UD’s new president: a defender of liberal tradition and teaching

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Dr. Thomas Hibbs addresses students at a Baylor Honors college "Invitation to Excellence" event in January 2019. Photo courtesy of Ryan Both.

After months of anticipation, the University of Dallas’ Board of Trustees announced today its choice of ’83 alumnus Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs as the ninth president of the university. Previously the dean of Baylor’s Honors College, Hibbs is UD’s first alumnus president, having obtained his B.A. in literature and M.A. in philosophy from UD before going on to the University of Notre Dame for his M.M.S. and Ph.D. in medieval studies.

Hibbs will begin his role as president on July 1, according to the March 13 UD press release.

Hibbs is a prominent writer and cultural critic, as well as an experienced administrator. He has been at Baylor University since 2003, where he served as its new Honors College’s first dean and taught in the Great Texts Program, the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, and the graduate program in philosophy. Before that, he taught at Boston College for 13 years and tutored at Thomas Aquinas College for three years.

Hibbs has written on film, theater, art and higher education for major media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Hibbs has also appeared on multiple NPR radio shows. He has published three books on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, as well as multiple books and articles on a variety of other philosophic and cultural subjects.

Hibbs is vocal about his views on liberal arts education. In a summer 2017 article published in Modern Age, he criticized contemporary higher education for focusing on teaching technical skills rather than focusing on character formation.

“The best cure is a return to the careful reading of those texts that offer simultaneously training in skills and an initiation into the practices constitutive of human freedom,” Hibbs wrote.

Hibbs emphasized the value of a Catholic liberal arts education in a Feb. 14, 2016 article in Catholic World Report.

Catholic schools ought to be places where students can receive simultaneously the highest level of academic challenge and the encouragement and opportunity to develop a deep, articulate, and robust adult Catholic faith,” he wrote.

Hibbs also warned against prioritizing what he called the “external goods” of education over the “internal goods” of intellectual development in a 2010 BYU Studies Quarterly article.

“The external goods are bigger endowments, rankings, numbers of publications in peer-reviewed journals,” Hibbs wrote in the article. “Those things help, and we cannot discount them, but when we focus more on those things than the internal goods, we become corrupt as an institution.”

Hibbs also spoke out against higher education’s “exclusive reliance on the research ideal” in a Fall 2014 UD Philosophy Department alumni newsletter. He wrote that this model neglects important questions about human life that students should be exploring.

Hibbs also condemns professors who focus exclusively on personal research goals.

“The laissez-faire attitude of students conspires with the libertarianism of research-oriented professors: both groups want to be left alone to pursue personal goals,” Hibbs wrote in the newsletter. “Professors who do not see teaching as a mission or noble calling are ill-equipped … to shape the lives of students.”

In the same newsletter, Hibbs looked back on his UD education, recognizing it as a model for liberal arts education. He wrote that UD provides an education that responds to deeper questions and longings, has a unified curriculum and cultivates a community of faculty and students who converse with each other inside and outside the classroom.

“We will spend our entire lives trying to catch up to the education we received as undergraduates at the University of Dallas,” he wrote.

“Dr. Hibbs distinguished himself by his extraordinary dedication to and articulation of UD’s mission,” Search Committee Chair and Vice Chairman of the Board Richard Husseini is quoted as saying in the UD press release.

“I know the culture and how students can be formed by it, as I certainly was during my years in Irving,” Hibbs said in the same press release.

Hibbs’ experience at UD also created fond personal memories.

“Each return trip [to UD] is an occasion for nostalgia, for a flood of memories, with particular buildings and even specific classrooms calling to mind teachers, books, arguments, and friendships,” Hibbs wrote in the newsletter. “I have somewhat foggier but no less cherished memories of the locations on campus where we consumed really bad beer and talked and laughed till dawn.”

A good sense of humor is one of Hibbs’ personal traits, said History Professor Dr. Thomas Jodziewicz, who taught Hibbs in his spring 1982 American Civilization II class.

“He made an impression,” Jodziewicz recalled. “He came to see me about some of the readings; students don’t always do that sort of thing.”

Jodziewicz said he has “bumped into” Hibbs occasionally over the past years.

“I might have teased him about the grade [in the class], but it didn’t lead to his not getting ahead,” Jodziewicz said with a laugh.

“I think he would be an extraordinarily wonderful choice,” Jodziewicz added.

Long-time philosophy professor and Cistercian Fr. James Lehrberger knew Hibbs when Hibbs was pursuing his master’s degree at UD. Sitting in his office surrounded by bookcases, Lehrberger put down a review of Hibbs’ latest book to share his memories.

Hibbs is “very bright and personable,” Lehrberger said, adding that he is “personally my first choice.”

Lehrberger highly values Hibbs’ scholarship. He has assigned a chapter from Hibbs’ work entitled “Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles” to his graduate students.

Since the presidency of Dr. Donald Cowan from 1962-77, “we’ve not had a president who is both a superior academic, has strong administrative experience, and [is] somebody who can operate outside the Bubble,” Lehrberger said of Hibbs.

These presidents may have had two of these qualities but not all three, Lehrberger said.

Fr. Roch Kereszty, also a theology professor and Cistercian, had a similar reaction. Kereszty knows of Hibbs and heard him give a lecture at UD.

“I think that’s wonderful, I don’t think UD has had any president like this for a long time,” Kereszty said.

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