Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas since 1991, announced today that he will retire on June 30, 2013, upon the completion of his 22nd year in office.
Dease, who turns 69 this month, began the 14th presidency of St. Thomas on July 1, 1991, and is the second-longest-tenured president in St. Thomas’ 127-year history. He succeeded Monsignor Terrence Murphy, who held the office for 25 years.
Dease informed the St. Thomas Board of Trustees about his retirement during its plenary session this morning and told the faculty at its spring semester meeting over the noon hour.
“The timing for my retirement next year will be right for a number of reasons,” Dease said. “We will complete our $500 million Opening Doors capital campaign this October, and our preparation for our decennial accreditation visit by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association will conclude next year. Also, I will turn 70 next May, and I have other interests I would like to pursue.”
In addition to post-presidential St. Thomas responsibilities that Dease and the board will determine over the next year, he plans to continue his work with health-care projects in Uganda, with projects related to Armenian culture and education, and work with the University of Havana in Cuba. He will have an office in O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center on the university’s St. Paul campus.
Trustee John M. Morrison will chair the search committee for Dease’s successor. The committee of nine trustees, three faculty members and one staff member will be appointed by early June, but the initial steps in the search will occur with seven open forums Monday and Thursday for faculty, staff and students to express their opinions on qualities they want in a new president. Sara Gross Methner, general counsel and chief human resources officer at St. Thomas, will staff the search committee. (See separate story below for information on forums.)
The university’s bylaws allow only a Roman Catholic – priest, religious or lay person – to serve as president. All 14 presidents of St. Thomas have been priests.
What Dease told trustees and faculty
Dease said he has been “blessed with an exceptionally thoughtful and generous” Board of Trustees and that he was “profoundly grateful” to Archbishop Harry Flynn, chair of the board since 1995, and all of its members.
“Under your leadership, this university has stayed on task and continues to amaze with its steady progress in carrying out year after year with greater excellence its mission,” Dease told trustees. “I could not have asked for more from you. Your guidance and generosity have truly been a bulwark for me.”
Dease’s wry and self-deprecating wit was on display during his speech to the faculty.
He attributed his longevity and the seemingly quick passing of two decades to two factors:
The president has come to realize his announcement wouldn’t exactly come as a surprise.
“When running errands on weekends,” he told faculty, “local retailers began wishing me well in my retirement. About a month ago, when after a (board) committee behind closed doors confidentially determined to establish a search committee this spring, a faculty member registered concern with Sue Huber that no one from that individual’s school had been yet selected to serve on the committee.
“As Ben Franklin observed: ‘Three can keep a secret if two are dead.’ ”
Dease conceded that after 36 years at St. Thomas, “I’ve become a bit of a fixture around here.” While he expects to remain in some capacity, “At least I don’t plan to match Jeremy Bentham’s commitment to University College London, when at his death in 1832, he had his body preserved for perpetual display there, seated on stool in a wooden cabinet.”
On a more serious note, Dease told faculty that their involvement in the search for the new president “will be essential.”
So what has happened over the last two decades?
During Dease’s tenure, St. Thomas continued to evolve into a regional, liberal arts Catholic university with increasing national recognition for academic programs of excellence. Accomplishments include:
His motivation over the years
That engagement – what Dease calls a “culture of service” – is what drives him, and he sees the very same interest in the faculty and staff with whom he works.
“They love to interact with students – to teach, to mentor, to advise and to coach,” he writes in his “Up Front” column in the spring issue of St. Thomas magazine, which will be published later this month. “They unselfishly share a common goal of providing the best possible education for each and every student.”
Yet for all of the accomplishments, Dease emphasizes that he always has viewed his job through one lens – how best to advance the university’s mission.
“That is a lofty charge, and one I have never taken lightly,” he writes in the magazine. “For over two decades it has inspired me and motivated me. I truly believe that as long as the university remains focused on this singular objective, it will continue to render its optimal service to society: to change for the better the lives of students, and in the process to change the entire equation.
“I see the mission statement etched in bronze on the wall outside my office every day when I walk in. It has been for me a constant reminder of what we’re about. At times it has even served as an examination of conscience – for me, and for the institution.”
And he expects the priority of advancing the mission will remain the same for his successor, “who I have no doubt will serve with energy and distinction as our 15th president, carrying out our mission perhaps in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way.”