Father Dennis Dease

A Man of Uncommon Decency

With retirement in sight, Father Dennis Dease reflects on two decades of extraordinary change.

[A detailed list of Father Dease's accomplishments can be found here .]

Father Dennis Dease will retire on June 30, completing 22 years as the 14th president of the University of St. Thomas.

The St. Thomas that Dease will hand over to Dr. Julie Sullivan on July 1 is dramatically different from the St. Thomas he inherited from Monsignor Terrence Murphy, yet his desire always has been simple and forthright – to improve the quality of education and to carry out the mission.

That desire has manifested itself in many ways – in new campuses and new buildings, in a more racially and ethnically diverse student body, in a stronger faculty and staff, and in highly successful fundraising efforts.

Dease is the first to credit the entire St. Thomas community for making so many dreams come true. He speaks quietly of how “incredibly blessed” he is to be surrounded by people “who care deeply about this university and who have a deep passion for learning and helping others to learn.”

He sat down this spring to reflect on his presidency and to look ahead to the challenges that await his successor and the University of St. Thomas.

Q. Twenty-two years! Does it seem that long?

A. The first year seemed like 22 years because of the learning curve, but the last 20 years have just vaporized. It’s like if you get on a plane and don’t have anything to read, the trip takes forever. But if you have a good book, you’re there before you know it. There has been so much activity and growth here at St. Thomas that the years have just flown by.

Q. In 1991, how long – honestly, now – did you expect to be president? Are you surprised that you have served 22 years?

A. I knew the average term for a university president in the United States was about 6.5 years, and a little longer in Catholic institutions. Archbishop John Roach, our chairman at the time, asked me on the day of the board’s interview with me if I would be willing to give 10 years to the job. I said I would. I was just hoping I could hang in there for 10 years!

Why did I stay 22 years? No one is more surprised than I am. Maybe it was just the grace of God. One thing I know for sure: It’s important to have good people around you to take on responsibility and work together, and ours is a wonderful culture in that sense. I am so fortunate that the faculty and staff became my friends and have been magnificent in carrying out our mission, and I could not have asked for a better board of trustees. They are can-do, make-it-happen individuals who know how to solve problems. Those are the real reasons for the long run.

This is a unique kind of university. You don’t find here the acerbic divisions that are so common in academe. On a 1 to 10 scale in this regard, the St. Thomas community rates a 10. I do not exaggerate. Sure, we’ve had strong disagreements at times, but the civility with which we have carried on our discussions always made me proud.

Q. How has the job changed over the years?

A. The job as a Catholic university president is never easy, but there is less stridency today surrounding our Catholic identity. There is more clarity, thanks to the decade-long discussion prompted by the Holy See’s document Ex Corde Ecclesiae. In my early years, there were many hard discussions trying to balance the role of Catholicism with that of a university. As I leave office, the dominant issue is affordability.

Q. What has been St. Thomas’ most significant accomplishment during your tenure? Is there any particular accomplishment with which you take personal pride?

A. We put a lot of effort into strengthening our Catholic identity. We are clearer today about the meaning of our commitment to cultivate our Catholic mission. We have a rich, 4,000-year Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition upon which to draw, as well as a vibrant Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition.

I am pleased that we have steadily strengthened our faculty. Many of them come from the best universities in the world. They are productive scholars and they are just incredibly fine teachers. I see master teachers as those who not only educate but also inspire, who are passionate about their disciplines and who change lives. Their fire is burning brightly because they stoke it with research and then come into the classroom and light a fire for others. They have what William Butler Yeats said about the purpose of education being not just one of filling a bucket but lighting a fire.

We also have seen the student body change academically as judged by ACT scores (averages of 23.1 and 25.6 for entering freshmen in 1991 and 2012), and we are more diverse. We were mostly white middle class (4.5 percent students of color in 1991) but today we have higher percentages of students of color (14 percent) and international students (4 percent), and they have enriched the learning environment.

Q. In the essay that you submitted with your application to be president, you listed a priority to strengthen our Catholic character, and in your inauguration address you emphasized the need to avoid “a slippery path to a rather bland secularism.” What does the path look like today?

A. I no longer see that as the threat I saw 22 years ago because the academic environment is much more open to us being Catholic. A Catholic university is built on the  premise that faith and reason are not antithetical but are complementary. One can enrich the other. Science and religion can learn from the other, and I find that fun because my personal interests and background have been on the religion side, but in school I always found science fascinating.

Q. How do programs such as a Center for Catholic Studies and a Rome campus enhance our Catholic character?

A. Our Center for Catholic Studies enriches us as a Catholic university, and in ways we didn’t anticipate when we designed it. It enables students to integrate what they are learning in terms of their faith with a whole variety of other disciplines and perspectives. It traces and explores the Catholic influence in literature, science, philosophy and the arts.

The Rome campus was a bold step for us. It certainly wasn’t going to become a profit center, but the trustees agreed from a mission point of view that it was important. I love  the facility itself, located on the Tiber River just a 15-minute walk to St. Peter’s. We were fortunate to have a dear friend, the late Cardinal Pio Laghi, dedicate the campus, and I still remember him saying, “The city of Rome is a wonderful professor.”

Q. Why do students need a liberal arts education? What does it mean?

A. A liberal arts education is a process; it’s not a product. It’s not a discreet amount of information that you acquire; it’s the result of personal interaction with mentors, with professors. It’s not data; it’s an expansion of students’ horizons and of shaping their awareness and preparing them for lifelong learning. It is truly transformative.

It comes about because of interaction with talented, experienced teachers. Our class sizes are relatively small, which allows for interaction, and the approach that our faculty takes is inquiry based learning. There is an old saying, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” That’s inquiry-based learning.

Q. More and more scholarship and research involves students. Why is that important?

A. It is not that common for faculty in higher education in the United States to involve undergraduate students in their research, but it is common here at St. Thomas. You get a sense of how much this means to students when you attend their poster sessions, such as the ones I have gone to for chemistry. There were so many students presenting research on poster boards. They used to be able to get all of them into the corridors on one floor, but this year there were so many that they had to have two shifts. That’s thrilling because it’s learning at its best.

Q. Another priority you cited before becoming president was a desire for St. Thomas to become a great “urban” university, and you later said that we should not just be in the city, but of the city. Have we taken sufficient steps?

A. When I was rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis, every day people were at the door in need of housing, clothing, food or even bus tickets. People were living under the freeway bridge across the street. That weighed on me, and I thought an urban university would have something to contribute to alleviate the suffering.

The chief way we contribute is through education – by educating first-generation students and by encouraging an organic interaction between the university and the  community. We are not an ivory tower that is self-sufficient, but an urban university that responds to issues and whose students have an opportunity to learn from  community-based projects and supervised, reflective experiences. We always can do more, and I expect we will do more because we have created a culture where people want to be part of the solution.

By “of the city,” I meant that we have a responsibility to the region we serve to provide for its emerging educational needs. We will continue to do that. We are organically part of the city here, and our future will rise or fall with the future of the city.

Q. St. Thomas revised its mission statement in 2004. What does it mean to you when you look at it today?

A. It goes like this: “Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.” I love that mission statement because it succinctly captures us and it guides us.

Q. So it boils down to how people need to go out and do the right thing?

A. Absolutely. I have had a stream of students and faculty come through my office excited about projects. Like engineering professor Camille George and her project to dehydrate breadfruit in Haiti to preserve it and meet the nutritional needs of the people there. Or Brian Osende, an engineering student who went back to his remote village in Uganda with solar panels and his knowledge as an engineer, to electrify his village. It dawned on me that I had something in common with the people of that village because that was an electrifying experience for both of us.

Q. Throughout your presidency, you have expressed concern – even frustration – about the rising costs of education and the growing perception among some people that they cannot afford St. Thomas. How do you address that?

A. I tell them, “Don’t be scared off by the sticker price.” We have dramatically increased financial aid. I also point out that our average net cost has not increased in the last 10 years beyond the rate of inflation. The average debt load that an undergraduate student leaves St. Thomas with is around $30,000 – the same as what many new cars cost, and they won’t drive that car for the rest of their life. I believe $30,000 is a reasonable price to pay for an education.

Q. St. Thomas has been successful in raising funds, including $765 million in the Opening Doors and Ever Press Forward capital campaigns. Does the generosity of alumni and friends, even during a serious recession, surprise you?

A. It is astounding in one sense but not in another. People see the kind of institution that St. Thomas is and come to a judgment that we are adding great value to the community. They appreciate the way that we respond to emerging educational needs, and they want to be part of it.

Q. Enrollment growth in the 1970s and 1980s led to crowded conditions and decisions to open a Minneapolis campus and significantly expand the St. Paul campus. But needs remain: Music programs want better facilities, science and engineering programs are out of space and neighbors push for more on-campus housing. Is a university ever done with construction?

A. Never! I wish it could be so. But as educational needs continue to change, so must our programs and our facilities, and that entails reimagining and retrofitting the physical campus.

Q. What would you consider the “signature” buildings of your presidency?

A. Each building has been important in meeting critical needs. The Minneapolis campus buildings gave us an opportunity to concentrate many graduate and professional programs there, and each has served its distinct profession well.

In St. Paul, the Frey Science and Engineering Center addressed perhaps our greatest need, and McNeely Hall has made a huge difference to our business faculty. The three Anderson buildings have enriched student life immeasurably: the Athletic and Recreation Complex and the Student Center bring people together and allow the community to come to know itself in ways not previously possible, and you can never have enough parking.

Q. Why is diversity important?

A. I love the diversity I see on campus because it enriches the learning experience for all of our students. It better prepares them for the world in which they will live and work. In practice, when a student from Eden Prairie or New Market or Lake Benton meets a student from the Middle East or China or Africa, that student starts to ask questions about his new friend’s experiences, culture and perspective. In the process, he learns more about the world.

Q. In becoming more diverse, have we become a better reflection of the region’s racial and ethnic makeup?

A. We are definitely more reflective of the community. I can’t recall many Hmong students here 20 years ago, and there are many today. I also am pleased with the recruitment in immigrant communities. Who would have thought that the largest representations today from foreign countries would be Saudi Arabia (99 students last fall) and India (56)?

We had the opportunity a decade ago to provide space for English Language Services, and we brought international students to campus and gave them a chance to look around. The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Washington provides full scholarships, and I began to develop a relationship with those officials. I was concerned about how they might view St. Thomas and they told me, “We love Catholic universities because they respect the role that faith plays in life.” We have had an excellent experience.

Q. Another way that St. Thomas provides greater access for lower-income students is through the Dease Scholarship Program. How did that come about?

A. Greg Roberts, our vice president for student affairs (until 2003) came to me one day and said the number of African-American students had dropped to a critical level. There was a general feeling in that community, he said, that St. Thomas was not a good fit for African-American students. That got my attention. I realized we would need to re-engineer our efforts. And we did.

When I see someone like Laura Lee, who was a Hmong student at St. Thomas, now at the top of her profession as a (television) anchor in Rochester, I can’t find words to express my gratitude that we were able to be there when she was saying, “Educate me, expand my horizons, give me some skills!” It’s humbling and it’s gratifying to be part of this journey.

Q. St. Thomas has largely managed to avoid controversy over the years. There have been some dust-ups and we have come under criticism for positions we have taken on certain issues, but for the most part our alumni and the broader community have stuck with us. Why?

A. It’s because people accept who we are. They may disagree with us, but they respect who we are. They also respect our graduates. I have long believed that the ultimate measure of the quality of a university is the quality of its graduates – and ours are extraordinary.

Q. Have you ever second-guessed any decisions? Or looked back and said, “I should have handled that differently”?

A. I haven’t had time! Seriously, so much has happened here. Maybe I will in retrospect, when I have had the chance to think, but not now. This is such a busy place – when one chapter closes you are already working on the next.

Sure, I have made mistakes along the way, but people are good here. Not a lot of finger pointing goes on. They acknowledge any mistakes and the explanations and say, “Let’s move on.”

Q. You never seem more a priest than when you say Mass and never more a president than when you are handing out diplomas at graduation. How are those special moments to you?

A. When I am holding the host or chalice in my hand, I feel like I am in the presence of Jesus in a way that I can’t even begin to understand or appreciate. I often experience Jesus’ love intensely in those moments, but trying to comprehend it would be like trying to understand the light that comes from the other side of the universe.

When I hand out diplomas, I see the smiles as students come up and cross the stage. They’re just so happy. There’s no finer moment in the life of a university president than when you see students who know that something very good has happened.

Q. What kind of role do you want to have as “president emeritus”?

A. I will try to be of help in whatever way I can – to the university and to Dr. Julie Sullivan, who is a wonderful person and will be an extraordinary leader. I see myself as becoming a goodwill ambassador. I have been blessed with good health, and as long as it holds up I will be active. I’m not yet ready to spend my time watching the daytime soaps or the Weather Channel.

Q. What advice do you have for your successor?

A. I will tell her to enjoy what will likely be the most wonderful job she’s ever had.

Q. In past Q&A interviews for St. Thomas magazine, we closed with the famous John Ireland quote about the need to “ever press forward” because “God intended the present to be better than the past and the future to be better than the present.” How do you relate those words to the mission of St. Thomas?

A. It inspires us to dare to be great, to dive into life, to become part of it, to make tomorrow better than today. We can actively and significantly contribute, and that is what we here at St. Thomas choose to do – to advance the common good.

Read more from St. Thomas Magazine.