Friday, June 8, 2018
Jim Davis - Florida Catholic
MIAMI GARDENS | The incoming president of St. Thomas University has much to see and hear before he takes office Aug. 1. But he’s already said two things he doesn’t want to hear: that St. Thomas is “the best-kept secret” and “We’ve always done it that way.”
With those and other statements at a recent meeting on campus, David A. Armstrong gave a heads-up to the archdiocesan university: Get ready for changes.
“If you say we’re the best-kept secret, we’re already dying,” he told about 150 listeners, mostly staff and faculty, at a Town Hall address and Q&A on June 4.
As for the second forbidden saying, “We need to be open to change,” he said.
Not that Armstrong lacked praise for his new job and locale. He voiced admiration for Miami-Dade’s status as a rising market with a growing, diverse population. He also celebrated the law school, athletics and faith-based stance of St. Thomas, which he said is one of only 10 diocesan-owned colleges in the U.S.
The listeners, for their part, extended a welcome to their new helmsman. They listened attentively and asked questions. Sports administration student Michelle Murch introduced Armstrong to STU the Bobcat, the school mascot. They presented him with a dark blue T-shirt that read, “#Bleed STU Blue.”
And after the Town Hall, members of the sports department clustered around to talk with Armstrong, a charter member of the Athletic Hall of Fame at his alma mater, Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Armstrong’s speech, however, carried a note of urgency. He said that small colleges and universities — especially religious ones like St. Thomas — are being squeezed between the rise of secularism and the decline of funding.
“For the first time in history, higher education is under attack,” he said. “It’s on us to tell politicians that an investment is worth it.”
Graduates, too, need to donate more, Armstrong said during a Q&A session. “The alumni have to give back,” he said. “If we graduate people here from St. Thomas without an attitude of gratitude, we have failed.”
FILLING NATIONAL NEEDS
He argued that schools like St. Thomas University are vital for national life. Citing the 2015 book“Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders,”by Josh Charles, he said that a “self-governing republic” requires knowledge and virtue.
“The Founders were the most educated people to start a country,” Armstrong said.
At STU, he promised to focus on recruitment, finances and quality of teaching. He vowed to establish “the best enrollment office in the region … everything we do is about enrollment. That’s our bread and butter.”
Armstrong said he would “leverage” resources via partnerships with companies and institutions, as he did with St. Thomas More College, a Catholic liberal arts school belonging to the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, where he has been president since 2013. He said he would use some of the proceeds for student financial aid.
“I’ve never asked for money,” he said. “I go to someone and tell my story, and convince them to invest in it.”
One stated goal was to announce a special program, innovation or activity every 30 days. But he also said some courses and programs may be cut.
“We can’t be great at everything,” he said. “I love the innovation, but we have to focus on what we're good at.”
Asked how he would divide resources, Armstrong brought up what he called the “austerity pie.” In tough times, he said, each department holds onto its own slice. In his idea, every group would return its slice for him to grow more resources, thus growing the size of the whole pie for everyone.
But he said he wouldn’t make plans in a vacuum. On the contrary, he announced something that may well have made his assistants blanch: “I want to meet all of you.”
Armstrong explained: He wanted a meeting with everyone on the staff and faculty, for 30 to 45 minutes each — a sizable task for a total workforce of 344 fulltime and 18 parttime people.
QUESTION FROM ST. PETER?
He clearly wants to build on his track record at Thomas More College. During his five years there, he revived funding and enrollment. He also formed partnerships with corporations and agreements with other institutions to set up new academic programs.
At STU, he succeeds Msgr. Franklyn M. Casale, who announced his retirement last year but stayed on until a search committee found a new president. Unlike his theologically trained predecessor, Armstrong holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and political science from Mercyhurst. He also has a doctorate in law from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, in his birthplace of Cleveland.
During an interview, however, Armstrong said he and the monsignor have known each other since January 2014, through the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (where Msgr. Casale is currently chairman of the board).
“We hit it off, and he became a mentor to me,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong that he’d even researched STU years ago and admired the school. “I thought that someday, that would be a great place to go,” he said.
He finished his Town Hall talk with a quote from William T. Robinson, a top attorney and alumnus of St. Thomas College: “How do we make a difference in the lives of those we are privileged to serve?”
Commented Armstrong: “I think that’s what St. Peter will ask us when we get to the Pearly Gates. We’d better be ready to answer that question.”
Initial reactions from his listeners were optimistic.
“It was exciting,” said Gloria Pelaez, assistant provost. “I’m looking forward to trying new things and making bold choices.”
Andrej Milica, assistant direct of admissions for STU’s law school, applauded Armstrong’s legal training. “It’s great to get a president who has an understanding of the legal market. He’ll help the school move in the right direction.”
Added Richard Pulido, assistant director for undergraduate studies at STU’s Student Success Center: “I was very encouraged by his commitment to the Catholic school identity, while challenging us to go forward in areas like partnerships — and avoiding becoming a well-kept secret.”