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 quality of you, my colleagues. A finer community of teachers, scholars and friends, one could never hope to find,” he said, quoting Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who visited St. Thomas in 1904: ‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.’
  • “Second, I’m Irish. Again, it was Yeats who observed: ‘Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.’ That has inspired me. I know there have been days that were difficult as well as days that were good. It’s the kind of existential resignation captured in the more homespun American proverb: ‘Some days you’re the bug; some days you’re the windshield.’”

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:

  • Three rounds of strategic planning – in 1994-95, 1999-2000 and 2005-2006 – guided St. Thomas and led to the development of the strategic directions of access, excellence and Catholic identity.
  • Degree programs were created in areas such as business (full-time MBA), Catholic studies, educational leadership, electrical and mechanical engineering, entrepreneurship, health-care management, law and organizational development. Focusing on quality, St. Thomas has sought and received accreditation from national or international associations for all of its professional programs, and the average ACT score of incoming freshmen increased from 23.1 in 1991 to 25.7 in 2011.
  • Two capital campaigns have raised more than $700 million. The Ever Press Forward campaign, which concluded in 2001, raised $250 million. The Opening Doors campaign, which will conclude in October, has raised $455 million toward its $500 million goal. Invested assets, including pledges, increased from $100 million in 1991 to $451 million in 2011.
  • Twenty building projects led to a $350 million bricks-and-mortar investment. The Minneapolis campus expanded from one to four buildings in a decade, and St. Paul campus projects included four classroom buildings, a student center, an athletic and recreation complex, two apartment-style residence halls, a child development center and a parking ramp.
  • St. Thomas has become more racially and ethnically diverse, and international programs have exploded in growth. The student-of-color population has tripled (to 14 percent) and three times as many international students are enrolled. Greater study abroad opportunities exist, with four times as many students studying abroad.
  • The Center for Catholic Studies, long recognized as among the finest in the United States, was founded to strengthen the university’s Catholic identity. Other initiatives included the opening of the law school and the Rome campus and the expansion of the Murray Institute, through which 700 teachers and principals in archdiocesan schools have received tuition-free graduate degrees.
  • A new and much shorter mission statement in 2004 spoke of educating students “to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely, and work skillfully to advance the common good.” In practical terms, Dease says the mission rests upon four pillars: faith, liberal arts, professional education and community engagement. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recognized the latter in 2006 with its coveted “Community Engagement” classification of St. Thomas.

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.”