The legacy of Dennis Dease: A global vision for St. Thomas

The legacy of the Rev. Dennis Dease will leave a lasting mark on the St. Thomas community for years to come.

<p>The Rev. Dennis Dease announced his retirement Thursday, May 10. He will conclude more than two decades of his presidency when he steps down at the end of the 2013 school year. (St. Thomas website)</p>
The Rev. Dennis Dease announced his retirement Thursday, May 10. He will conclude more than two decades of his presidency when he steps down at the end of the 2013 school year. (St. Thomas website)

Dease, who turns 69 next week, announced his retirement at a faculty meeting on Thursday, May 10. He will conclude more than two decades of his presidency when he steps down at the end of the 2013 school year.

“I informed the Board of Trustees that the next academic year will be my last as president,” Dease said.

During his presidency, the school raised nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars, completing a successful $260 million capital campaign in 2001 and it will be finishing a $500 million campaign this fall. Many buildings, including the brand-new Anderson Student Center, were opened; a school of law was started; several colleges were created; the campus became more international; and many sports teams won national championships.

St. Thomas moved from a regional university in the U.S. News & World Report rankings to the national universities category, where in the most current list it sits ninth among national Catholic universities and 115th overall.

Dease’s career highlights are numerous, and perhaps the most significant recognition came in 2008 when he was among five recipients of a St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award in recognition of his lifelong work as a Catholic educator. The award cited his contributions to St. Thomas’ major transformation.

In addition to all of his accomplishments, the Rev. John Malone, vice president for mission, said of Dease, “He’s a man without guile, a man without ambition in the wrong sense of the word. Just a good man.”

In the beginning

Dease became the university’s 14th president on July 1, 1991, when he took over for Monsignor Terrence Murphy, who served St. Thomas for 50 years, including 25 as president. He had been a faculty member in the theology department and a member of the Board of Trustees.

In his 1991 inaugural address, Dease voiced hopes that St. Thomas would strive to become an urban university, which he defined as one that focuses on the liberal arts, prepares students for careers and responds to the educational needs of the community.

After 21 years of guiding the university with this ambition in mind, Dease has achieved for St. Thomas what Doug Hennes, vice president of university and government relations, describes as an evolution into a “comprehensive university.”

“We haven’t grown a lot in terms of population since (Murphy’s time). We have literally a few hundred more students today than when Father Dease started, but the complexion of the student body has changed, and the complexion of our programs have changed,” Hennes said.

Malone said Dease sought early on for each department to achieve the highest accreditation available, and today the numbers tell the story.

“(Dease’s efforts) have been methodical and well executed, and he has really transformed the academic profile of the university,” Malone said.

U.S. News named St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business to the top 25 percent of the nation’s business schools in March 2012, and today all of the university’s graduate programs have been accredited, which Hennes said was not the case 20 years ago.

Dease also helped shape St. Thomas’ Catholic identity by creating a Catholic Studies program. The department, Malone said, was meant to be a program for integrating Catholic intellectual tradition into the various colleges and schools within the university.

Dease has taken seriously what it means to be a Catholic university, Malone said, and has introduced the idea that St. Thomas can be open to all ideas, while at the same time relying on Catholic intellectual tradition and social teaching.

“The most fundamental thing about Catholic intellectual tradition is the ultimate dignity of the human person,” Malone said. “He has created I think a much better environment within the university that all people deserve the respect of others, that we respect differences, and we embrace diversity within the university.”

Mark Dienhart ’75, St. Thomas’ executive vice president/chief operating officer has worked at the university for 27 years, 12 under Dease and 15 under Murphy.

After Murphy retired, Dienhart said, Dease took over the university with the aspirations not necessarily to continue the expansion process, but instead to build upon what was given to him.

“Father Dease’s direction during his couple of decades is largely not to create a larger footprint but to refine what he was given,” Dienhart said, “and to make the general theme an excellence theme, trying to improve what we do and trying to make sure it’s of the highest quality that we can provide to our students.”

Campus growth

In terms of physical expansion, Dease has led St. Thomas through some of its busiest construction years. Four buildings on the Minneapolis campus went up, including the law school in 2001. Dease was also instrumental in obtaining the $60 million donation that resulted in the Anderson centers and parking lot.

“I think what he’s accomplished with that is our physical facilities have caught up with the enrollment growth from the mid ’70s through the 1980s,” Hennes said.

Although he has served as Dease’s speech writer, Hennes said most of the time his efforts were not necessary.

“He has a really good grasp of issues,” Hennes said. “In all honesty, I wouldn’t probably have to prep him a whole lot because he’s that good with issues.”

Dease’s keen sense of worldly issues wouldn’t come as a surprise to many, especially Sister Katarina Schuth, school of divinity, who said Dease played a pivotal role in putting the university on the national and even international map.

Dease’s participation in groups such as the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which he chaired from 2000 to 2001, the National Catholic Education Association, and International Federation of Catholic Universities have only been part of the process, Schuth said.

“He has done just tremendous things outside of here that make the university very well known,” Schuth said.

One of Dease’s first steps onto the national scene came in 1995, when St. Thomas sponsored an international conference on the late Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document put in place to help define a university’s Catholic identity, Schuth said.

Dease called the conference, sponsored by the ACCU, hoping to gather people from across the world to talk about what it means to be a Catholic university. Not long after the successful event, Schuth said Dease was named to the ACCU board and eventually elected its chair.

Global vision

Dease has internationalized the student body, largely through his connection with Uganda.

In 2003, Dease traveled to a conference in Uganda with the International Catholic College Educators group. Before Dease left, a benefactor told him that if he found a student, the benefactor would be willing to pay his or her tuition, Hennes said.

This sparked a program that has recruited many Ugandan students to St. Thomas, including senior Alex Migambi, who got to know Dease after receiving a scholarship while he was attending St. Henry’s College, the university’s primary Ugandan feeder school.

Today, Hennes said, about 30 Ugandan students are studying at St. Thomas under various scholarships funded by different donors.

During his four years at St. Thomas, Migambi said, Dease has been instrumental in helping him to achieve his goal of becoming a lawyer.

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Faculty members react to the Rev. Dennis Dease’s retirement announcement. (Cynthia Johnson/TommieMedia)

“He’s helped us a lot as students from Uganda, and it’s a really good opportunity for us to come and study in the U.S. because we don’t have a lot of educational opportunities in Uganda because of so many factors,” Migambi said. “We are really grateful that we get a chance to be here.”

After watching Dease serve the St. Thomas community, Migambi said he considers Dease his role model.

“As a kid, I had all these different pictures of role models, people who are politicians… but there’s a quality about Father Dease that I really admire,” Migambi said. “He’s not like other leaders I’ve seen. To him, leadership is serving and that’s the best quality that I’ve seen from him in all the four years I’ve been here.”

Not only has Dease established a strong connection with Ugandan students, but he and St. Thomas alumnus Charles Lugemwa worked together after Lugemwa’s graduation in December 2003 to build medical clinics in Kampala, the largest city in Uganda.

Two medical clinics for the poor have opened, and they are in the process of opening a maternity hospital.

“He brings the world to us in a certain sense here by doing those sorts of things,” Schuth said.

In 2000, Dease led a delegation to Cuba to sign an agreement with the University of Havana and play a baseball game with a Cuban college team. It was the first visit from a U.S. college baseball team since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Facing challenges

After his 10th year as president, Dease was asked if he felt as challenged or more challenged than when he first started.

“Each year has presented major and at times, seemingly daunting challenges,” Dease said. “It’s like climbing a mountain; the terrain may change but the challenges remain the same. Each year presents challenges that tax all of our creativity and ingenuity. But I’m confident that a university like St. Thomas is better equipped than most organizations to meet challenges and the changing environment because it has such an incredible pool of talent upon which to draw to seek solutions.”

Susan Alexander, special assistant to the president, said Dease has taken those challenges and used them to create a foundation for St. Thomas.

“He built a really good base for St. Thomas and for the last 20 years from that base, I think Father Dease has moved into making us great in terms of educational experience for our students,” Alexander said.

Students see the effort

“I think Father Dease has improved the school community, like the Tommie spirit, that has improved a lot. There’s a lot more connections among students than when I was a freshman, and with all these new buildings, so to me he has accomplished a lot as a president,” Migambi said.

Taking all of his accomplishments into consideration, Schuth summed up Dease’s legacy as one of virtue.

“I think his legacy is a legacy of a virtuous man,” Schuth said. “He is a person who has a lot of qualities, virtues that really stand out and make him from my point of view, an extremely fine president.”

While at the same time, Schuth said his ways of interacting with the people around him have helped him on his way to those accomplishments.

“I think that’s his greatest accomplishment,” Schuth said. “I think it’s his personal interaction that makes you feel good about being here.”

Schuth said when someone is interacting with Dease, there is no doubt he is fully engaged.

“I think a lot of people would say that it is an encounter where he is really engaged with you in that moment as a person and that he really cares what the conversation is,” Schuth said. ”But it’s the overall virtuous man. He is just someone who is totally trustworthy and caring.”

Dease, who has been at the university in some role for 36 years, said his greatest accomplishment has been watching the university develop into what it is today.

“I have derived great satisfaction from watching St. Thomas grow even stronger in doing what it has always done so well. And that is, to paraphrase Hodding Carter III, to give our students two lasting bequests. One of those is roots, and the other is wings,” Dease said.

Briggs LeSavage can be reached at