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Our Rich History: Pres. Chillo guides TMU through global pandemic to growing success in 100th year

By Dr. Raymond G. Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 72 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021 

President Joseph Chillo of Thomas More University tells the story of being in Florida visiting alumni on a fundraising trip when a call from St. Elizabeth Healthcare told him of a troublesome virus called COVID-19 that was flooding emergency rooms at each of the St. Elizabeth facilities.

By the end of that day, at the beginning of the spring 2020 semester’s spring break, a decision was made in consultation with his cabinet to add a second spring break week. It would be followed by a shift in teaching format from face-to-face to online classes, for as long as would be necessary. Of course, no one could yet imagine the necessity of what would follow — of online and hybrid educational strategies that universities nationwide (and worldwide) navigated.

Students outside during COVID-19. (TMU Archives)

However, President Chillo’s thoughtful decision would be followed by many other proactive policies that would ultimately leave Thomas More University in a better position for the future than other institutions in the tumultuous, unpredictable COVID-pandemic year of 2020.

Even during spring 2020 semester, with much else on his mind, President Chillo proceeded forward in emphasizing the importance of Thomas More’s “refreshing its brand identity,” pandemic or no pandemic. The process was described best by Judy Crist, the University’s Director of Creative Services, when she said: “The best brands know who they are, where they are going, and how they will get there. They deliver on the promises they make and create a unified message that is heard to the voices of everyone from frontline employees to the president of the institution. They invoke trust, respect pride and loyalty.”

She then asked the question: “Does Thomas More have that kind of clout?” The implication, not surprisingly, was that the answer to that question was “no,” so it now became President Joseph Chillo’s challenge to change that to a resounding “yes.” The result was the simple phrase “MAKE IT MORE” and the conclusion was simple:

The 2020 commencement ceremony, with President Chillo following COVID-19 pandemic protocols in greeting students by hygienically “bumping elbows.” At that time, shaking hands was discouraged due to the contagious nature of the virus. (TMU Archives)

“The new brand line names the university’s patron and is imperative — like a command. It asks for commitment and promises a benefit. It is intentionally ambiguous so that the actual benefit(s) can convey multiple meanings … It is a potent flexible platform for speaking to the many key audiences the University relies on to ensure its future” (Judy Crist, Moreover, Spring 2020, pp.3-4).

Meanwhile, despite the distractions of 2020 related to COVID-19 restrictions and mask wearing, Thomas More announced new programs that spring, including:

1. A “3+3 with UC Law — a partnership with the University of Cincinnati Law school “to create a pipeline program for highly motivated and qualified students interested in pursuing a legal career while completing their undergraduate degree.”

2. Also new within the 2020 year, the Thomas More Department of Business Administration announced a “4+1 MBA Program,” which would allow students “majoring in accountancy, business administration, or management information systems to earn an MBA just 12 months after finishing their bachelor’s degree” (Moreover, Spring 2020, p. 5). Among the benefits would be a valuable way for Accountancy majors to achieve the number of credit hours requisite to taking the CPA exam, while also earning an MBA in the process. Another is that graduate-level classes could be taken while in the senior year of the undergraduate program as electives, with accelerated classes to follow in the fifth year — “saving time and money for these students as they prepare to move into the workforce” (Moreover, Spring 2020, p. 5).

The processional at the Centennial ceremony. (TMU Archives)

The COVID pandemic literally brought the world to a halt. Quarantines — and resultant feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression—affected people everywhere. Some grumbled about the need to wear masks, to socially distance, and to totally change the way that they conducted their businesses or educational institutions. However, Chillo never stopped believing in what Thomas More University was able to provide in its liberal arts environment steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition. He proudly touted Thomas More’s rankings. Among 28 Kentucky private and public universities and colleges — “in four benchmarks — at 15, 20, 30, and 40 years after enrollment — the university ranked highest in the state in ROI (Return on Investment), according to a report released by Georgetown University.”

While Chillo admitted that “the world that we educate our students to live and to work in will be dramatically different than the one we live in today,” he also doubled down on Thomas More University’s strength as a liberal arts institution with values that “prepare our students to be ethical leaders and engaged citizens.”

In this, just his second year, President Chillo’s goals had not changed, but rather had become stronger, in support of our “foundational principles set forth in our Catholic identity alongside our liberal arts values” (Joseph L. Chillo, “Liberal Arts is the Game Changer in the Job Market,” Moreover, Spring 2020, p. 20).

Meanwhile, the 2020 Commencement would end up like being no other in the history of the institution. The fact that it took place at all is significant since many institutions across the nation had postponed or even cancelled theirs. President Chillo would have none of that, again always putting the needs of the students first. It was not a traditional graduation ceremony, but each student was able to receive a diploma presented by the President and the Chair of the Board of Trustees (Dr. Judith Marlowe), with their families able to take photos from a prime location in front of the platform. It was, as described in the university’s magazine, “A Ceremony Like No Other.”

Provost Smith (TMU Archives)

In President Chillo’s words: “In the midst of challenges due to COVID-19, a decision was made regarding the health and safety of our students and their families, Commencement was pushed back to August. With a socially distant, day-long ceremony, more than 200 undergraduate and graduate statements arrived, smiling behind their masks, to walk alongside their families and receive their diplomas. Though the celebration didn’t play out as originally planned, the event allowed us the opportunity to celebrate our students’ notable achievements” (President Joseph Chillo’s Opening Letter, Moreover, Fall 2020, p. 2).

Reflecting on it afterwards, Provost Dr. Molly Smith said: “It was wonderful to capture the joy of our students’ accomplishments in a ceremony that they will long remember as special in keeping with our long-standing ethos of student success in a personalized and caring environment” (Moreover, Fall 2020, p. 2). The same would be done in May 2021 for commencement, with even more students and families participating and even higher survey satisfaction results. Again, even in the midst of a pandemic, President Joseph Chillo and his team of administrators would remember that student recognition and success are important.

Not surprisingly, then, with such a culture emerging during Chillo’s presidency, the Fall 2020 traditional enrollment was fittingly the second largest in the institution’s history. The total of “1289 full-time traditional undergraduate students” would be an increase of 5% over the previous year’s already- high number. Best of all “all three new colleges at the University — Business, Arts and Sciences, and Education and Healthcare Sciences — grew in enrollment with the College of Arts and Sciences taking the lead with 489 students.” This was proof that the appreciation of and belief in the value of a liberal arts education was alive and well (“Traditional Enrollment Second Largest in University’s History Despite COVID-19 Pandemic,” Moreover, Fall 2020, p. 7).

Architect’s rendering of the new academic building. (TMU Archives)

For the remainder of 2020–2021, the theme on campus became one of “Healthy at Thomas More.” Continuing to provide opportunities remained a priority, but always in the context of what was safe for the students, faculty and staff, as an ad-hoc committee monitored infections and helped coordinate the policies that would be needed.

The ensuing Spring 2021 issue of Moreover was again quite symbolic because the opening article by Provost Molly Smith was another reminder of the ongoing evolution of the President’s vision for Thomas More as a liberal arts institution. As a preface to the Strategic Plan (2021–2026), she reminded all on campus and the alums that a “liberal arts education has its roots in classical learning in which the interrelationship between the application of knowledge in the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and disciplinary expertise in the Quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry) served to develop wisdom and prepare individuals for civic leadership.” Even in ancient times, she added that a liberal arts education was, above all, the foundation for “preparing free persons for civic life” (Molly Smith, “The Catholic Liberal Arts University: Cordis et corporis, spiritus et sapiential” Moreover, Spring 2021, pp. 4-5).

Built on a trilogy of themes (Student Success/Academic Innovation/Responsible Stewardship), the Strategic Plan reflected the words of Provost Smith and the vision of President Chillo: “At the heart of the twenty first century, the Catholic liberal arts education lies as a relentless pursuit of knowledge, firm commitment to educational access for all, sustained attention to developing the whole person, deliberate integration of theory with practice, and a united focus on empowering students to serve and lead their communities for the common good” (Moreover, Spring 2021, p. 4).

2021 commencement ceremony with President Chillo and Dr. Judith Marlowe. (TMU Archives)

One of the results of this kind of culture, as a pillar of the Centennial Year, would become the launch of the “Saints Serve” program, which culminated with a “Day of Service” supporting “44 organizations with 1,235 students participating and a total of 28,001 service hours worked.” This was an appropriate beginning to what would become VMC/TMC/TMU’s Centennial Celebration (1921–2021), during which Dr. Judith Marlowe, Chair of the Board of Trustees, with Kelly French, Vice-President and Chief of Staff representing the President’s Cabinet, efficiently co-chaired the Centennial Committee. As noted in the lead story for the Fall 2021 Moreover, “September 12, 2021, marked the official centennial anniversary date when Villa Madonna College held its first class.”

In 2021, special events then took place from September 11–14 to commemorate an amazing start to a year’s worth of celebrating. Among the highlights would be a Centennial History — with Dr. Ray Hebert, Dr. Paul Tenkotte (former faculty), Tom Ward (Archivist), and David Schroeder (former Archivist) — all playing a role in writing and editing more than 80 articles that began to appear weekly (each Monday), beginning June 14, 2021 (and continuing through January 2023), in Tenkotte’s “Our Rich History” column of the Northern Kentucky Tribune. The final Centennial History will appear as a compiled publication during the spring 2023 semester.

On September 13th, a day designated to mark the turn towards the next century, Dr. Marlowe recalled that, as Chair of the Presidential Search Committee, her expectations were high but were clearly met by the talents of Dr. Chillo. As a result of his outstanding accomplishments in academics, institutional development, and focus on student success during his first two years in office, she announced that Dr. Chillo had signed a five-year contract to continue his transformational leadership.

Another highlight at this press conference, as a way of making the most of the centennial year, was the announcement of a Second Century Capital Campaign. Will Ziegler, VMC Class of 1953 and member of the Board of Trustees, agreed to serve as the Honorary Chair of the Capital Campaign’s Steering Committee. The mandate for the latter, again reflective of President Chillo’s dreams, included a new Academic Building and the realization of the Strategic Plan, as was well framed by Chair Ziegler:

“For 100 years we have created a university for the student who wants to:

Be More
Do More
Seek More
Win More
Achieve More
Create More
And now?

It’s time for More” (“A Message from Will Ziegler ‘53” Moreover, Fall 2021, p. 14).

President Joseph Chillo. (TMU Archives)

With an initial target of raising $30 million, the goals included: renovating student spaces, enhancing Athletic Facilities, a new Academic Center, and a $3.5 million increase to the endowment, among others. The vision was calling for support throughout the Thomas More University family and the Greater Cincinnati community. By the end of the Centennial Year, the good news was that “the second century campaign was already the most robust capital campaign in Thomas More University history. It hit major milestones, raising funds targeted for a new academic center, endowed scholarships, renovations to facilities and other strategic priorities, and placing the initiative “close to 18 months ahead of schedule for its fundraising objective of $30 million” (President Joseph Chillo Opening Letter, Moreover, Spring 2022, p. 2).

Other good news in that same second semester of the Centennial Celebration was that our Lady Saints won the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship in Sioux City, Iowa. They were coached by Jeff Hans, who had previously guided the Women’s Basketball Team in our final years in NCAA Division III to three national championships. Notably, the Men’s Basketball Team also had an outstanding year, earning a berth in the NAIA Final Four. In addition, the Thomas More University Men’s Rugby Team also won a national championship.

As Thomas More begins its second century, it looks to the future with the same bold vision and enthusiasm of President Chillo. With several new academic programs in development, the transition to the NCAA Division II, expansion of campus facilities, and the continued success of the Second Century Campaign, the University is on firm ground to “Make It More.”

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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