Just days after the official announcement that he will soon be out of a job, University of Dallas President Thomas Keefe’s hands shook as he alternately tightened and relaxed his grip on a wooden staff he called his Irish fighting stick.
Sitting on the back patio of his Las Colinas home Monday afternoon, Keefe described his removal as abrupt and suggested the parting was difficult.
“I look forward to going back to my office and getting my sword, and getting my Vince Lombardi bobblehead doll,” Keefe said. “I’m sure that they will afford me that opportunity.”
In his first public comments since the sudden announcement last week that he won’t be UD’s president after this term, Keefe confirmed that he has not been on campus since March 14.
He would not detail why or how this came to be. Instead, he reflected on the time he had spent here.
“The university has been my anchor for eight years,” Keefe said. “I’m a bit adrift right now.”
Keefe cited what he sees as several key accomplishments of his term: growth in enrollment, increased financial stability and new branding among them. More controversial decisions, including last year’s proposed degree completion program and a recent contract discussion with Aramark have gotten more attention from students and alumni dissatisfied with his time leading the university.
Even the accomplishments Keefe is most proud of have drawn criticism, with some saying the changes detract from the school’s emphasis on Catholicism and Western civilization. Keefe maintains that growth, and the financial opportunities it brings, are key to that vision’s survival.
“We were this wonderful university that I was told was the best-kept secret in Texas,” Keefe said. “I spent eight years making sure that wasn’t true.”
The way Keefe carried himself and interacted with others was also a frequent source of comment and concern. The critical Facebook page University of Dallas Alumni for Liberal Education described it as an “alpha male style” of leadership.
Keefe acknowledged some truth in the criticism and suggested it could have contributed to his unexpected departure.
“Eight years of me would get on anybody’s nerves,” he said. “I can be a prima donna; I admit that.”
Laura Quinn, class of ’86, has been designated to represent the board as spokesperson and in interviews with The University News. She said the board will soon form a committee to head the search for a new president, and focus on growing from their 2010 choice to hire Keefe.
Among other attributes, that person will be someone who “seeks input, makes people feel valuable, and enables people to express their opinions,” Quinn said. “They need to take ownership when they express their decisions.”
The president’s current contract, signed June 2016, does not expire until May 31, 2022. But as the sole employee of the Board of Trustees, the president’s contract can be ended for any reason by majority vote of the board’s other members.
The board came to its decision on the evening of April 12, and notified Keefe the next morning, exactly 30 days before the class of 2018’s graduation ceremony, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Cliff Smith said.
Keefe didn’t detail what led to his removal, but he said that he had “a different philosophy” than the board.
Though he has no concrete plans at this time, and has not yet revised his resume, Keefe said he hopes to provide consultation for other Catholic educational institutions who need help raising enrollment and donations.
“I think I’m done being a president,” Keefe said. “Being everyone’s father is exhausting.”
Keefe says his attorney is working with the university to prepare a joint statement that would “address some of the misapprehensions that may have stemmed from last Friday’s communication” from board chair Dr. Thomas Zellers.
The press release, signed by Zellers, was emailed to students and alumni and did not provide a reason for the decision to remove Keefe. It said only that the university “would benefit from a change in leadership in order to continue to grow and maintain its position as one of the nation’s leading Catholic universities.”
That decision didn’t seem to pierce Keefe’s sense that he was the right person to lead UD.
“The way I got to where I am is that I’ve got a big ego, and I believe I know more about this business than anybody else,” Keefe said. “Telling your boss that is sometimes bad for your career.”