SANTA PAULA — At a school where students probe the western world's greatest minds, 23-year-old Aliya Peerzada says that college officials are being awfully small-minded for expelling her for spending nights with her fiancee.
Angered by the decision by Thomas Aquinas College, the Ojai resident is suing the acclaimed Catholic school for invading her privacy and violating her civil rights.
For Peerzada, the legal battle is more a matter of principle than a quest for money or academic reinstatement.
"It's just too bad because the school did a lot of good," said Peerzada, the first student to sue the college in its 26-year history. "It's a great education," she said. "They're the ones who showed me to think for yourself, investigate everything, have principles. They're the ones who taught me that."
But school officials, who declined to discuss the lawsuit directly, say rules are rules. And Peerzada broke them.
"The rules are designed to make the intellectual life more possible," said Peter DeLuca III, vice president for finance and administration and one of the college's founders. "We would expel students for behavior they might not be expelled for at other schools. . . . I've always said I'm willing to discuss rules in an unlimited way--until they are broken."
Nestled in the hills of Los Padres National Forest between Santa Paula and Ojai, the 225-student college is regarded as one of the nation's best liberal arts schools. Publications such as Barron's and Money magazine regularly rank it among the best buys in college education, while the National Review has lauded its high academic standards.
Tuition, room and board costs $19,200 a year, but 83% of students receive financial aid. Officials proudly note that one of the college's tenets is that a lack of money should not prevent a qualified student from receiving an education.
Thomas Aquinas is the world's only four-year Catholic college that bases its curriculum solely upon the seminal and often revolutionary writings of some of western civilization's greatest minds.
Cliff Notes are nonexistent. Instead, students go to the source, plowing through the best works of Plato and Aristotle, Keats and de Tocqueville, Marx and Einstein.
In short, the college is intended as an oasis of academic order and tradition in a world where students elsewhere receive credit for such courses as the philosophy of sex and love.
Against this backdrop is a quest for the truth that dictates that the teachings of Kant or Copernicus play second fiddle to the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
"Theology is seen as the queen of the sciences and the other sciences are seen as the handmaidens," said R. Glen Coughlin, college dean and a former student. "We see the faith as a kind of stimulus for the academic life."
As such, the ordered life of the close-knit community borders upon the austere. The intent is to foster reflection and contemplation for subjects that demand rigorous discipline and sustained concentration. The student handbook calls for "exemplary personal conduct" to maintain "the moral atmosphere essential to intellectual pursuits."
"It would be inconsistent to seek high and serious things in class and live outside of class by unruled appetites," reads the student handbook. "It is essential that social order and good habits be achieved and maintained if the purpose of the college is to be achieved."
Rules designed to reinforce that premise include a dress code that bans jeans and requires women to wear dresses of modest length. Curfews limit late-night excursions and only married students are usually permitted to live off campus. Dorms occupied by the opposite sex are off limits, alcohol use brings expulsion, and students and teachers routinely address each other as "Miss" and "Mister" in class.
Peerzada describes herself as "very conservative"--she voted for black Catholic commentator Alan Keyes during the 1996 presidential campaign as a member of the California Republican Assembly. Nonetheless, she discovered that campus culture could be stifling.
A New Hampshire native, Peerzada began attending the college in 1993 after a year at an East Coast prep school en route to what she believed would be an Ivy League education. An older brother had attended Thomas Aquinas and an older sister graduated from the college. Peerzada said she visited the college at age 16 and hated it.
But at age 19, she had a "huge urge" to immerse herself in the sort of education only available at Thomas Aquinas and enrolled.
"It's sort of an education for life," she said. "It's not an education for a career."
After completing the first two years, Peerzada put her academic career on hold to earn money to complete her education. During her year off, she got engaged and moved in with her fiancee.
Upon returning to school, Peerzada spent some nights at her fiancee's house, according to her lawsuit. Staying off campus overnight is permitted, as long as students sign out and do not return to campus after curfew.