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Our Rich History: Pres. Richard A. DeGraff and the early 1970s at Thomas More College; ups and downs

By Ray Hebert
Special to NKyTribune

Part 5 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021

When Dr. Richard DeGraff began his term as the first lay president at Thomas More College, on July 1, 1971, the college was financially troubled. Most of DeGraff’s twenty years in higher education were spent in university development and fundraising, so he seemed to be the perfect choice as the new president. He took over from Msgr. John F. Murphy, who had been president for the previous twenty years.

President Richard DeGraff, first lay president of Thomas More College. (Photo courtesy for Thomas More Archives)

The Cincinnati Enquirer of Saturday April 24, 1971, stated that Dr. DeGraff was chosen from 250 candidates in a national search. The article noted that “DeGraff has a doctorate earned at Indiana University in education, specializing in college and university administration, where he had also earned his master’s. His BA in music was from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and his development work had been at the Tri-State College in Agola, IN, De Paul University, and the University of Chicago. Rounding out an appealing mix of experiences before arriving at Thomas More College, he had also served since 1968 as the Dean of Academic Affairs at St. Procopius College near Chicago.”

In the final pages of her Retrospect and Vista, Sr. Irmina Saelinger, O.S.B., PhD quotes Msgr. Murphy upon the reflection of Dr. DeGraff as the seventh president of the College:

“The election of Dr. Richard DeGraff will hopefully join a talented and vigorous educator and administrator to a most fruitful distinguished institution. He will find at Thomas More, a Trustees, faculty, staff and students who will welcome his leadership and collaboration in these exciting times” (p. 82).

Sister Irmina then added that, just one month before Dr. DeGraff’s first day, ground had been broken for the four-story science center on June 1, 1971. The groundbreaking had been one of Monsignor Murphy’s last official acts. In his words, the building was described as “a tribute to the students who have made accomplishments in science and to the splendid leadership of the faculty” (Retrospect and Vista, p. 82). Murphy then announced that he had accepted the Office of Vice President for University Relations of the Catholic University of America, effective August 15, 1971, and would be leaving for Washington, D.C. soon afterwards.

Construction of the Science Center, opened in June 1971. (Courtesy of the Thomas More University Archives)

On August 23, 1971, Dr. DeGraff delivered his first address to the faculty. Just as he had said to the search committee, back in the spring of 1971, he reiterated the importance of a united effort in a common goal. He emphasized that society needs “the well-educated man and woman whose education is based on a Christian framework.” On both occasions, as remembered in the college’s CHELSEAN, the newsletter on campus for faculty and staff, and by Sr. Irmina, Dr. DeGraff pointed out three criteria that he was strongly commending to the faculty as vital to the achievement of the goals for Thomas More College:

1. Competent Scholarship and teaching;

2. Commitment to our Christian Heritage;

3. Dedicated concern for students as evidenced by counseling and advising services.

In closing that address, he asked the faculty to be as committed to the great challenges facing Thomas More College as he would be (Archives copy of Dr. DeGraff’s first address to the faculty on August 23, 1971 and Retrospect and Vista, p. 82).

In those remarks, Dr. DeGraff was already sensitive to the opening of a new nearby public institution to be called Northern Kentucky University, formerly Northern Kentucky State College. Thomas More would no longer be the only postsecondary institution in Northern Kentucky. In that context, and with that competition in mind, there were many developments on campus between 1971 and 1977 that indicated that Dr. DeGraff’s priorities remained in the forefront, some of which will be discussed at some length in future articles. They include:

1. Renaissance ’71 (see NKyTribune Our Rich History here) which signified a rebirth as the college looked to its past (the first 50 years) as a source of inspiration and examined the future to establish a new perspective on the mission of Thomas More College. There were fifteen events associated with this 50th anniversary celebration which attracted literally thousands of graduates and friends to participate in social, cultural, spiritual, and intellectual activities over the nine-month academic year period of 1971-1972;

President DeGraff’s first address to the faculty. (Courtesy of the Thomas More University Archives)

2. The Biology Field Station, at which a research team headed by Sr. Mary Laurence Budde, SND, PhD, conducted a microbial analysis of the Ohio River under an $18,000 grant from the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company;

3. The progressive approach to the institution’s Freshman program and Core Curriculum called the Venture Program and the parallel Integrative Councils;

4. A multi-year National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for $150,000 received in July 1973, which was carried out by an Integrative Humanities Council headed by Dr. Francis Bremer of the Department of History;

5. In the final semester prior to Dr. DeGraff’s May 1978; departure, the college hosted a week-long Quincentennial Conference honoring St. Thomas More on his 500th birthday;

6. Also, in DeGraff’s final year, an AIDP grant of $1,300,000 was announced on June 29, 1977 to be distributed over three years, with economics Professor George Mongon as the Coordinator.

The breakdown for the latter would include funds for a: Center for Experiential Learning and Career Development, a Learning Resource Center, a Counseling Service Center, and a College Grant Management and Evaluation Center. It also included the creation of several new majors, namely a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a Computer Science major, and a Criminal Justice Major.

Of course, as is sometimes the case, the positive results of a period can emerge out of periods of difficulty. In this case, Dr. DeGraff’s early years were also dominated by struggles with the faculty. In a letter dated August 14, 1973, a vote of no confidence in President DeGraff was brought forward by the faculty. As stated in the letter, the “College is now faced with a serious organizational problem. Cohesiveness, morale, effective resource utilization, goal formulation and communications are at critical levels.”

With even stronger language, in referring to two years of disagreements, the letter specified a “significant lack of competence in President Richard DeGraff, in multiple areas: leadership evaluation, planning, shared decision making, functional organization, professional relationships, and institutional direction” (Faculty letter with multiple signatures, submitted to the Thomas More Board of Trustees on August 14, 1973).

On November 19, 1973, the college’s Board of Trustees responded in a press release that supported Dr. DeGraff, noting that “the generalized statements contained in the faculty letter have not been supported by specific details,” while affirming that “Dr. DeGraff has, in general, conducted the Office of the President in accordance with the instructions of the Trustees and the stated purpose and goals of the college.” Reminding the faculty of Dr. DeGraff’s five-year contract, the board then “reconfirmed the confidence they showed in Dr. DeGraff when he was unanimously elected in 1971” (TMC 1973 Press Release, Jim Ott, PR director).

Charles Deters (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives)

The relationships improved soon after, at least until a budgetary freeze was placed “on all non-salary spending” in April 1974. To be more specific, on April 2, 1974, the letter to all departmental chairmen and administrators announced that “until further notice, a budget freeze is placed on all purchases not absolutely necessary to your essential purchases.” In a later letter dated May 2, 1974, Dr. DeGraff explained the financial difficulties as he saw them by saying that “there was a serious disruption this past academic year in our fundraising endeavors. This was caused by the statement of ‘No confidence’ in the President. It has not only impeded my personal attention to this vital activity, but also has made potential donors leery of contributing to the institution.”

While several timely grants improved the finances of Thomas More, they did little to mend the differences between the president and the faculty. There were some ongoing issues, especially after the Board of Trustees renewed Dr. DeGraff’s contract for one year in 1977. However, the board was responsive to the seriousness of the concerns as reflected in its decision to place its board chair, Charles Deters (a successful local attorney), in a mentoring position during Dr. DeGraff’s final year.

Several successes in 1977 and 1978 would allow Dr. DeGraff to exit on his own terms. In June 1977 he announced a major AIDP Grant of $1,300,000 and in February, 1978, Thomas More College hosted many of the leading St. Thomas More/Tudor England scholars from around the U.S. as speakers, led by Professor J.H. Hexter of Yale University (author of More’s Utopia who served as the keynote speaker). The Quincentennial Conference was coordinated by Dr. Ray Hebert of the History Department, with support from the Academic Affairs Division.

On July 18, 1977, Dr. DeGraff wrote, “on July 1, of this year I began my seventh year as the seventh President of Thomas More College.” His letter then discussed the challenges that had been posed “by the opening of Northern Kentucky University,” as well as successes of his term, including the $1,300,000, 3-year AIDP grant. He admitted that the divisiveness internally had been his greatest difficulty as he tried to balance the interests of the faculty, the Board of Trustees, and the community. He thanked those who supported him and said that he was optimistic for the future of Thomas More’s solid and stable foundation on which to launch the next era. In his words:

“Thomas More College will not be so concerned with survival as with success. This is a time when we can all be slightly confident and somewhat optimistic. Obviously, we must ever guard our accomplishments and be aware of the problems of the past. If we lose sight of our history, we shall forever repeat its errors. But we are now prepared in this 500th year of the birth of Sir Thomas More to be a primary champion of his principles, ethics, and values.”

With that, Dr. Richard A. DeGraff then announced: “My contractual obligations as President of Thomas More College are completed on June 30, 1978. All of the objectives that I set for this college in 1971 have been accomplished . . . I am satisfied in my effort for our God, this community and my College” (Letter from Dr. Richard DeGraff to members of the Board of Trustees, July 18, 1977). A new president, Dr. Robert Giroux, would arrive at Thomas More College for the academic year of 1978-1979.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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