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PROFILES THOMAS AQUINAS COLLEGE : Changing of the Guard : New President Thomas E. Dillon foresees growth but no major changes.

January 24, 1991|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the nicest things about being the new president of Thomas Aquinas College, said Thomas E. Dillon, is that he'll no longer be arriving home in the wee hours on Saturday mornings.

"Sometimes when we have lecturers come on Friday evenings, the heart of the event is not the lecture itself, but the discussion that takes place after," Dillon, now Thomas Aquinas' dean, said. "That has gone on sometimes until 2 in the morning, and I wouldn't get home until 2:30."

As is the tradition, when Dillon becomes the college's president tomorrow he, his wife Theresa and three of his children--Christine, Maria and Daniel--will move into a campus residence. (His older son, Tom Jr. is a senior at Thomas Aquinas, so he's already living on campus.)

But the late-night talks will continue, because Dillon plans to open his doors to any and all debating students.

"Those discussions can be very lively and extremely interesting," he said.

"It's a way in which you can consider questions you might not have considered otherwise in class, and it helps to test your opinions and helps to kind of put things together in a way you might not otherwise have."

Like outgoing president Ronald P. McArthur, the 44-year-old Dillon is a graduate of St. Mary's College in Northern California.

He received both his master's degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame before joining the faculty of Thomas Aquinas College in 1972.

Dillon said it wasn't until he got to St. Mary's that he finally was encouraged to ask questions in the classroom.

"In high school you take the notes, memorize the stuff and give it back on the examination, and I couldn't understand things very well," he said. "At St. Mary's I was very surprised to see classes where the students would argue with one another vigorously, and with the teacher, and together they would come to see what's true. There's no alternative as far as I'm concerned."

So tomorrow Dillon will find himself in charge of a college whose curriculum relies solely on classic books of Western civilization.

The curriculum stresses debate as fundamental to learning and has done away with conventional classroom lectures and most examinations.

And as did his predecessor, he will have to deal with people who don't understand his philosophy on higher education. Opposition is something he dealt with as a dean, Dillon said, but he expects to be faced with it more often as president.

"It's not that I would intend to convert the world about this kind of education. We see ourselves doing one kind of thing," he said. "We're not finishing our students. Hopefully when they graduate they'll have the right tools to pursue learning on their own."

Dillon foresees a bright future for the college.

He cites write-ups in the Wall Street Journal and Barron's College Guide, and an upcoming mention in the National Review, that rank Thomas Aquinas College among the top colleges in the state and among the top Catholic colleges in the country.

"I wrote a letter a few years ago to every graduate school in which we had two or more graduates enrolled and asked about the intellectual formation of our students," he said. "I got 33 letters back. Of those, 32 said that our students are the very best students they have or among the very best students they have. It was a delight to go to the mailbox and get the letters."

With so much praise coming his way, Dillon doesn't expect to implement any major changes.

"We're very indebted to Dr. McArthur for what he's done over these last 20 years and I intend to devote myself to the same things he's been devoted to," Dillon said.

"I expect the school to grow. I do think it would be a good thing for it to grow at a pace that's reasonable, gradual."

Dillon said there probably will be minor changes in the order in which the Great Books are read, or a book might be added or subtracted from the reading list, but there shouldn't be any changes in curriculum.

One thing that will change personally for Dillon is that he will have to reduce his teaching load. He has been teaching three classes, but after he becomes president he will have to cut back to one, at least for a while.

He said he has no intention of giving up teaching because he enjoys above all else the interaction with the students and other faculty members.

"We're all engaged in trying to discover the truth in the various areas. It's not easy. It takes a lot of thinking, a lot of discussion, a lot of argument," he said.

"You're really trying to inquire with the students. I find that the more I do it, the more I learn and the more I see."

UP CLOSE THOMAS E. DILLON

Job status: Incoming president of Thomas Aquinas College.

On the difference between being college president and college dean: "Now I feel responsible for the whole institution."

Favorite part of the Thomas Aquinas curriculum: "You know Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like? That's how I feel about the parts of the curriculum."

Hobbies: Photography and basketball. Particularly basketball. "I've played basketball almost all my life. It's a way to interact with the students outside the classroom. When we're down there, we're down there to play ball."

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