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Thomas O'Malley

On the Role of God in the University and of the University in L.A.

March 15, 1998|Jean Merl | Jean Merl covers the South Bay for The Times

From his roomy, high-ceilinged office in the heart of Loyola Marymount University's campus atop a bluff in Westchester, Thomas Patrick O'Malley presides over the largest Catholic university in Southern California, one of the nation's 28 institutions of higher learning run by the Society of Jesus. A Jesuit priest since 1952, O'Malley made his mark as a classicist, theologian, academician and administrator at a half-dozen Catholic universities before taking the reins of Loyola Marymount seven years ago. As a newcomer to California, he arrived in Los Angeles just as the city was beginning to grapple with the highly publicized beating of a black motorist at the hands of white police officers.

Although LMU has never had the visibility of its big neighbors--UCLA, USC and even Cal State L.A.--it has been a steadfast fixture of Los Angeles' civic and cultural life for most of this century. And it became O'Malley's job to steer Loyola Marymount during a period of upheaval and dramatic change in the region it calls home.

Upon his arrival in 1991, O'Malley said he was enthralled by the city's diversity, some of which is reflected in the university itself. Of its nearly 4,000 undergraduates, 55% are white, 21% are Latino, 15% Asian or Pacific Islander and 8% African American. Some 57% are women and about 35%-40% are non-Catholic, O'Malley estimates. Around 80% of undergraduates receive some form of financial assistance, and the university has set aside an additional $34 million--from a recently completed $144-million fund-raising campaign--for student financial help, including a new no-interest loan program.

Helping students meet their college expenses is one way the university can ensure access to a broad mix of students, a goal O'Malley views as central to its mission and consistent with its history. Loyola College was founded in 1911 as an outgrowth of St. Vincent's College. In 1928, it moved to its current 100-acre site overlooking what is now Marina del Rey and became Loyola University two years later. In 1973, the university merged with Marymount College, a Catholic women's institution founded by the sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Loyola Law School, begun in 1920, is still located in downtown Los Angeles.

Born in Milton, Mass., to Irish immigrants, O'Malley earned a master's degree in classical languages at Fordham University before launching an academic career that included earning a doctorate from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, chairing the theology department at Boston College and serving as president of John Carroll University in Ohio.

Now 68, O'Malley announced recently that he will step down as president in the summer of 1999. His campus office, comfortably furnished with sofas and overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcases, seemed an ideal place for reflection on what it means to be a private, religious-oriented university in a diverse, rapidly changing city.


Question: What responsibility does a university have to its home city? Does it have a role to play that is shaped by its location?

Answer: That's a debate that goes all the way back to the '60s, when many activists thought a university should take a real, problem-solving hand in the affairs in the city in which it lived; the problems then being the decay of the inner cities and a growing difficulty in race relations and things of that sort. Many universities did answer that call. Boston College, for example, ran citizens' seminars and brought various factions of the city that normally did not talk to one other together. One the other hand, universities feel that their real role is turning out educated people. In my observation, universities still try to do both, with greater or less success.

Q: What helps define a local university's role in Los Angeles?

A: I don't think that anyone can be a university in Los Angeles without realizing the whole life story of the United States has been the advent of the immigrant and of diversity. There is no city more diverse in the United States than Los Angeles, and a university ought to respond to that. The history of this university has been a history of access for new populations: new populations coming to college and to the law school, especially. The law school was founded [largely] to afford access to people who otherwise would not have had a chance to go to law school.

Q: Do you see other appropriate roles for this university?

A: Some universities have taken an active hand in things like redevelopment, such as what Yale has done in New Haven. I think we, at Loyola Marymount, come down on the other side of the equation, though. We do have a rather new development, the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, by which we try to help shape policy decisions, through opinion polls and also by gathering in archives some of the history of L.A., which we hope to make available for scholarly study. But what we prefer to be offering is the developing of intellectual capital.

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