2018 marks fifty years since Villa Madonna College moved from Covington to assume a new name in Crestview Hills. Now, just a few years shy of its centennial, Thomas More College awaits another bold new phase—one aimed at securing its future in an era of challenges for liberal arts schools.
Over the last year, the College has sketched out a plan for renaming itself Thomas More University. Becoming TMU will mean more than buying different letterhead and ordering new decals for The More Store. Under the university model, Thomas More will be restructured to host three distinct, autonomous colleges: Arts and Sciences, Education and Health Sciences, and Business. And that change is only the beginning.
“The Soul of a College”
When President David A. Armstrong, J.D., renewed his contract in 2016 with the intent of advancing the College’s five-year Strategic Plan, he knew he wanted TMC to become a university.
“We have been a great local college for many years,” Armstrong says. “[But] the move to a university will continue to extend our reach over the world.”
With the prospect of TMC’s new name come designs for major physical additions to the campus. The College recently announced the construction of a new residence hall slated to open in the fall of 2018. In the next five to ten years, Armstrong envisions a renovated academic building, a new science building, new athletic facilities, and a performing arts center. Beyond this, he wants the TMU property to become a “destination of choice” with development to include condominiums and apartments, offices, shops, restaurants, and venues for physical fitness.
“I can see residents attending Mass in the Chapel, going to see plays in the theater,” he says. “This is a decision I believe will make us more viable for the future. We have to develop other sources of revenue to support our main mission: education.”
Armstrong intuits that the university model will actually enhance the feature considered a hallmark of Thomas More—its small-school atmosphere built on interpersonal relationships. “Going to university, I hope, will help us do the personal element of education even better,” he says. “Faculty and students will deepen their sense of community within their own colleges and disciplines.” Quoting a faculty member with whom he discussed the matter, he adds, “‘We’ll have the mind of a university but the soul of a college.’”
Same Identity, New Possibilities
“It’s been discussed since before I arrived here [in June 2015],” Dr. Kathleen Jagger, Dean of the College, says of the university move. Dr. Jagger has overseen the exploratory process since last year when a task force of faculty and staff began assessing other institutions’ experiences with becoming universities.
She looks forward to the academic opportunities the new model will present while preserving the College’s heritage. “Part of this is to allow [us] to be more nimble and get new programs approved in a quicker time frame,” she says. “I don’t see us losing our liberal arts identity. It’s just that the liberal arts can apply to a lot of programs—for example, in Ethical Leadership Studies…the education we provide will prepare someone for any job, not just a job.”
According to Dr. Jagger, Thomas More is currently considering an online RN to BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), a Special Education option in the Education major, a Master of Arts in Catholic Thought, a Master of Science in Nursing, and a low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She also expects Thomas More’s Gemini Dual Credit program to expand to more Catholic high schools.
While the College’s new title may anticipate big things for its future, Dr. Jagger dismisses worries that the move will change Thomas More’s focus from students to research. “Teaching is paramount” to who Thomas More is, she insists. “TMU will retain [the College’s] identity as a teaching institution, with the expectation that scholarship also makes faculty better teachers.” Any research done at TMU will ultimately benefit students, she believes, because professors who love what they do outside the classroom will communicate that passion to their students.
Unity within Community
Within the university, Dr. Jagger explains, the deans who manage the individual colleges will advocate for their own divisions in seeking community partnerships and grant funding. With a chance to figure out their colleges’ real needs, they will become specialists at a level difficult to achieve for a single administrator overseeing every department at once.
Though quick to mention the advantages of multiple colleges, she remains adamant that TMU will have the same communal culture that TMC possesses now. Unlike larger universities, students at TMC will be able to double-major in programs found within different colleges, such as English and Business. Similarly, the physical mixture of offices and classrooms will guarantee that students and faculty from the three colleges have no walls between them. “I envision that we will have a common core curriculum across the University,” she adds, pointing to a common base of preparation for all students as another mark of unity.
Dr. Jagger hopes the transition will spark a new sense of belonging among nontraditional learners as well. “Moving to university will better integrate adult learners who may feel peripheral at a more traditional institution,” she says.
Jim Schuttemeyer ’76, Associate Professor of English and chair for the Humanities Division, sees other ways that fellowship will continue at TMU. “The faculty want to maintain a sense of community across the colleges,” he says. “We’ll interact through our shared governance structure and, I hope, do some interdisciplinary work with each other.”
As an alumnus and faculty member, Dr. Schuttemeyer finds the College’s recent growth encouraging. “Perceptually, it looks like we’re doing something right, and it’s bringing students in…There’s a lot of optimism here.”
Learning Centered on Today’s Student
Thomas More recently implemented a new online teaching platform called Canvas. According to Nathan Hartman, Director of Online Engagement, Canvas displays the cutting-edge caliber students expect at a university.
“People at the national conferences I attend are jealous that we have Canvas,” he admits. “It’s the Mercedes of Learning Management Systems. It’s user-friendly for faculty and students, and we even purchased 24/7 technical support to go with it.”
Hartman, who also worked as TMC’s Director of Adult and Professional Education for twelve years, knows that a tool like Canvas is vital for serving nontraditional students. “We’re operating in an asynchronous capacity in which students can work on their degrees anywhere, anytime, and that’s key for growing online programs,” he notes. “We’re continuing to widen our reach beyond the I-275 beltway.”
Canvas offers attractive elements for learners both on- and off-campus, such as access to Microsoft Office 365 and online personal tutoring through Pearson’s Smarthinking service. For anyone concerned about online courses measuring up to the brick-and-mortar kind, Hartman points to the multiple forms of quality control that the College has enacted—training instructors in online pedagogy, insuring an overlap between faculty who teach online and in physical classrooms, and designing coursework with outcomes that meet the institution’s mission.
With Canvas now removing barriers that had once kept working-age students from enrolling, Hartman sees Thomas More ready to advance in this fastest-growing sector of the higher education market.
“Our next century of work”
TMC’s transformation into a university will do more than expand its academic horizons; it promises a new degree of community interaction and financial stability. For instance, Robyn Hoffman, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, thinks that the multiple-college structure “will lend itself to attracting donors who desire to make more targeted investments” in specific fields such as art, business, or medicine.
With an eye toward Thomas More’s upcoming centennial, Hoffman has an array of plans for maximizing new investments in the University. Her current priority is working toward an updated athletic stadium as TMC prepares to leave the Presidents’ Athletic Conference at the end of this season. But other goals have her attention, too. “We’ve been focused on small and significant fundraising efforts, such as the Biology Field Station and St. Elizabeth Health Center for Health Sciences,” she says. “These endeavors are laying the groundwork for a comprehensive fundraising campaign.”
She intends that latter venture—something never undertaken in the College’s history—to generate proceeds for scholarships, building projects, the endowment, and other needs.
Hoffman relates that Thomas More’s alumni relations team conducted a survey on the university move and found the College’s graduates largely favorable toward it. She believes the surrounding region will likewise embrace TMU, especially as a destination for the arts and humanities: “We’re working to engage the broader community with our campus culture at events like the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and the Institute for Religious Liberty lecture series.”
She emphasizes that the University’s new level of external connectedness will be an avenue, not an obstacle, for the mission that has always driven TMC. “We are embracing the College’s rich history and traditions,” she says, “but we are also positioning ourselves for our next century of work. It’s increasingly important that our students become global citizens.”
Students Finding “Their Place in the World”
As a university, Thomas More will increase the global nature of its identity, found in both its mission statement and, more importantly, in its people. Examples abound. This past summer, the French club traveled to Paris, while the men’s and women’s soccer teams combined volunteerism and sportsmanship with a two-week trip in Costa Rica. Students frequently spend semesters in Ireland and Britain through the Cooperative Center for Study Abroad. Others go to Jamaica for service learning or head to El Paso for a Border Studies course under the guidance of Dr. James Camp. Just this August, President Armstrong formalized an agreement with the University of Alaska Fairbanks for Thomas More’s Athletic Training students to intern with a Division I Hockey team, with hopes for a similar arrangement in Marine Biology.
Dr. Jagger, meanwhile, also values the reverse side of studying abroad—the opportunity for future international enrollment, particularly among Catholic populations in the Americas where she sees potential for growth. International learners “broaden our student body’s diversity, whether [studying] digitally or physically,” she says.
Maria Rechtin ’18, president of the Student Government Association, notices other merits for the student population. “It’s great timing, because it ties in with the core curriculum discussion,” she says, referring to the faculty’s current efforts at revising Thomas More’s general education requirements. “This will give us an opportunity to work through two changes at once.”
She also perceives a chance for students to contribute their voices. “SGA will have a bigger job representing the interests of students in all three colleges. That means the need for SGA will grow…I think it will push students to get more involved and celebrate their pride in the school.”
Looking Ahead…to 2121
President Armstrong often cites his goal of Thomas More reaching its bicentennial—over one hundred years away—as his vision for positioning the College. “As much as we love TMC,” he says, “TMU sounds pretty good, too.”
He does, however, see an upside in the not-so-distant future. “Something else to look forward to,” he jokes, “is that our More Store sales will definitely increase once the new gear comes in!”
“Going to university, I hope, will help us do the personal element of education even better. Faculty and students will deepen their sense of community within their own colleges and disciplines.” – President David A. Armstrong, J.D.
Q&A College to university
What is the difference between a college and a university?
Colleges are typically regional or local schools, many of which have only undergraduate programs. Most of their students are usually from the traditional age demographic (ages 18-22). Universities, however, command national and international profiles along with their regional reputations. They offer graduate degrees and their student populations tend to represent a wider range of ages and backgrounds. They are segmented into divisions called colleges, which house similar programs (e.g. College of Business, College of Informatics).
What is the purpose behind Thomas More becoming a university?
The Diocese of Covington and the Board of Trustees want Thomas More’s new title to signal aspirations for the future. Part of the purpose of renaming and restructuring the College is to galvanize changes that will sustain it for the long term, such as competing on an equal playing field in enrollment with other local institutions that are already universities.
How does the university title fit Thomas More when it is still a small private institution?
You might be surprised how many similarities Thomas More already shares with universities. Like a university, TMC offers a multitude of graduate programs with even more under consideration. The College also has a strong foothold in the adult enrollment market, which distinguishes it from schools that rely wholly on traditional students.
TMC’s total full-time enrollment of 1,484 is comfortably within the range found at private Catholic universities within the region. For example, Wheeling Jesuit University (West Virginia) has roughly 1,400 students. Fontbonne University (Missouri) has about 1,500; Lourdes University (Ohio), about 1,400; and Quincy University (Illinois), about 1,300.
How long will the full transition to Thomas More University take?
Changes will occur gradually over several years, progressing as the University’s budget allows with a current goal of completion by Thomas More’s centennial year.
How much will becoming a university cost?
The task force that outlined the transition estimated total costs over time to be $300,000. This figure includes additional academic and administrative staff, advertising efforts, and the replacement of materials that bear the previous name. Ideas for covering these costs include endowing chairs for the colleges’ deans and boosting enrollment with new programs.