The University of Dallas has appointed a new president who is committed to maintaining the school’s Catholic identity, a curriculum steeped in the Western tradition, and academic excellence in all fields of study.
Thomas Hibbs, a philosopher who serves as dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, was named the new president in mid-March. He will be taking over for the interim president, John Plotts, on July 1.
For Hibbs, the appointment is something of a homecoming. He first arrived at the University of Dallas as a seminarian, completing his undergraduate degree in 1982. He earned his master’s in philosophy at the school in 1983. Hibbs told the Register that he always dreamed of returning as a faculty member, but never could have imagined coming back as an administrator, let alone the president.
“It’s really a wonderful thing for which I am deeply grateful,” Hibbs said.
“Tom Hibbs is an alumni of University of Dallas and has a unique perspective on the educational experience at UD. He has a great respect for the core as well as traditional Catholic-based education,” said Thomas Zellers, the chairman of the board of trustees for the university.
“Tom Hibbs is a person of remarkable grace, wit and wisdom. He makes wherever he is a more interesting place,” said Darin Davis, the vice president for university mission at Baylor. “He puts people at ease and draws them together, which is one of the most important things that good leaders must do. His grasp of the challenges facing American higher education will serve the University of Dallas well precisely because he sees the resources of the Catholic faith as pointing a way forward.”
Hibbs got his start as a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College and then taught at Boston College. In 2003, he became the dean of Baylor’s Honors College. Hibbs told the Register that he viewed the University of Dallas as a model for how to pass on the Christian intellectual tradition. He said the school is distinctive among faithfully Catholic schools in its combination of a commitment to high-level research and maintenance of a traditional core curriculum.
“I think that element of the University of Dallas education is something that is to be treasured and promoted,” Hibbs said. “Never have we needed more a sense of how the resources of our tradition can inform who and what we are today than at this moment, when there is a deep amnesia about the past, about the resources of the past, and we live in a time of great questions and great crises.”
The University of Dallas has long been viewed as a reliably faithfully Catholic college. That reputation was shaken somewhat in the 2000s, when Father Milam Joseph implemented a series of reforms that were criticized as making the school more like other Catholic colleges that have been more tolerant of dissent and heterodoxy. One particular area of concern was the new School of Ministry, which had hosted speakers who challenged Church teaching on women’s ordination.
Developments over the last decade have assuaged such fears. Most of the teachers in the School of Ministry whose orthodoxy was at issue departed, while several new trustee appointments signaled the university’s commitment to Catholic teaching.
“There are potential pressures from outside forces that would want to have Catholic institutions abandon their core mission or adopt a secularist vision of the human person,” Hibbs said. “It takes a kind of calm courage and clear vision as to what it means to be a Catholic university today.” As president, Hibbs said a key focus will be on building collaboration among the many different areas of the university. “We’re going to need to work together at the University of Dallas and have all the parts pulling in the same direction,” Hibbs said.
Hibbs said he has gained valuable experience working with several different areas of the university as a dean at Baylor. In his previous position, Hibbs also earned vital expertise on the financial side: Hibbs says he has experience in raising money for scholarships and faculty development and is leaving Baylor’s Honors College with an endowment of more than $15 million.
Zellers said Hibbs’ combined experience as a scholar, teacher in Catholic universities and administrator is what made him such a compelling candidate. “This means he has mastered the tools to interact effectively with students, faculty, administrators and staff. This depth and experience in academia and leadership made him a fantastic candidate to lead UD over what I hope will be at least the next decade,” Zellers said.
Hibbs is still an active scholar, with two forthcoming books — one on Jacques Maritain and art, and another on liberal education. That builds on a résumé that includes three books on St. Thomas Aquinas and 30 scholarly articles. Hibbs has also written on the relationship between philosophy and popular culture and is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture and Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption. “It’s an advantage for me in a world of higher education where administration and faculty tend to be on completely separate tracks, so much so that they come frequently to lose an understanding of the other world,” Hibbs said.
As dean, Hibbs still found time for the classroom, as he co-teaches at Baylor a course on friendship with his wife, Stacey Hibbs. That has kept him in touch with students. “I think I have a sense of where students are today and how to meet them where they are and then move them forward, in terms of their academic development, but also in terms of the larger questions and the questions about the relationship of faith and reason,” Hibbs said.
Stacey Hibbs will be taking a position in the political science department at the University of Dallas. Hibbs, who will also have a position in the philosophy department, plans to co-teach another course with her, allowing him to maintain a connection with students.
“Tom has, as you would expect any good teacher to have, a solid grasp of the subject matter he is teaching. But what sets him apart is his ability to take very complex arguments and present them in a way that is accessible and interesting,” Stacey Hibbs said. “This is apparent when he is talking about the philosophical implications of various films or when he is discussing Aquinas.”
She recalled one lecture in particular that her husband gave to 200 undergraduates. Over the course of 50 minutes, without the use of notes, Hibbs spoke about the topic of Aquinas on moral debts without losing the attention of students. “For a week after the presentation I had students coming up to me, remarking on how good his presentation was and indicating that his words had left an impression on them.”
Stephen Beale writes from
Providence, Rhode Island.