Robert Ivany serves as the eighth president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Prior to assuming his position there in 2004, he retired as a major general after a 34-year career in the Army. Ivany graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in Vietnam, Europe and the Middle East. He served as the Army aide to the president of the United States under President Ronald Reagan from 1984-1986 and as commandant of the War College.

He is proud of his university’s Catholic charism and is developing new ways the school can stay true to its Catholic identity.


Where are you from originally? Tell us about your family of origin.

My parents were Hungarian refugees who fled from Hungary into Austria in 1945 to get away from the advancing Soviet troops. They fled shortly after they were married and spent time in refugee camps until 1949.

I was born in 1947. We eventually sailed and landed in Boston and took a train to Cleveland, where I grew up. My sister was born there a couple of years later. I attended St. Ignatius High School and then went on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point between 1965 and 1969. After 34 years in the military, I retired about 10 years ago.


Did you grow up Catholic?

Yes. My parents rented a flat next to St. Margaret of Hungary Catholic Church. They had Masses in both Hungarian and English.

When my parents fled, they had one suitcase. My mother grabbed a silver-plated crucifix that she placed in the suitcase, and that has been in the family ever since. Faith was really intertwined in their lives and in the neighborhood. It was hard for me at first, since I didn’t speak a lot of English, but I was able to adapt.


What did you end up doing after West Point?

I went to Ranger school and Airborne schools and then served as a platoon leader and troop commander in Vietnam in an armored cavalry unit between 1970 and 1971.

It was a formative period for me. As it was a period of things winding down, keeping morale up was a challenge, yet I was constantly amazed. The American soldier, with very few exceptions, was dedicated and did his job. I have a deep appreciation for all of them.

I was wounded there. I ended up with some shrapnel in my back and spent some time in the hospital but was able to finish my tour.

When I came back home, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The military wasn’t very popular at that time, but I was fortunate. My classmates supported me and welcomed me home. Soon after returning, I met my wife. After a long discernment, I decided to make the military my career.


Given your long military career, how do you view the health and strength of our country’s military services?

This war has dragged on for so long, and many have had to go back three or four times. You can imagine the strain that puts on families. I am in awe of the armed forces today, especially the Army and Marines, who have borne the brunt of these two wars. I’m not worried about the quality and dedication of our young men and women in the Army. The Army is still the best in the world and is still a magnificent fighting force, but they are under tremendous stress.


Every Catholic college has its own unique charism and areas of academic expertise. How would you describe the charism found at UST, and what are the university’s particular areas of academic expertise?

The only way to understand the charism of a university is to walk around and talk to students and faculty. Here, we are shaped by the Basilian Fathers, a small teaching order from Canada. Their mantra is: "Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge."

This leads us to our mission to educate leaders of faith and character. We do that in three ways. We offer a broad, holistic liberal arts education, teaching students to think critically, communicate effectively, succeed professionally and lead ethically.

Secondly, we are a faith-based university. We try to manifest that in everything we do. We have a strong core curriculum anchored by theology and philosophy courses. We have a chapel at one end of our academic quad and the library at the other, modeling the dialogue between faith and reason.

Lastly, we try to have programs and courses that bring that to life. For example, we have a summer institute that brings in students for two three-credit courses to prepare them to succeed at St. Thomas. They take math and English courses, get to know the campus and are much better prepared to take on the challenges of the academic year. These students become leaders because of the attention they receive and the confidence they build.

We also have a "Freshmen Symposium," which is a one-credit course that introduces students to the charism of the Basilian Fathers and the mission of St. Thomas. It’s a very different sort of course. Students meet in groups of 15, with faculty, staff and student mentors, who guide them through the course and support them in their first semester.

We’re also in the process of developing a synthesis or capstone courses for all students before they graduate. All students are required to take three courses in theology, three in philosophy and the synthesis course. Synthesis courses integrate theology, philosophy or Catholic studies into other courses, such as business, science and social studies.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae [Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education] really emphasizes the importance of integration, so these courses will bring together the Catholic intellectual tradition and integrate that into the other disciplines. It’s what every Catholic institution should strive to achieve.

We also have small classes. Our belief is that if you want to inspire and lead people, you have to do that on a one-on-one basis. We have an 11:1 student ratio. Our average class size is 16, and, with very few exceptions, our faculty has their Ph.D.s.

We believe those are the hallmarks of our education.


Much has been made in recent years of the lack of Catholic identity on many Catholic university campuses. How is Catholic identity manifested at the University of St. Thomas?

It manifests itself in the atmosphere that you can sense when you come on campus. There are a plethora of student organizations and clubs on campus that focus on who we are: the Celts for Life, our pro-life group, a very active Knights of Columbus group, the Sisters of Macrina, Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and RCIA.

We have Eucharistic adoration on Wednesdays in our chapel. Mass is celebrated three times a day. Our campus ministry holds numerous retreats and is linked with the Serra Club supporting vocations, with Catholic Charities and with numerous activities in the archdiocese.

There is a firm foundation here. It’s taught and felt.


Are all theology faculty at UST required to have a canon-law mandatum [a bishop’s acknowledgement of a theology professor’s declaration that he or she will teach in communion with the Church and her teaching authority, as required by Canon 812]?

Yes. Faculty who apply know who we are.


What are the university’s major initiatives?

We just opened a School of Nursing last May. We were fortunate to obtain five endowed chairs for our faculty. There are 28 students in the program; they are juniors now. We have a vibrant relationship with the Texas Medical Center, which is located next door. Our emphasis is on a healing and a holistic concept of nursing.

We’re hard at work on a capital campaign and plan to build a new center for the science and health professions as well as a new performing arts center.

We have a highly accredited business school and strong education program. Our faculty educates the students and seminarians for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

We believe that we have a lot to offer. We are blessed with a dynamic Catholic Basilian identity in Houston, which is growing steadily. We educate our students so they will graduate as leaders of faith and character. It is a noble mission.

Tim Drake is the Register’s senior writer.