In 16 years, the University of St. Thomas has grown from a local liberal arts college to a nationally recognized institution. This year, a record number of undergraduates enrolled, and there are more applications from would-be Tommies than ever before.
In October, the largest private school in Minnesota announced a $500 million fundraising drive, kicked off with the largest single gift to a college or university in state history.
The successes are a testament to the ambition and fundraising prowess of the Catholic priest who oversaw it all, the Rev. Dennis Dease, the university's president. Yet for Dease, holiday break couldn't come soon enough.
Dease was panned by many for stifling free speech on campus when he made what he later admitted was a wrongheaded decision not to invite Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu to speak. Then came a series of racist threats against three black undergraduates that dredged up memories of past racial incidents at St. Thomas, and criticism that the school was betraying its Catholic heritage by eliminating an automatic trustee position for the local archbishop.
"If you fly, you know you're going to hit some turbulence," Dease said in a recent interview. "You just hope it's not going to be pure turbulence. There was a period this fall when you wondered when we were going to reach the smooth altitude."
Some of the scrutiny is an inevitable byproduct of the university's rising profile. But some say it goes deeper, to Dease's struggle to navigate the often conflicting demands of big-money donors, Catholics eager to preserve St. Thomas' religious identity, and faculty members espousing tolerance and openness to a wide range of views.
Some say Dease's missteps on the Tutu situation, which he said were a result of not listening to opposing views, were symptomatic of a closed-door leadership style.
"I think it would be wrong to suggest that St. Thomas is having these issues only because it's a Catholic school," said David Landry, a theology professor. "We have them more than most other schools have them. Most other Catholic schools wouldn't have balked at having Tutu on campus. It was uniquely a St. Thomas issue."
The College of St. Thomas was founded in St. Paul in 1885 as a seminary and soon shifted its focus to liberal arts education for young men. Since then, it has grown to offer graduate degrees in business, law and liberal arts, become a co-ed university and added a campus in Minneapolis.
In 1991, Dease, a professor at St. Thomas who was rector at the Basilica of St. Mary, took over with an ambition to create "a truly great urban university," such as Harvard or Boston College. Under his leadership, St. Thomas has greatly expanded its academic offerings into new areas, such as engineering and entrepreneurship.
This year, Dease has turned his attention to fixing the school's biggest weakness: its bank account. St. Thomas' endowment amounted to just more than $300 million in mid-2006, $200 million less than the endowments at two smaller colleges, Carleton and Macalester, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
While the "Opening Doors" campaign will build a new student center, much of the half-billion dollars will be invested, with the interest used to pay for new programs, hire top-notch faculty members and administrators, and provide student financial aid.
"I want to ensure that no student that has the ability is turned away from St. Thomas for financial reasons," Dease said.
When St. Thomas kicked off the fundraising drive in October, it had already raised $310 million -- including an anonymous gift of $50 million and a staggering $60 million from Lee and Penny Anderson.
Bruce Flessner, a fundraising consultant for St. Thomas, said the university's transformation and success in fundraising have been remarkable.
"They're very good at telling a dream and being able to deliver on it," Flessner said. "They've been very good at establishing a club of donors who push each other."
St. Thomas is backed by heavy hitters in the business community. Included on the school's 43-member board of trustees are Target Corp. chairman and CEO Robert Ulrich, Best Buy chairman Richard Schulze, broadcasting magnate Stanley Hubbard, KPMG International chairman Timothy Flynn, lawyer and U.S. Senate candidate Michael Ciresi, and 3M chairman and CEO George Buckley.
"The board is extremely strong. If we've had a secret weapon, that would be in the running," Dease said. "They're very seasoned, talented and they've helped us see a little further down the road than we would normally be able to."
Even as the university's reputation and finances have grown, faculty members have watched with concern as Dease's administration focused on raising money and reassuring Catholics that St. Thomas isn't becoming secular.
Leigh Lawton is a business professor who was involved in a 2005 dispute with the university about whether unmarried couples should be allowed to travel together with students.
"We're not Catholic enough for some people," Lawton said. "But if you become less tolerant and adhere more tightly to some of the tenets of the church, you're moving away from what some people see as the role of an academic institution."
There is a natural tension between the faculty and administration, but many current and former St. Thomas faculty members said what had been a working relationship has deteriorated in the past few years.
The school is in the midst of a "climate study," and Landry expects faculty morale will be at an all-time low.
"We have tremendous problems here," Landry said. "That's not to say that everything is bad; there are a lot of good things about St. Thomas, but there are a lot of people here who are demoralized.
"There have been a bunch of decisions where the faculty was opposed, the staff was opposed and the students were opposed to and it seemed the donors were in favor," he said, which has led to worries that St. Thomas is being steered by donors.
In 2005, a campus visit from conservative lightning rod Ann Coulter resulted in debate on campus that Dease said "tested the limits of civility." This fall, Dease thought he could avoid a similar controversy by opting against hosting the PeaceJam event that will feature Tutu. Dease worried that the South African Anglican archbishop's comments on Israel might offend Jews.
The outcry over Dease's decision made him think twice.
"The Archbishop Tutu experience was humbling. It's a little embarrassing," Dease said. "There was a good cross-section of people that I respected who were all saying, 'Dease, you're wrong.' That gets your attention."
Less than a month after Dease changed course on Tutu, three black women living in the John Paul II dorm were subjected to a series of racial slurs and threatening words that resulted in a security guard being posted outside their door.
Dease's initial reaction was a combination of sadness, disgust and, "Oh, not again."
The last was the result of several race-bias incidents in recent years at St. Thomas, including two others this year.
Administrators say the incidents are not evidence that the campus is an intolerant place.
Said Mark Dienhart, St. Thomas' chief administrative officer: "When you have 11,000-plus students and 1,800 employees, unfortunately you're going to have some knuckleheads in the group. ... We don't create folks like that."
Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478