Thomas Aquinas College’s Incoming President Discusses ‘Engaging in a Life of Serious Intellectual Inquiry’
Paul O’Reilly highlights the 50-year educational mission of the Great Books college.
Paul O’Reilly was named the fifth president of Thomas Aquinas College on June 11. The small school with a big Catholic identity and Great Books curriculum is recommended by the Register, as well as the Cardinal Newman Society, and has campuses in California and Massachusetts.
O’Reilly, who currently serves as vice president of advancement, as well as a tutor (the college’s term for faculty members), will take over as president in July 2022 and is the first alumnus to hold the office in the school’s 50-year history.
Tell me about your background.
I was born in Belfast, Ireland, and lived there for 16 years; and, eventually, my family immigrated to Canada. We grew up during what we call “The Troubles,” which was a difficult time for Catholics in Belfast. My father had left the family, so my mother took all eight kids with her to Canada.
She was killed in a car accident about six months after we arrived, so my uncle and aunt adopted all eight of us because they didn’t want us to be separated. We became a family of 12 — God bless them — and we moved to the west coast of Canada, where we worked in the logging industry. That’s when I discovered Thomas Aquinas College, through a priest who was a friend of our family. I visited TAC and applied. I fell in love with the place. I attended that college for four years and met my wife there. We got married a year after I got my Ph.D. in philosophy in Canada at Université Laval. Then I taught on the East Coast for a couple of years before coming back to my alma mater. I’ve been here for 30 years.
What was your experience like as a student at TAC?
We were at that time a very small school. I think we graduated 22 students in our senior class [in 1984], and I would say the overall population at that time was probably just a little over 100. We knew everybody very well. We knew the faculty and the priests on campus, and they were very close to us. It was a really intimate experience.
The program itself is an exciting one. We have one program, no electives: four years of philosophy and theology, natural science, mathematics and so on.
It’s a pretty serious program, and the students who attend really are devoted to engaging in a life of serious intellectual inquiry. So you’ve got that, together with [the fact that] most of the students are Catholic, with the same vision of the world, and that attracts deep friendships. I saw that then, and I still see it today.
Once you knew you wanted to go into academia, did you know you wanted to end up back at TAC?
I wasn’t sure that I did, quite frankly. I wanted to have some kind of impact, as modest as it might have been elsewhere, and I did want to teach at a Catholic school.
I taught at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, and I enjoyed that experience. My colleagues there were serious and good. The students were pretty good, too. But I harkened back to my experiences as a student at TAC. I thought I should at least try to see what that would be like as a teacher there, so I applied — not necessarily because of any dissatisfaction where I was, but I thought I should at least put my oar in the water and see what might result.
When I came to interview, I was so impressed with how good the students were, how serious they were, and how they were really engaged and enthusiastic about the program. I thought, “I’ve got to come back.” Fortunately, I was [accepted for a faculty position].
What was your proudest achievement as vice president of development?
We’ve been quite successful in terms of fundraising. That’s my principal task, so I would have to start there, but our success has not come at the expense of admission. I think it’s really important that you can raise funds; but if you don’t do it honestly, and in a way that’s integral to what the college is about, you can start having mission drift. That’s not something we wanted to do, so we make sure to be authentic and talk about what makes Thomas Aquinas College unique — why it’s worth supporting. We’ve been blessed. We doubled the size of the endowment, we built out all the buildings we need on the California campus, and the one thing that makes me most proud is our expansion to the East Coast. We had, for years, waiting lists of students who wanted to attend Thomas Aquinas College, and we couldn’t accept them all.
Though we have room to expand on our California campus, we didn’t want to expand in such a way that would destroy the intimate community. We decided instead to take advantage of an opportunity to receive an intact campus in Northfield, Massachusetts, that was being gifted by the National Christian Foundation. That was a competitive process, and we were the only Catholic organization that was involved.
After a lot of effort and prayer, we received that campus, which is beautiful. When I go back there, I see the same college — just different buildings, different faculty, different students. That was an extraordinarily humbling and exciting effort.
Are you looking to grow the number of students at all? What would be the ideal number on each campus?
Ideal numbers are tricky. We grew to 102 freshmen on the California campus; that gives us, with a little attrition, about 375 in the student body. We like that size; it works well. There’s no need and no desire to expand, even though we have the room to do so. What we’d rather do is what we have done, which is to expand by having a second campus. That second campus now will have its first senior class this year and its first graduation next year. That’s a good way to expand without watering down the community in some way. One of the nice things about a small community is you get to know the students; not necessarily everyone by name, but as a faculty member, you recognize who they are. The faculty is not too large either, so you know your colleagues well, and that’s really important.
It’s important for the priests to know the students, too, so they can guide them with spiritual direction.
What are some of your goals as president, once you take over?
The principal goal will be to preserve the mission of the college. No matter what else we might do, if it’s no longer Thomas Aquinas College, that would be a failure on my part. I have to govern the college in such a way that we preserve what we have, because it works.
It’s a serious program that has great benefits for the students who come and the faculty who work here.
Obviously, I have to make sure that we can secure our future in terms of having enough funds to maintain our financial-aid program. We accept any student who’s willing and able to come to our program, and we will provide financial aid as needed. We don’t offer academic scholarships, and we don’t offer discounts to faculty and staff, but we do offer full financial aid to those in need. We also limit the loan burden to $19,000 over four years.
The fact that so many of our alums go on to the priesthood and lives of service is a sign that we’re doing something right. We want to continue that, and that means funding financial aid. There are also buildings to take care of, and we want to govern the second campus in Massachusetts so that it continues to grow in a way that’s consistent with our founding principles.
Why is this kind of traditional, Catholic Great Books education something that is important to preserve?
It’s discouraging to see our fellow citizens abandon our political history to denigrate the American Founding. A number of things we read touch on the Founding — we read the Declaration and the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s addresses.
In our program we also introduce students to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. The court argues that when the Declaration states that “all men are created equal” that must apply only to the “white man.” (That is a view that some repeat today as part of an argument that America is a racist country.) Such a view ignores the words and argument of the Declaration and is unfair to our founding principles. For a better understanding of our basic political principles, we introduce our students to the writings of Lincoln about the founding. Even with our mistakes in the past, America is a great country. It’s important for our students to understand that therein lies its greatness and that those founding principles are perennial and good and just. So that’s one impact of which our program is standing as a kind of antidote for how things are in the world right now.
Who are some of your leadership influences?
I’ll start with St. Thomas Aquinas, since the college is named for him. I studied much of his works, and his philosophy and theology have had a great influence on me, and his life, as well.
He was a very saintly, humble man, and I would try to emulate him to the extent that I can.
Of course, we certainly read many of Augustine’s works, and I admire him as well.
In terms of people who have influenced me directly, I would say our founding president, Dr. Ronald McArthur. He was a really impressive leader, and he was probably one of the few men who could have started this college 50 years ago and make it work.
The other presidents who succeeded him — Tom Dillon; Peter DeLuca, who came in when Tom Dillon was tragically killed in a car accident; and then our current president, Michael McLean — have been great influences on me.
My colleagues are really impressive and very devoted to the students and to this community, so I would have to point to them, as well. I also couldn’t say anything without mentioning my wife, who’s the mother of our 12 children. She sustains me.