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Our Rich History: President Joseph Chillo, LPD, 15th president of Thomas More University

By Dr. Raymond G. Hebert
Thomas More University
Part 71 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021 

Dr. Joseph L. Chillo arrived on campus during the summer of 2019 to become the 15th President of Thomas More University. The fall 2019 issue of Moreover (the University’s alumni/community magazine) said that “a new era begins as President Chillo arrives to guide the University with an eye towards service, collaboration, diversity, and student centeredness” (Moreover, Fall 2019, p. 2) These words would prove prophetic.

In the years since, President Chillo has not forgotten his initial goals and promises. In the interview process, the search committee notes reflected that he emphasized how he had been a first-generation college student who always remembered the privileges that came with that status. Since a significant percentage of Thomas More’s students come from a similar demographic, this fact is important in the analysis of President Chillo’s first two years at Thomas More, leading up to the centennial year.

President Chillo. (TMU Archives)

President Chillo’s education began at Binghamton University in New York state where he earned a bachelor’s degree, followed by a Master of Public Administration from Long Island University and a Doctor of Law and Policy (LPD) from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Most impressive among his credentials, however, were his experiences in the area of executive leadership development, both through the National Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and the prestigious Institute for Educational Management (IEM), offered by the Harvard University Graduate School of Education (President Joseph Chillo CV, TMU Archives).

Just prior to his arrival in Northern Kentucky, President Chillo had served as the fifth president and professor of humanities at Newbury College outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Prior to the Newbury promotion, he had served in multiple capacities for over 25 years in private higher education, including holding senior leadership positions at Colby-Sawyer College (NH), Wheelock College (Boston University), and St. Thomas Aquinas College (NY). He had also served as an elementary school principal.

Further, “President Chillo had extensive experience in accreditation, strategic planning, student athletics, international education, capital campaigns, fundraising and expanded corporate partnerships to improve student experiential learning and internship opportunities” (Moreover, Fall 2019, p. 5).

President Joseph Chillo with Bishop Foys. (TMU Archives)

A week of events celebrated Chillo’s inauguration on September 25, 2019. A “Night at the Reds and campus-wide Pig Roast” were among the social events. Bishop Roger Foys celebrated a diocesan Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky, on September 22. Then, on September 25, beginning with an Inaugural Mass, the Installation Ceremony was held on campus, presided over by the Most Reverend Roger J. Foys, Bishop of the Diocese of Covington, and Dr. Judith Marlowe, the Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees.

After a welcome, invocation, and proclamation from Mayor Paul Meier from the City of Crestview Hills, there were greetings from student, alumni, staff, and faculty representatives. Among the most memorable comments were those that came from the Thomas More student body president, Erin Carrus, who said: “I chose Thomas More for the opportunities, traditions, and for the fact that even if a person is brand new to Thomas More, they’re instantly welcomed the way everyone should be . . . President Chillo, we would now like to welcome you into your role as our president and remind you that you and your family are already a part of ours” (Moreover, Fall 2019 pp. 4-5).

Later in the ceremony, in introducing the new president, Dr. Judith Marlowe highlighted the president’s commitment to “service, collaboration, diversity, inclusion, and student-centered leadership” that would become his trademarks. Dr. Marlowe shared how President Chillo had already demonstrated these values openly with his initiatives and reflected on how he “has provided intentional, strategic guidance aimed at advancing the academic excellence inspired by the Catholic Intellectual Traditions that distinguish Thomas More University” (Moreover, Fall 2019, p. 5).

President Chillo at the Cincinnati Reds game, throwing the first pitch. (TMU Archives)

The highlight of the ceremony were the words of President Chillo himself in his Inaugural Address. Instead of focusing on himself, he used the occasion to officially announce two new initiatives on the horizon to boost affordability, accessibility, and entrepreneurship. The first was the Diocese of Covington Guarantee, which financially assists graduates of diocesan high schools. The second was the formation of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which would provide programs/opportunities/physical space to “all Thomas More students and faculty to collaboratively develop initiatives to better serve the future of the Northern Kentucky region” (Moreover, Fall 2019, p. 6). Even in his first few months, it is noteworthy that President Chillo was already appreciating the importance of Thomas More University in the context of the Northern Kentucky community it serves.

In closing his remarks, Chillo returned to the central fact for him that he had been a first-generation college graduate and a product of a liberal arts education. Both of those aspects of his life had been part of his holistic and transformational college experience, so he closed with this message and prophecy:

“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 . . . I am 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 ensure that our future of providing a mission-driven education is unparalleled” (President Joseph Chillo Inaugural Address, TMU Archives; Moreover, Fall 2019, p. 7)

Later in the fall semester of 2019, President Chillo again showed that his promises were not just words. He initiated what was called #TMU1221. Here, again, he reminded alums and donors that he would never forget first-generation students since he had been one. He reminded alums in particular that: “Thomas More is asking 1221 individuals to symbolically represent their support of our 1221 students with a personally significant philanthropic gift [adding that] your gift to the Fund for Thomas More University ensures that every student will receive the resources and guidance they need alongside an invaluable Catholic education (“The Fund for Thomas More University,” Moreover, Fall 2019, p. 15).

President Joseph Chillo talking with students. (TMU Archives)

Significantly, as President Chillo’s first semester ended, the heart of a plan was clearly already in place. So too was the realization that to make it work there was a strong likelihood that a campus-driven strategic plan — and most likely a capital campaign — would be announced as Thomas More University entered its Centennial Year of 2022. Unfortunately, the excitement that was in the air early in the spring of 2020 was dampened by the beginning of what would be a multi-year, worldwide pandemic of COVID-19.

How President Joseph Chillo, and his administrative and faculty teams, responded would prove vital to the future of Thomas More University.

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.

The capital campaign. (TMU Archives)

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