President Joseph L. Chillo’s Inaugural Address
An Unyielding Commitment
President Joseph L. Chillo
University Installation Ceremony
Sept. 25, 2019
Thank you, Bishop Foys, Dr. Marlowe, and honored guests.
I stand here today with deep gratitude to the Board of Trustees, the Search Committee, and the Thomas More University community for this opportunity to serve and lead the University as we equip our students with the skills they need to live lives of meaning, service, and purpose – rooted in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. I would like to thank Your Excellence, Bishop Foys for his unwavering commitment to Catholic education and for his steadfast leadership.
I would like to acknowledge and thank Sister Margaret Stallmayer in attendance today who served Thomas More as our 13th president. Her leadership and vision led to the building of the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel.
I also want to thank the Benedictine Sisters of Covington for their inspirational work of founding Villa Madonna College, now Thomas More University, in 1921. As we approach our centennial, as a student of history, I am reminded of our start as an institution of higher learning where the Benedictine Sisters taught their own as well as graduates of Villa Madonna Academy, where my children attend today. By 1928, under the guidance of Bishop Howard, the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Sisters of Divine Providence worked with the Benedictine Sisters to have Villa Madonna College become a diocesan college with religious communities assuming responsibility for providing both faculty and financial support. This spirit of innovation and transformation is built into the DNA of Thomas More University.
I want to thank my wife Laura, my children, Colin and Emma, who have always kept me grounded and inspire me to do the very important work that I do for others. I also want to thank my parents who always inspired me to set high goals and never, ever take the easy way out. To my wife’s parents, Jim and Pat, thank you for always welcoming me as part of the family. And yes, I know I am Pat’s favorite son-in-law – honestly, I am the only son-in-law.
It with great excitement and enthusiasm that I serve this University and all of you as its 15th president. The power of a Catholic, liberal arts education is needed more today than ever in our history. While the world that we live in today is more diverse, we are more connected than ever before. We are building Thomas More University to ensure that our impact on the lives of our students remains relevant and needed as our alumni go out and transform the world. Make no mistake, Thomas More University is the Catholic university of Northern Kentucky.
Today’s inauguration is less about me and more about our community and the importance that I place on the people of Thomas More University. Without our people, this institution does not exist. I am so grateful that you have had the opportunity to hear from an alumnus, a student, a faculty member, and an administrator. I am also grateful for the staff who do so much to ensure that we all work to our common goals and purposes. For those who work behind the scenes day-in and day-out, thank you for your hard work and dedication. These are the people who represent the different constituencies that I serve, but more importantly each of them represents the spirit, the innovation, the very best that we have to offer.
Today is personally a humbling experience and I am thankful to each of you for being here. To our friends, dignitaries, and colleagues from other colleges and universities, the opportunity to share with you today our University and community is truly special.
You will find an unyielding commitment to mission and a defining student experience that affirms the unique identity of the University and the significant position we occupy in the higher education landscape as a high quality Catholic institution.
I want to a take a moment and also thank our students who are in attendance here today. Being a university student is not easy, you take exams, write papers, play a varsity sport, you work, and the list goes on and on. I hope when you graduate you will look back at this moment and understand the important role that you play in the life of this institution and this moment in history.
Since arriving on campus in June, I have seen a real vibrancy – and I see the great work that people are doing here at Thomas More – it’s contagious. It’s safe to say that I have been overwhelmed with the high-quality, mission driven education that this university offers. With an innovative spirit and close-knit community, Laura, Colin, Emma, and I are confident that this is where we belong. We have been welcomed with open arms and we could not be more thankful for the hospitality and kindness each of you have shown us during this transition. We are grateful and excited to be here in our new Kentucky home.
I know that Thomas More is a transformative institution, and I hold student success at the core of my commitment to this University. I’ve said this before, but I believe the most important work that we do is to prepare our students for commencement. Graduation is a defining experience for both the student and their family. For our students here today, I want you to think how are you going to make a difference, how are you going to inspire the next generation, how are you going to pay it forward? You’ll hear me tell you this all the time – when you walk across the commencement stage – either this May or four years from now – walk slowly. Take it all in. You’ll have achieved a high accomplishment worth cherishing.
I am a first-generation college graduate. I want to thank my mom and dad, who are here today for always expecting more, for providing a Catholic high school education, and never letting us think that college was out of reach. And thinking back on my commencement day, I could not have imagined that I would be standing here in front of you today as the 15th president of Thomas More University. I believe that it was the guidance from the faculty, staff, coaches and mentors throughout my undergraduate experience that shaped me into who I am today.
I see this same guidance and mentorship here at Thomas More. Our faculty, administration, staff, and coaches do this every day and I have been impressed by their willingness to help and serve. Each student here at the University is a gift. And I’m committed to ensuring that every student – all 1221 of our traditional students and almost 1000 adult, online, dual credit and graduate students – receive the mentorship and financial support they need to make an impact in an evolving world and workforce. I am dedicated to ensuring that students have access to a high quality, affordable Catholic education.
Because of this, we’re introducing the Diocese of Covington Guarantee. In the United States, now more than ever, students and their families are feeling the burden of rising college costs. We are combatting this issue. The Diocese of Covington Guarantee ensures that all diocesan graduates starting with this year’s high school graduating seniors who meet our admission criteria will be awarded $20,000 in institutional aid. Every diocesan student that wants to gain a Catholic higher education deserves the assistance to do so. Creating opportunity for our diocesan high schools to effectively position the values and significance of a Catholic higher education begins with our responsibility of being the diocesan university. The values and purpose of Catholic education are significant and relevant; and we must do our part to strengthen and advance the important work that was started almost 100 years ago at Villa Madonna College.
From the time I set foot onto campus for my first interview, I have been listening to what students have to say about Thomas More. I’ve met with Student Government, attended student orientations, student life events, varsity games, formed a group of Presidential Ambassadors, and I’ve taken every student meeting request that has come across my desk. I’ve been given a lot to think about and I am grateful for the honesty and passion that students have shared with me about their Thomas More Experience. It is clear that this campus has a strong foundation that has been set by the faculty, staff, alumni and administration previous and present. I will continue to build upon this foundation to enhance the vibrancy of the student experience and enhance the position of Thomas More University in the local, regional, national, and international community.
We will position ourselves to better serve our current and prospective students. Guiding students towards a path for success is no easy feat, our retention and graduate rates tell us that some students struggle academically, financially, socially with their ability to graduate. For others, they excel; they become the trailblazers – the first in their families to graduate; or they continue the legacy of being a college graduate in their family.
We celebrate those students who make it across the finish line at commencement, but I worry that for every student who leaves us we are missing out on inspiring hope and creating opportunity. Let me be clear with you all here today, for every student that we grant admission to, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that they reach the finish line. If we admit, we commit to the important work of college completion. We have to ensure that the dreams of a college education are not deferred, but are within reach of every student who steps foot onto our campus. We are currently focusing on how to enhance the student experience. An example of progression and response is our Experiential Learning program – in which 100 percent of students participate. These experiences allow our students to venture into the workforce having developed experiences through internships and co-ops which engage students in fostering work ethic and professional networks, heightening knowledge, and giving students an informed perspective on the realities of joining the workforce post-commencement.
The student experience is not only enhanced through programs, but it’s enhanced by improving the campus environment. Improvements to the physical environment add a sense of place – one that is distinctive to Thomas More. Updated classroom spaces to ensure that we are reflecting the diverse learning styles of students today, as well as the quality of education provided by our faculty and the quality of education that we continue to aspire towards. This institution has developed a reputation in recent years of investing in these kinds of innovative spaces. Last summer, several classrooms were renovated with innovative designs to support and enhance learning. The Center for Health Sciences, in partnership with St. Elizabeth Healthcare, and the STEM Outreach Center at the Biology River Field Station opened, both of which provide our students access to modern technologies and spaces conducive to honing their crafts and producing high-quality research.
We will develop a renewed focus on providing quality living and learning community spaces on campus, designed to meet the needs of both resident and commuter students. We will explore new ways to enhance our current residential and dining facilities. We appreciate the role that gathering spaces, whether they be social, prayerful, or wellness spaces, play in fostering community across campus. I look outside my window throughout the day and see students relaxing, conversing, and laughing in the blue Adirondack chairs or playing cornhole outside of the Saints Center. It’s in moments such as these that friendships are fostered, relationships are deepened, and our busy students can take a breath between classes.
Last week, I hosted the first of what will be many “Chillin with Chillo” ice cream socials, where I met many students and shared stories of my own college experience. I commit to each of the students here today, I will continue to be present for you. Whether it is by attending an upcoming performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” by popping into the student tailgate event at a home football game, attending a choir and band concert, or attending a Campus Ministry retreat, I will be unyielding in my commitment to student-centeredness and serving each of you as we embark upon our Thomas More University educational journey together and set the tone for the next 100 years for our alma mater.
It is with this same unyielding commitment to the transformational power of education that the Benedictine Sisters founded this institution in 1921 as Villa Madonna College. It was an unyielding commitment of the three orders who framed a vision for becoming Thomas More College and moved the institution to Crestview Hills from Covington in 1968. To dedicate the new Thomas More College on Sept. 28, 1968 was President Lyndon B. Johnson. In his address to the college community, he said “This college symbolizes two ancient American traits: first, a steadfast faith in God, second, a fervent commitment to education.” Today, 51 years later, it’s my duty to carry on this commitment here at Thomas More University.
Thomas More has a history of responding to the evolving needs of our region and the world. Transformational change has been engrained in the core of this institution. A strong university continues to evolve to meet demands, and since Thomas More’s founding, the institution has remained a beacon for northern Kentucky and the greater Cincinnati region because we have been agile and able to remain flexible, and strong, as we have responded to the changes that surround us.
As our patron saint – Thomas More – once said, “You wouldn’t abandon ship in a storm just because you couldn’t control the winds.”
We can’t control the economic, political, and societal winds that come our way, but we can remain rooted in our Catholic faith and liberal arts foundation to guide us through the storms.
We do more than prepare a student for a job. Taking a holistic – mind, body, spirit – approach, we prepare students for not only their first job, but their next five jobs. Instilling in them the essential skills they’ll need to be successful in their future endeavors. Teamwork, written and oral communication, critical thinking, numeracy, creativity, humility, cross-cultural knowledge – we’re making sure our students are established so they stand out and succeed. The liberal arts are alive and well. I often tell Colin and Emma to major in something that you have a passion for but receive a liberal arts education as it will serve you well in life and in your career. As a product of a liberal arts education, I am grateful for the appreciation for civil discourse, the culture of collaboration, and the spirit of innovation that was fostered in me, all of which have served me well in my life and career.
As president of Thomas More, I commit to stand up to the eroding public opinion about the liberal arts being facilitated by some of our social and political leaders. While many politicians are narrowly focused on the importance of workforce development jobs, Thomas More will continue to provide our students the quality, values-based education that will prepare them for meaningful lives and brilliant careers. We have to be about more than the first job.
Only focusing on workforce development, as many institutions are being pushed to do so today, is short sighted and will only serve some for a short period of time. If technology has shown us anything, it is what happens when disruption hits the marketplace and the pace of innovation is so fast that institutions and people are often unable to adapt. Institutions of higher learning must be more nimble and innovative in their approach. We must continue to teach and inspire our students as the ethical leaders of tomorrow. We must realize that the world that we educate our students to live and to work in will be dramatically different than the one that we live in today.
Thomas More will be creating the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation – a new program and physical space that will allow our students and faculty to develop the concepts of tomorrow and initiatives that will demonstrate the University’s leadership position in northern Kentucky. With five generations currently in the work force, more and more employers are looking for new skills, while employees are swiftly shifting through careers. Our TAP (Thomas More Accelerated Program) program saw this emerging trend and responded. The TAP program offered an innovative learning technique that wasn’t in the region 25 years ago – it allowed, and continues to allow, working professionals – some of whom are first-generation students – to earn a degree.
A college education isn’t supposed to be a hoop to jump through or a box to check in order to get a good job. Education is a transformative endeavor, not a transactional exchange. It is a community, not a commodity.
The history of this institution proves our ability to respond to the needs of the community – and this response will continue to move us forward.
As we look to the future, we must not forget that the strength of a Thomas More education is its strong liberal arts foundation and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. This is what makes Thomas More distinctive and our education unique. While more and more universities are trying to be all things to everyone, Thomas More will focus on what we do best and to continue to provide a high-quality education supported by our greatest asset, our faculty. We will commit to our faculty because we know the tremendous impact that they have on the development of our students. As teachers, scholars, and mentors, our faculty have demonstrated incredible dedication to quality, personalized, intentional educational practices that other institutions don’t provide in the same way. This makes us distinct. This makes Thomas More important, more now than ever, the education we provide is worthy of investment because of the return that it provides to our students, our alumni and to our community.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending the memorial service of Dr. Bill Bryant. Dr. Bryant was a dedicated member of the biology department faculty at Thomas More for 37 years (1971 – 2008). Dr. Bryant taught a wide variety of courses and advised hundreds of students. A beloved and respected faculty member, colleagues remember his kind personality and his contributions for maintaining high levels of academic excellence. His advising and mentoring of students positively changed many lives and he continues to influence Thomas More alumni everywhere. We are so very grateful for the time he spent here and for his legacy. This fall, in collaboration with the Bryant family, the Dr. William S. Bryant Memorial Fund for Student/Faculty Biological Research has been established. It is especially fitting to honor his legacy by providing scholarly opportunities where both biology students and faculty are performing research and learning together, which is something he deeply valued.
Looking to the next 100 years, I have a bold vision for positioning Thomas More as a regional and national leader in Catholic higher education as we evolve to meet the needs of the modern college student, while becoming the agile university of tomorrow. As an agile university, we must educate and engage our students with the skills necessary to be successful in life; we must approach learning from a growth mindset; we must provide resources to our faculty so they can be creative and innovative; we must continue to create value, embrace change, and not be adverse to risk; and we must understand the needs of the marketplace to ensure that our academic programs are relevant and that our students are prepared to be ethical leaders and engaged citizens.
Our society is changing, and the issues of this generation and the next will be complex. We need graduates who are prepared for the things that we do not know just yet. We need graduates who are committed to life-long leaning, ethical leadership, unwavering integrity, and service to others.
We must continue to expand our diversity efforts and foster an inclusive community that celebrates cultural differences and diversity of thoughts and experiences. We must understand that we are preparing students to be global citizens and that the world they will live and work in will require an understanding of the differences that we all bring forth with us.
The foundational principles set forth in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition will inform our educational practices and prevent our university from straying from our mission. As Bishop Foys has often said, the purpose of a Catholic university, or any Catholic school is first and foremost to “transmit the faith.” While our mission calls for our university to encourage students of all faiths to examine the ultimate meaning of life, their place in the world, and their responsibility to others, we will be unapologetic in creating a Catholic, values-based educational experience for all students.
We will make tough decisions – remembering that we are in a competitive market and cannot be everything to everyone. We will rely on our mission and our values to inform our choices as we align our distinctiveness with our value proposition. We will look to advance and evolve our unique programs. We will continue to inspire and cultivate a spirit of innovation – ensuring students don’t see things for what they are, but how they could be. We will challenge ourselves to invest in new programs that meet the needs of our region, nation, and global community.
While we may not exactly know what the next 100 years will be for Thomas More University, I’m committed to making this University the very best that it can be and I’m excited to lead Thomas More at this important time in its history. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve this institution as a servant leader, dedicated to the needs and aspirations of our students and alumni; the teaching and scholarship of our faculty; and the work of our administrative and staff teams to ensure that our future of providing a mission-driven education is unparalleled.
I want us to work together as a community to create a defining future for our students and our University. We will expect and demand the very best; we will settle for nothing less. I am honored to be your president. I am committed to serving you first and I am humbled for the opportunity you have given me to do so. Now, let’s get to work.