Since its founding in Southern California in 1971, Thomas Aquinas College has been offering a unique experience to students interested in an education in the great works of Western Civilization with a firm grounding in the Catholic faith. In many ways the school and its mission stand in direct opposition to prevailing trends in Catholic higher education that have pushed schools closer to a purely secular model of university life and further from the Catholic intellectual tradition.
It was recently announced that Thomas Aquinas College will be expanding its operations to a second campus, located in Northfield, Massachusetts. The school’s president, Dr. Michael McLean, spoke to CWR about Thomas Aquinas College’s distinctive approach to Catholic education, the acquisition of the new campus, and his vision for the future of the school in both California and New England.
CWR: Could you give me a brief overview of Thomas Aquinas College, and in particular what is unique about your approach to education?
Dr. Michael McLean: Thomas Aquinas College was founded in 1971 to undertake a mission of what we consider to be genuine Catholic liberal education, which involves requiring students to undertake a broad, comprehensive, and coherent program of liberal arts, including the study of mathematics, natural science, literature, philosophy, and theology, using exclusively the Great Books of Western Civilization. We conduct our classes as small seminar-style discussions, with 15-18 students, which requires the students to be actively engaged in their education and to participate in conversations which are designed to help them see what the fundamental issues and themes are of the works they’re reading.
The college is named for Thomas Aquinas because Aquinas is the Angelic Doctor of the Church, and our curriculum is set up so that the studies point toward and culminate in the study of theology, which is principally done through a careful study of parts of the Summa Theologiae in the junior and senior years.
We study philosophy for four years with our students, following the order of learning. The first year is devoted to the study of logic, the second year to the study of the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of the human person (or, the study of the soul), the third year to ethics and political philosophy, and the fourth year to metaphysics. And those studies are considered to be preparatory to the study of theology proper.
CWR: Thomas Aquinas College was selected from a pool of applicants interested in the new Massachusetts campus—tell me about that process. Were you looking into expanding and found this campus, or did the discovery of the campus lead into a discussion about expansion?
McLean: We’ve actually considered, off and on for a number of years, the possibility of an expansion of some sort. We deliberately limit our enrollment here in California to 102 freshmen each year, which results in a total enrollment of between 350 and 390 students, depending on attrition and how things go in any given year. That’s considered by our faculty to be the optimal and maximal enrollment for our program, because of the kind of community we’re trying to foster here. We want the students to know one another, we want the faculty to have a good and close relationship with the students, and we want a community where conversations go on not only inside the classroom, but outside as well, and where the students are able to develop meaningful and long-lasting relationships with one another.
So we’ve set the maximum enrollment here. We’ve known for some time that, if we are to expand the reach of the college, and offer this education to more students, it would have to be by way of a duplication on a second campus somewhere. We’ve been thinking about that for a number of years, because our enrollment has reached its maximum maybe 10 years ago. We have more students applying than we can handle here in California.
We’ve known about the availability of the Northfield campus for some time. It’s actually been vacant since about 2005 or 2006. Other organizations were pursuing it, and it looked like a start-up college (C.S. Lewis College) was going to receive it back in around 2010 or 2011. But that didn’t work out. We were encouraged by some friends of the college who live in western Massachusetts to go and take a look at it. Two years ago, several of us visited the campus. We were very impressed with its beauty, its architecture, its traditions, and its location in the Connecticut River Valley, the amount of acreage it had, and so forth.
We began conversations with the National Christian Foundation, which was at that time the organization trying to find a suitable recipient for the campus. Those discussions went on for a couple of years. We developed a good relationship with them, and they decided to give us the campus sometime last fall. We’ve just culminated that by signing an agreement on May 2nd to accept the campus.
CWR: Do you know what it was about Thomas Aquinas College that made them settle on your school as the recipient?
McLean: Well, I can only refer to things they said to us. They really like the Christian character of Thomas Aquinas College. Of course we’re Catholic, and I keep assuring them that Catholics are Christians! And they like the educational mission of the college, and they like our size (our projected maximum size of about 400 students, which is perfect for that campus). And they respect our leadership here. They respect the administration, they respect the Board of Trustees—many of whom they’ve met—and they think we have the leadership capacity and the financial capacity to succeed. All of that taken together has resulted in us receiving the gift!
CWR: Was the California campus also donated, or was it built from the ground up?
McLean: It was built from the ground up. We started on a leased campus out here in southern California in 1971. We leased a former Claretian seminary from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and we were on that property until we moved up here to Santa Paula in 1978. We were given the land here in Santa Paula, but the campus has been built from scratch. When I started here in 1978, we were using all modular buildings (in essence, trailers). We gradually built a new campus over the next 40 years or so.
CWR: The new campus is in Massachusetts. The northeast (certain areas more than others) is increasingly “unchurched.” Do you see any challenges or opportunities in that fact?
McLean: That is something that we’ve discussed here, both at the faculty level and at the board level. We have had some concerns about going into Massachusetts, given its general political culture. But my thinking on that question is that we’ve been functioning here in California pretty effectively since 1971, and California is as blue a state as Massachusetts is, if not bluer. While we’ve had some conflicts over the years out here with our creditors and with the state legislature in certain areas, we’ve managed to hold our own and stand up for our principles, and stick to our mission, and I view going into Massachusetts very much in that light.
We believe strongly in our educational philosophy and mission, and we want to bear witness to the Gospel wherever God’s providence seems to lead us. And this opportunity in Massachusetts is, we think, a kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that we should certainly respond to and take advantage of. While I do anticipate that there might be some challenges we’re going to face out there, I can say this: the initial reaction to our coming has been very positive. We’ve reached out to our diocesan bishop [Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of the Diocese of Springfield], who’s been very positive; the diocesan bishop in Worcester, which is the neighboring diocese, has also been very encouraging; and we’ve contacted Cardinal O’Malley in Boston and told him about our plans, and he has been very encouraging.
We’ve gotten to know a pretty strong and vibrant Catholic community in the area of Northfield. We’re not naïve; we know there are liable to be some challenges. But we believe in what we are doing, and the importance of reaching more young people with this education, so we are more than willing to take on the challenge and do the best we can to be successful.
CWR: I know the deal is not final yet—the Massachusetts Board of Education has to put their final stamp of approval. Can you explain this?
McLean: Yes, that’s important to note. Our goal to establish a branch campus of Thomas Aquinas College really is contingent upon our receiving approval from the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. They’re the ones that would grant us the authority to issue degrees from a potential Thomas Aquinas College. We’re in the process of applying for approval right now to operate a college.
We’re not sure how much longer that process might take. We have a site visit scheduled in Northfield at the end of August. We’re looking forward to that visit, and we’re looking forward to making our case. I’m inclined to be optimistic about our chances, because we have full accreditation here in California, and I’m pretty confident that the Board of Higher Education in Massachusetts will recognize the quality of our program, the viability of the campus, and will see that our finances are sufficiently strong that we can be successful.
CWR: Would the second campus have to get its own accreditation?
McLean: The second campus would be considered legally a branch campus of Thomas Aquinas College in California. The technical language that our creditors use is a “stand-alone campus.” The point is, both campuses will be under a single corporate umbrella, which is Thomas Aquinas College, which is a not-for-profit corporation operating in California. There will be a single board of governors or trustees, and initially a single administration—although there will be faculty members in Northfield who will be functioning as administrators of that campus but will be responsible to the administration out here in California.
So, initially the two campuses will be part of a single corporation; our accreditation from California will extend to the campus in Massachusetts; and at some later date, we might consider making the second campus completely independent, but that remains to be seen.
I want to emphasize that the educational mission of both campuses will be identical. The campus in New England will replicate the academic, moral, and spiritual culture we have here in California. So there’ll be no essential differences between the two schools in terms of educational philosophy and program, in terms of the moral life and the spiritual life. We very much see the campus in New England as being modeled on the campus in California and being governed by the same mission and the same philosophy.
This is reflected in the fact that it’s going to be named Thomas Aquinas College New England. We’re keeping the name, and that signifies the commonality in mission.
I would also like to mention our gratitude to the National Christian Foundation. This is a very significant gift. It’s easily the largest gift in the history of Thomas Aquinas College. The property has been appraised somewhere around $27 or $28 million. And the National Christian Foundation has offered some financial assistance to us in addition to the campus in the form of a matching grant over a five-year period, and we are in the process of raising funds to match that.
Our confidence in our ability to succeed out in New England really rests in large part on the generosity of the National Christian Foundation, in giving us the campus and giving us some financial help to get up and running out there.