed religious life.
Tom Dillon once described the major Catholic universities in America as “large ships adrift in the wrong direction and particularly difficult to turn around.” It seems clear that, at least in the short term, the future of vibrant Catholic intellectual life in America will be in the smaller liberal-arts colleges rather than in the large universities. This is not because there is an inherent contradiction between the Catholic faith and the university, but rather because the large universities are no longer universities; that is, they are no longer places in which students experience a unified and inspiring educational vision. It is a sad fact that Catholic universities, well positioned to offer a corrective to what ails higher education, have sought not to lead, but to mimic others. The question now is not whether universities can genuinely be universities within the ambit of faith, but whether they can maintain their educational mission apart from the guiding influence of faith.
Tom Dillon knew this. He knew that not only faith but reason itself testified to the superiority of the Catholic vision of education. His life was characterized by the kind of unity of purpose that is increasingly rare in our time. His vocations as father, as teacher, and as administrator complemented and enriched one another. His aspirations for the college he loved were marvelously fulfilled just weeks before his death, with the dedication of a magnificent chapel. His own words, words he spoke to each graduating class, succinctly capture his own life:
It is my practice to direct the graduating seniors each year to the prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas for after Holy Communion, since it contains great wisdom about the Christian life. St. Thomas prays, “May this sacrament perfect me in charity and patience, in humility and obedience, and in all the other virtues.” Notice the virtues he singles out among all others: charity, patience, humility, and obedience. It is my constant hope that these virtues will be the mark of graduates of Thomas Aquinas College, especially charity and humility, understanding that patience will intensify our charity and obedience will intensify our humility.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.