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Our Rich History: President David Armstrong grows college — builds enrollment, sports, housing, more

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 50 of our series “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021

David Armstrong, Thomas More College’s non-traditional (holding a JD rather than a PhD) fourteenth president had many ideas and dreams. Whether this former college offensive lineman and later football coach was dressing in uniform to join in blocking drills at a football practice or driving his presidential golf cart all over campus, it was certain that he was always thinking outside the box about what he could do next to boost enrollment and enhance retention.

President David Armstrong joined in some blocking drills with the Thomas More football team during practice, disguised in a uniform. (TMU Archives)

Soon after President Armstrong’s arrival, Cliff Peale of the Cincinnati Enquirer said of him that “he has been living in the dorm (prior to his family’s arrival) and has been all over the college’s maintenance staff to spruce up the campus,” including with more “weed-whacking.” He added that, “the curbs and light posts are no longer generic colors. Now they’re Thomas More blue.”

Almost with a sense of wonderment, Peale then described how “President Armstrong has brought sandwiches for the support staff and maintenance staff,” before concluding that “as a former football player and coach, part cheerleader, part salesman and part higher education advocate … he charged into the Thomas More job with the same vigor.”

In other words, from the beginning it was clear that David A. Armstrong, was a “man in a hurry” (Cliff Peale, “Armstrong works to help TMC attract more students,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 18, 2013).

The result, among other achievements, as noted elsewhere, were both an enrollment and a program transformation:

• A 36% increase in traditional undergraduate enrollment.
• A 17% increase in overall headcount.
• The three largest incoming classes in the college’s history, while increasing high school GPA and ACT scores of traditional first-time students.
• The most students living on campus in the college’s history.
• A 68% increase in dual credit (Gemini Program, with high schools) enrollment.
• A 30% increase in summer enrollment.
• 2 new master’s degree programs.
• 10 new bachelor’s degree programs (including Special Education, Law, and Marine Biology).
• An increase in online programs, including the first fully online MBA in the greater Cincinnati area.
• 10 new intercollegiate athletic programs: Men’s Wrestling, Women’s Lacrosse, Bowling (M/W), Swimming and Diving (M/W), Rugby (M/W), Archery and Shooting (M/W).
• New (N) or expanded (E) co-curricular programs included: Marching band (N), Dance Team (N), Villa Players (E), Pep Band (E), Choir (E), Cheer (E), and Mascot (E).

In 2016 the Thomas More women’s basketball team won the NCAA championship. (TMU Archives)

Not surprisingly, President Armstrong’s extra emphasis on expanded athletic teams and co-curriculars not only had an impact on enrollment growth but also resulted in more success on the playing fields and courts: 2 NCAA National Championship Titles in Women’s Basketball; 3 Final Four appearances; 35 President’s Athletic Conference (PAC) championships; and 2 PAC Men’s All Sports trophies (David A. Armstrong, JD “Legacy of Leadership” Document, TMU Archives).

There were other signature initiatives and achievements that were either completed or begun during those years, and have continued since.

The first was the Thomas More Success Center which began with a matching grant challenge. Helped by a special $8 million endowment, the “Center helps propel students to accomplish their goals during and after college with services such as career planning and academic coaching.” With continued usage and growth, this center is now invaluable to the success of many of Thomas More’s students.

Second, in an area of particular interest and expertise for President Armstrong (higher education compliance), an Institute for Higher Education Compliance was inaugurated in 2017. This first event attracted 120 professionals. The goal was to “help small schools navigate the complexities of compliance.”

Third, and of particular importance, was the creation of the Institute for Religious Liberty (IRL) in 2015. Inspired by the vision of William T. Robinson III and his wife Joan, both alumni, the goal was to “infuse the President’s (and others’) passion for Catholic Identity into a forum to educate and celebrate the constitutional privilege and right to freely worship and practice religion.”

The fall of 2014 saw the inaugural season for the marching band. (TMU Archives.)

During his year as the president of the American Bar Association (ABA), with its related travels, Robinson saw a need for such an institute, the first of its kind at an American Catholic college or university. Soon after Year I, Dr. Ray Hebert assumed the role of executive director of the IRL, and the programming added a focus of “prompting civil dialogue” as one of its priorities: first with an Interfaith Event every spring. With Robinson’s passing in 2018, a major fund drive led by board member Robert Sathe resulted in an endowment for programming and the naming of the institute after William T. Robinson III. An ecumenical executive committee, which included Joan Robinson, has been invaluable in working with Dr. Hebert for the planning and execution of two programs per year (and three during the centennial year of 2021-2022).

Also begun during President Armstrong’s administration was the Ethical Leadership Studies Program, with an undergraduate and graduate component. The goal from the beginning was to “combine business ethics and entrepreneurship.” Playing a major role in its structure and curriculum originally was Dr. John Wolper. It is still flourishing in the 2020s under the capable leadership of Dr. Anthony Schumacher.
Interestingly, it was in 2017, as many of his plans were reaching fruition, that President Armstrong, according to Cincinnati Business Courier, “extended his contract through 2022.”

In that same article, by Andy Brownfield, he spoke of “apartments for students above popular restaurants like Chipotle alongside more upscale dining options” (and above all), “more than anything he sees a plan that will save the 95-year-old Catholic four-year college from the fate of so many others like it across the country.” His dream was to create not only housing and amenities for students but to “create a destination for education, for health and fitness, for worship, for culture that includes condos and a hotel for visitors, parents, and athletic teams” to rival facilities at nearby Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati (Andy Brownfield, “Thomas More President Armstrong Envisions a ‘cultural destination,” Cincinnati Business Courier, November 4, 2016).

Under David Armstrong’s presidency, both men and women’s rugby were brought to Thomas More. (TMU Archives)

Not long afterwards, however, President Armstrong was courted by a larger Catholic university in Miami, Florida called St. Thomas University. Many on campus remembered his words from five years earlier when he spoke of bringing a five-year vision to Thomas More College and, as ambitious as it was, much of it had been carried out. In an interview with Sarah Brookbank of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Armstrong stated what he had set out to do at Thomas More and that, while he and his wife Leslie loved their time at Thomas More, they were “excited to begin a new chapter at St. Thomas University in Miami” (Sarah Brookbank, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati.com, May 24, 2018).

Later, in his own “Last Salute” to Thomas More College,” President Armstrong began by saying that, for him and his family,” the past five years had been a blessing.”

He re-emphasized his initial goals when he added that: “I believe the work accomplished during my tenure at TMC will serve to guide the College as it moves forward. A number of endeavors rooted in our Strategic Plan are helping to secure the College’s future at a moment of adversity for the nation’s liberal arts schools” (“A Last Salute to Thomas More College”–Legacy of Leadership Document, TMU Archives). That he had largely succeeded was validated by testimonials from Marc J. Neltner, chair of the board of trustees at that time, Garren Colvin, president and CEO of St. Elizabeth Healthcare, and especially Bishop Roger Foys of the Covington Diocese and Chancellor of Thomas More College who was quoted as saying, “I am grateful to President Armstrong for all he has done to enhance our Thomas More College in his short time as President … his impact will be felt for years to come” (Sarah Brookbank article).

One of the goals for David Armstrong was to create new housing for students.

In his “Last Salute,” President Armstrong closed his remarks with a sense of “gratitude” to the board of trustees, to Bishop Roger Foys and the Diocese of Covington, to the faculty and staff and, most of all, to the students and alumni who had impressed him every day he served as their President. He summarized: “You are the reason we do the work we do.”

His final words in that last letter were the same as at every presentation he made during his tenure “God Bless and Go Saints” (President David A. Armstrong, “A Last Salute to Thomas More College,” Legacy of Leadership Document, TMU Archives).

Reflecting on several occasions, I heard President Armstrong refer to a mentor’s advice that “you’ve got to leave it better than you found it.” If that was his goal, he could move on to his next challenge at St. Thomas University knowing that he had done just that for Thomas More College, soon to become a university, a process that had clearly begun during his final years.

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 and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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