The University of Dallas (my alma mater) announced yesterday that it has selected Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs to serve as the school’s ninth president. “The first alumnus of UD to be president,” the press release stated, “Hibbs has served as dean of the Honors College and distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University since 2003.”
“We are extremely pleased to have Dr. Hibbs as our ninth president at the University of Dallas. Dr. Hibbs brings all the tools for a successful presidency. He is a phenomenal leader, a builder of complex programs, a prolific fundraiser, an academic and a scholar who has a great appreciation for the Core and for how a rigorous Catholic liberal arts education benefits not only the graduate, but society at large,” said Chairman of the Board Thomas Zellers, M.D., BA ’79. “I anticipate he will be a great role model for faculty, staff and students and will invigorate and sustain a collaborative and respectful culture on campus.”
Hibbs, who has contributed to CWR over the years, has an impressive and varied background, having earned degrees in philosophy, English, and medieval studies from the University of Dallas and Notre Dame. He was a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College before teaching for 13 years at Boston College, where he was Full Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy. From 2003 until the present time, he was Dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethic and Culture at Baylor University, where he taught in the Great Texts Program, the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, and the graduate program in Philosophy.
He has written articles and books on film, art, Aquinas, Pascal, ethics, Augustine, Maritain, virtue epistemology, natural law, and much more.
This past summer, I interviewed Dr. Hibbs about his most recent book, titled Wagering On an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy (Baylor University Press, 2018). In the course of that interview, he stated:
For Pascal, philosophy functions as a salutary corrective to the forgetful way in which most human beings pass their lives. It raises, in a serious way, questions about serious matters and initiates the search for answers. In one section, entitled “Against Indifference,” in his Pensées, the text in which he develops his apology for the Christian faith, Pascal urges every human being to seek knowledge about human destiny—about the existence of God, the nature of the soul, and the prospect for immortality. Given human ignorance about the most important matters, to see life is a matter not of piety but of mere self-interest: “we need only see what the least enlightened see.”
But the best that philosophy can do is to sharpen our sense of the most reasonable options; it cannot finally resolve the big questions about human happiness, about morality, or the state of the soul. In a fragment entitled “Letter to induce men to seek God,” Pascal comments, “make them look for him among the philosophers, skeptics, and dogmatists, who will worry the man who seeks.” Only the Christian faith instructs us in a convincing way about the human condition and the remedies to the evils that beset us.
This understanding of philosophy and its place in the Christian life certainly informs Dr. Hibbs’ approach to education, something he corresponded about with me earlier today as he responded to some questions about his new position as president of the University of Dallas.
CWR: With this appointment as the ninth president of the University of Dallas, you’ve come full circle in many ways, having first come to Irving, Texas, almost forty years ago and having earned a B.A. and M.A. from the school. What are your thoughts on being the first alumnus to become president of the University?
Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs: My first thought is, what a strange turn of events! While I often dreamed of being a faculty member at UD, I could not have imagined when I was an undergraduate student there that I would end up as president. My second and third thoughts are what a humbling honor and what a daunting responsibility. I hope that I can effectively lead and gracefully represent a university that is beloved to so many and that occupies such a crucial place in Catholic higher education.
CWR: You’ve spoken of how your time at the University of Dallas shaped your understanding of Catholic liberal education. How does your time at the school back in the 1980s inform how you’ll approach this new position?
Dr. Hibbs: I think I have a sense of what attracts faculty and students to UD, which is a combination of rigorous investigation of ideas with fidelity to the teaching of the Church and to the project of bringing to bear in our contemporary world the endlessly rich resources of the Catholic tradition. UD has always struck me as combining the particular and the universal in a captivating way. It has deep Southern roots, particularly in the Southern literary renaissance; because of its Catholic character, it also has a universal scope. Texas and Rome (as many know, students spend a glorious semester in Rome on UD’s own campus) would seem an unlikely combination. Yet, it’s fruitful. It just dawned on me that UD embodies in its own distinctive and Catholic way the motto of the institution for which I’ve been working for sixteen years, Baylor University: pro texana, pro ecclesia.
CWR: What are some of the essential characteristics of a University of Dallas education? How would you describe the school to those who might not know much about it?
Dr. Hibbs: I think I’ve said a good bit about what’s distinctive above. Some of the things not known about UD are its excellent placement record for new graduates and its remarkable acceptance rates to law and medical school. Students in the sciences at UD engage in high-level independent research and students in all disciplines gain habits of written and verbal articulation. UD was doing writing across the curriculum before that became a thing in higher education. In addition to the Constantin College of Liberal Arts, UD has fine Business (Gupta), Ministry (Neuhoff), and Graduate Liberal Arts (Braniff) schools.
Having spoken here about the various parts of a complex institution, I would like to add that what distinguishes UD across these schools is a focus on the faculty-student relationship, with faculty in every school devoted to the craft of teaching. To be a real university, serious about scholarship, and yet to preserve and foster close student-faculty relationships and mentoring is truly distinctive, and it stands at the heart of what UD is about. There’s a lot of talk in major universities about these matters but mostly just talk.
CWR: How will your experiences in teaching and administration guide and shape your work as president of the University of Dallas? What are the biggest challenges facing the school? What will be some areas of focus?
Dr. Hibbs: I’ve found that despite seemingly endless talk in universities about vision and shared governance, there’s actually precious little of either in ways that really matter, even in Catholic schools. To put it simply, what is lacking in most American institutions, including universities, is friendship which for ancient and medieval thinkers is what binds a community together and helps it survive tragedy and flourish over the long haul.
Having a rich and supple vision, which is already in place at UD, is unusual in higher education where the trend toward the generic threatens to engulf every institution in a dull homogeneity. Even rarer is to have that vision seamlessly spread throughout the entire university so that it informs communication with all constituencies: faculty and administrators, members of the board, potential students and their parents, current students, alumni, and friends and donors. Insuring such seamless communication is one of the chief tasks of a president. But that requires that all members of the university are willing to see themselves in terms of a project that is larger than any one individual or groups of individuals. It demands that we embody the Catholic understanding of the common good.
But that raises a second issue. Shared governance is most often addressed in terms of the administration following clear procedures in its decision making and having open lines of communication between faculty and administration, often through the vehicle of a faculty senate. This sort of shared governance is indispensable. Having procedures in place and following them are not ends in themselves but they help insure smooth functioning and can increase trust. There is, however, another sense of shared governance that is rarely discussed. Even in small institutions, it’s remarkable how quickly silos develop and turf wars surface. Given the narrow margin for error in higher education these days, we cannot afford not to have everyone working together and moving enthusiastically in the same direction. This requires collaboration not just between faculty and administration on procedures and deliberative matters. It also requires collaboration across parts of the university that always seem in danger of going their separate ways: academics, student life, recruitment, development, athletics, and ministry. Building a team and encouraging collaboration, even friendship, across these potential divisions are also crucial roles for a president.
I am eager to get started.
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