Once oppressed in Ireland because of his Catholic faith, Dr. Paul O’Reilly is preparing to take the helm at one of America’s most exciting and celebrated Catholic institutions, Thomas Aquinas College.
Current President Dr. Michael McLean will step down at the end of this school year, following the celebration of the college’s 50th anniversary. In 11 years, McLean has successfully strengthened the college despite challenges including wildfires and threats to religious freedom. He led the establishment of a second campus in Massachusetts, providing the same faithfully Catholic, Great Books program that has earned the California institution high marks in secular rankings and the recommendation of The Cardinal Newman Society.
O’Reilly clearly has some big shoes to fill. I recently congratulated him on his selection as the college’s next president, which he says is “a high honor that is quite humbling.”
For O’Reilly, the goals and academic structure at Thomas Aquinas College are pretty much the same today as they were when he attended the college as a student 40 years ago. “I still recognize this college, I still love this college,” O’Reilly says.
But Dr. McLean and his team have made some major advancements, including expanding the Santa Paula, California, campus and quickly establishing a strong foundation in Northfield, Massachusetts.
“It’s a great time to take over,” O’Reilly says. “The college is strong, it’s growing and has expanded to the East Coast. Don’t ask us why we have campuses in California and Massachusetts. That’s God’s plan. We needed to expand, because we had more students applying than we could accept.”
The mission and the vision remain the same, and that’s what O’Reilly wants to maintain: a classical liberal arts education unlike any other in the world, that forms students to appreciate and understand the true, the good and the beautiful.
“We can provide a serious Catholic formation, not just in philosophy and theology but also in various other areas,” O’Reilly says. “To see the impact that we’re having is exciting to me.”
The choice of O’Reilly, an alumnus who has served the college for 30 years as a faculty member and then vice president for advancement, is a great reminder that a college’s impact is only as good as its people and their devotion to its mission. O’Reilly recognizes that fact. He believes that one of the most important aspects of maintaining the vision and the mission of the college is the hiring of good faculty.
“Schools go astray when the faculty are not of one mind of the mission of the college,” he says. “The faculty know what we’re about, and they support it.”
One of O’Reilly’s strongest supporters will be Dr. McLean, who returns to the faculty after formally handing over the presidency.
O’Reilly’s own journey to California started in Northern Ireland, where his family was persecuted for their Catholic faith by Protestant extremists. He and his siblings were adopted by their aunt and uncle in Canada, following the tragic death of his mother in a car accident.
God led him to Thomas Aquinas College, exemplifying the important role that faithful Catholic education can have in a person’s life. I am excited to see how he steers the college into this new chapter of its history. I have great admiration for his predecessor, having observed and worked alongside Dr. McLean on Catholic education issues for the past several years, and I have every reason to expect that Dr. O’Reilly will continue in the same direction.
May God bless both these men for their admirable dedication to forming young people in wisdom and virtue, and may he grant Thomas Aquinas College many more years of providing extraordinary education.
This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.