Father Dennis Dease Reflects on a Decade as President

Ideas, Needs, Dreams and Hopes

The Father Dennis Dease became the 14th president of the University of St. Thomas on July 1, 1991.

The institution has changed remarkably in those 10 years. New campuses in Minneapolis and Rome.

A new science and engineering center in St. Paul. A School of Law.

Nationally renowned programs in Catholic studies and entrepreneurship.

Successful community outreach efforts such as the Collaborative Urban Educator program, service-learning initiatives and sponsorship of charter schools.

A capital campaign that raised $260 million.

Yet as much as St. Thomas has changed during its evolution into a truly comprehensive university, Dease is quick to emphasize it has remained steadfast in its commitment to carry out its mission: "to develop morally responsible individuals who combine career competency with cultural awareness and intellectual curiosity." That mission continues to drive, and inspire, him.

Dease sat down recently to reflect on his 10 years as president and to look ahead to the challenges that await the University of St. Thomas in the future.

Q: You marked your 10-year anniversary as St. Thomas president on July 1. That is a long tenure for a university president, in one sense, yet for people who have been around here longer, it also feels as if you just walked in the door the other day. Does it seem like 10 years have gone by?

A: No, it doesn’t, with one exception. The first year seemed like 10 years, and that was because I was making a huge adjustment. The last decade has seemed like only a few years, and not like 10 years at all.

Q: How did you make the adjustment so the second year wouldn’t seem like 10, too?

A: Much of it was due simply to a learning curve as I became familiar with the expectations, the culture and the challenges. I also developed a certain routine for solving problems. But the main reason the years have been good to me in terms of my own job satisfaction is the wonderful people here — faculty, staff, students, trustees and friends of the university. One couldn’t ask for a better community with which to work.

Q: In those 10 years, St. Thomas has become a more complex institution because of its enrollment and employment growth, new programs such as the School of Law and new opportunities in places such as Rome, London, Paris and Havana. Given that complexity, how has your definition of the presidency — and how you view your role — changed in 10 years?

A: When I started, I thought more in terms of keeping St. Thomas on the course that was well set for it by Monsignor [Terrence] Murphy and the team he worked with for so many years. As I moved through the decade, however, I realized that I also needed to be the chief listener here at St. Thomas — listening to the needs, the ideas, the hopes and the aspirations of so many people. I came to see myself both as the sounding board for the creativity of this community and the one charged with helping to make those dreams a reality. I also see my job increasingly as one of cheerleader, internally, and ambassador, externally. As the institution becomes more complex, I find myself delegating more and trusting more to the good judgment of so many with whom I collaborate.

Q: Do you feel as challenged, or more challenged, today than when you began?

A: Each year has presented major and, at times, seemingly daunting challenges. It’s like climbing a mountain; the terrain may change but the challenges remain the same. Each year presents challenges that tax all of our creativity and ingenuity. But I’m confident that a university like St. Thomas is better equipped than most organizations to meet challenges and the changing environment because it has such an incredible pool of talent upon which to draw to seek solutions.

Moreover, with each passing year I have become more and more convinced that the most critical challenges here at St. Thomas are not faced by the administration nor even the board of trustees. The greatest challenges by far are faced by our faculty and professional staff members who give so much to our students. They are a living example of what William Butler Yeats was speaking of when he said, "Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire." To paraphrase Robert Frost, a good teacher is not just a teacher, but an awakener. This represents the pinnacle of the profession — and we have many such faculty. It is here where the greatest challenge lies.

Q: When you look at the so-called "big picture," what has been St. Thomas’ most significant accomplishment in the last 10 years?

A: It’s hard to single out one thing. My tendency is to look at programs. The law school is a dream come true for many associated with St. Thomas — a dream that had been discussed for three decades. Another was the science center and our aspirations to become a pre-eminent school for science education. Our world-renowned Center for Catholic Studies is another. Then there are our award-winning programs in entrepreneurship — at the graduate level with our No. 5 ranking in Success magazine in competing with the Whartons and the Stanfords, and at the undergraduate level in receiving recognition as the best in the country last year.

The best way to summarize our overriding accomplishments of these last 10 years is our transition from a college to a university and reaching a new plateau as a distinguished regional university with a growing national reputation. This fall we were reclassified by the Carnegie Foundation from a Midwest regional university to a national doctoral university. Subsequently, U.S. News & World Report ranked us in the second of four tiers along with Catholic schools such as Fordham, Loyola of Chicago and Marquette as well as the University of Minnesota.

Q :Looking at the question more narrowly, from a personal perspective, what has been your greatest accomplishment as president?

A: I have derived great satisfaction from watching St. Thomas grow even stronger in doing what it always has done so well. And that is, to paraphrase Hodding Carter III, to give our students just two lasting bequests. One of these is roots, and the other is wings.

We have been able to maintain access — and improve access — for low- and middle-income students and students of color. The percentage of students of color has more than doubled in 10 years (4.5 percent to 10 percent), and I draw great satisfaction in knowing that we have provided historically underrepresented populations a better opportunity to pursue a college education.

Q:Conversely, what has been the biggest disappointment?

A: Clearly, the greatest disappointment and the most difficult thing was the cost-reduction program that we needed to carry out this past year. It was the result of many converging forces that have contributed to an exceptionally competitive environment for private higher education, and it’s really the only thing in my 10 years that I consistently lost sleep over.

However, I try to put it in the context of Catholic higher education nationally. In the last 10 years, the ACCU (American Catholic Colleges and Universities) has lost about 10 members because of closings, and large numbers of other Catholic colleges are struggling. In talking with those presidents, I feel grateful that even though we had to lay off some valued employees, we are financially sound.

Q: St. Thomas recently concluded its Ever Press Forward capital campaign, during which it raised $260 million, or more than double the $120 million goal announced in 1996 and three times the $83 million raised during the Century II campaign that ended in 1991. What does a successful campaign mean in terms of our ability to carry out our mission and to plan for the future?

A: A successful capital campaign literally boosts an institution like St. Thomas to a totally new level of service. Our success in the Ever Press Forward campaign substantially improved our effectiveness in carrying out our mission. It provided new resources for student financial assistance. It enabled us to make a greater investment in faculty development. It improved our science programs. It strengthened our Catholic identity as we developed programs in Catholic studies. And it dramatically broadened our international programs. Ten years ago, we lagged behind most institutions in the participation of students in study abroad programs; today we are among the leaders, and we have successful programs in London, Rome and Paris.

Q: In your inaugural address in 1991 and on several subsequent occasions, you said St. Thomas should strive to become a great urban university, and you defined an urban university as one that focuses on the liberal arts, prepares students for careers and responds to the educational needs of the community. Has St. Thomas made sufficient progress in reaching those goals?

A:We have made considerable progress, as is reflected in the recognition that we regularly receive from the Twin Cities area community. Ten years ago, we were still largely seen as a St. Paul college; today we are regarded as an influential regional university. We have made strides in programs that serve the urban community in which we live and work, such as our Collaborative Urban Educator program, which licenses teachers of color for area school districts, and with efforts in the College of Business, the School of Social Work and the environmental studies major, to name just a few. And now, the School of Law.

Q: Given the addition of the law school, has your vision changed in terms of what we should continue to pursue as an urban university? Or are there other programs that we need to develop to help us become a better urban university?

A: I think it will be important, especially with the advent of our law school, to take advantage of the synergies that can come from interdisciplinary endeavors — law and business, for example, or law and social work. I’m excited about our multiprofessional clinic involving students from so many different disciplines. It will provide a new service to low-income communities and also will enhance the education of students in law, social work, professional psychology and other areas.

Our greatest challenge as an urban university will be to maintain and improve access for low- and middle-income students and for communities of color, which are the fastest-growing segment of our population. St. Thomas will demonstrate its commitment as a Catholic urban university to the extent that it can keep its doors open to students who may come from these communities. Immigrants are another growing constituency that we must not overlook.

Q: Your inaugural address also underscored your commitment to cultivate what you called "a vital Catholic identity" so St. Thomas would not become a victim of "a rather bland secularism." Have we carried this out to your satisfaction? What further work needs to be done in this area?

A: This is an area where I feel especially proud. Our Center for Catholic Studies is recognized around the country as the pre-eminent such center and is the model for many other schools. Just this fall, one of the center’s institutes co-sponsored a conference at the Vatican on the 10th anniversary of John Paul II’s encyclical on human work — an encylical that speaks of the need to incorporate our faith and our spirituality into our daily work lives.

Q: Perhaps the biggest single issue of your presidency came with the decision to open the School of Law. The first class of students is here, we are raising endowment for faculty positions and financial aid, and ground will be broken next spring on a new building. Everybody knew a law school would be a daunting project, but has it been more than you expected?

A: I expected it to be a major effort, and it has been, but all of the work is paying off. We have met or exceeded our goals. We are on track with our fundraising, with more than $60 million raised so far. Our first-year class (120 students) exceeded our goal by 35 to 40 students. Their credentials — their college academic achievement and their LSAT scores — are very respectable. We have an inspired and seasoned faculty, a strong administration and an extraordinarily distinguished board of governors. There is wonderful momentum, and soon there will be real payback for this community.

Q: Even with that momentum and early success, there still are people who ask the question, "Why a law school at St. Thomas?" What do you tell them?

A: Law is a natural part of a mature urban university. Ask, "Why law?" and you also could ask, "Why business? Why education?" It simply makes sense. Secondly, there is no Catholic law school in Minnesota, and clearly there are prospective students for whom the Catholic nature of our law school is a significant consideration in their decision where to study, as demonstrated by the 120 students who are enrolled. Thirdly, I think St. Thomas, with its experience in adding value to the professions through the integration of ethics with the faith and moral values of its students, is in a position to make a contribution to legal education in this region.

Q: The establishment of the law school forced St. Thomas to take a long-term look at development of the Minneapolis campus, both in terms of buildings and which programs should be located there. When you started as president, we had just broken ground on the first building in Minneapolis. How has your vision of the Minneapolis campus changed in the last 10 years? How might it change in the next 10 years?

A: Our first steps into Minneapolis were occasioned by the need for our graduate business programs there. But after our first building was up and running, we began to realize that downtown Minneapolis was the logical place to base many of our professional and graduate programs. Hence, after business came education, professional psychology and law. A School of Entrepreneurship is on the drawing boards. Perhaps some day our social work program will have a presence there as well.

Q: The St. Paul campus also has seen many changes, especially with the addition of the Frey Science and Engineering Center and the renovation of the old science hall into a home for the humanities and social sciences. Yet our needs continue to grow, including better facilities for business, music and athletics programs, more student housing and more parking. How do you balance building needs with other needs, such as those in academic programs and financial aid?

A: It is exactly a question of balance. To have quality programs, you need quality facilities, so it’s not a question of either/or. But you need to pace brick-and-mortar projects because each one has a long tail of additional operating expenses. It’s a matter of prudential judgment as to when the budget has sufficiently digested the added expenses of a new building so one can begin the next project.

Another way to balance these contending needs is to find creative ways of meeting some of our capital needs without additional debt burden. One such way is to use off-balance sheet financing — to outsource the construction and the debt that goes with it. The parking ramp in Minneapolis is a good example of this, and I hope we can use that strategy to meet some of our student housing needs in St. Paul.

Q: St. Thomas had 10,156 students in the fall of 1991 and 11,570 this fall, or an increase of 14 percent. As you look ahead another 10 years, do you see comparable growth, and in what areas? How do we determine our optimal size?

A: We also have seen great growth in our continuing education (noncredit) programs such as those offered by the Management Center. Regarding optimal size, this is different for our undergraduate and graduate programs. Our strategic planning efforts have led to a ceiling of 5,500 full-time-equivalent day undergraduate students (now at 4,792). At the graduate level, where many programs can be delivered at off-campus sites and increasingly online, there is no optimal size that we could establish today without being arbitrary.

Q: One area where we have had mixed success has been in raising funds for financial aid. We have established more scholarships, but the needs seem to grow beyond the available dollars both in terms of merit aid to attract bright students and need-based aid for students who otherwise could not afford to attend St. Thomas. Just how do we keep a St. Thomas education truly affordable?

A: I have been immensely gratified by the response of our alumni to the Annual Fund, which is largely dedicated to student financial assistance. The fund has grown impressively in recent years. Even so, I have been surprised by how difficult it is to raise substantial endowment for student financial aid. Our commitment is to keep student costs as low as possible while maintaining a first-rate education. We will do that by keeping a closer eye on expenditures, by increasing our efforts to raise additional endowed funds and by encouraging our state and federal governments to maintain their commitments to provide need-based grants and subsidized loans.

Q: Our undergraduate tuition increased 72 percent from 1991 ($10,528) to 2001 ($18,096). Do you worry that we — St. Thomas in particular and private higher education in general — are pricing ourselves beyond what most families can afford?

A: Clearly it is a concern. The cost of higher education has risen steadily over the last decade, and for many sound reasons. Energy and health care costs have escalated and other costs that outstrip the Consumer Price Index disproportionately affect higher education, such as increases in salaries during a time of compression, construction and renovation costs, and information technology. All of these are better viewed through a "higher education index," where we can determine if we are keeping reasonable control of our increases.

Q: Given all of that, what do you tell people who say they cannot afford a St. Thomas education today? What do you tell a young alumnus who looks ahead 15 years and wonders, "Gee, I don’t know if I will be able to afford, for my child, the kind of education that I had at St. Thomas?"

A: I tell that student and that alum that we will continue to do everything in our power to keep a St. Thomas education within their reach. Yes, the cost of tuition has increased from $10,000 in 1991 to $18,000 today, but you also have to realize that these have been boom years in our economy. People’s living levels have increased, too; perhaps not at the same rate, but close. You also must keep in mind that a private higher education is still a great value; just look at the increased earning power of our graduates.

Someone once compared the cost of an education over the past 30 years with the cost of an automobile, and how they had increased at about the same level. Some might respond, "Well, look at what they have put into an automobile in that time — antilock brakes, air conditioning, fuel injection and all of the other features that weren’t there 30 years ago." But this fails to recognize all of the added value that has gone into an education in the same time — information technology, sophisticated science lab equipment, co-curricular programs, better residence halls, increased security and so on. Students have much higher expectations of a college today than they did when I was a student.

We are committed to ensuring that 20 years from now, a St. Thomas education will be as accessible — no, make that more accessible, than it is today. We will do this through capital campaigns, cost-containment efforts, additional partnerships with other institutions and the kind of outsourcing strategies that I mentioned earlier.

Q: Diversity continues to be an important issue on campus and, in fact, was the topic of your fall academic convocation address. One measuring stick is the number of students of color — St. Thomas is at 10 percent this fall, or more than double where we were 10 years ago. Are you satisfied with those numbers?

A: Yes and no. We are making steady progress, and I am pleased that the percentage of students of color is slightly higher than their proportional representation in the community. But we are an urban university, and to the extent that there is additional need, we should strive to meet it.

We enrich our own learning environment through increased diversity on campus. Studies show distinct learning gains by both students of color and white students in diverse learning environments, including increased critical thinking, openness to abandoning stereotypes and better insight into why social stratification occurs. In addition, business leaders are calling for diversity in higher education because it better prepares students for an increasingly diversified workforce. As Malcolm Forbes said, "The goal of education is to replace an empty mind with an open mind."

Q: Diversity is about more than just achieving certain numbers, however. It’s also about creating the right kind of culture, and we have struggled with some of those issues in terms of what kind of accepting community St. Thomas is. How do you measure success here?

A: One way to look at it is that an appropriately diverse learning environment is not a goal we achieve, but a process in which we continually engage. To the extent this community stretches to open itself to communities of color, to immigrants and to others who may feel disenfranchised, we will remain healthy, vibrant and in touch with the communities we are called to serve.

I sometimes wonder, given our increased complexity and size, if I am doing all I can to listen effectively to the many voices within the university — and to its many constituencies. It takes a lot of effort and discipline not to become insulated, but to hear all of the ideas, needs, dreams and hopes. As we move forward, I hope we will remain as committed to scanning the internal environment as we are to the external in order to make sure that everyone has a place at the table. I want this community to be one where everyone feels engaged, respected and appreciated.

Q: Let’s end with a famous quote from Archbishop John Ireland, who founded St. Thomas 116 years ago. He told people to "ever press forward" because he believed that "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 today and, more importantly, to its mission in the future?

A: Ours is the great blessing of having been founded by a man of irrepressible optimism. If there is any single reason why John Ireland, a person almost larger than life, still looms so large here and throughout the Upper Midwest, it is because of his hope, his optimism and his vision for the future. At this moment in our history, we look back and see that in the last decade we have reached a new plateau as a highly respected regional university with a growing national reputation. I have every confidence that in the years just ahead, we will move forward in surprising and rewarding new ways.