A Catholic Miracle in Shangri-La

Today, it’s the Shangri-la of college campuses. But it was not always so. The Catholics who founded Thomas Aquinas College in 1969 were laymen taking on an enormous challenge, unheard of at a time when Catholic schools were universally administered by the clergy. And the story of how they established this inspiring Catholic college nestled in the foothills of the Topatopa Mountains, at the entrance to the Los Padres National in the teeth of the enormous upheavals of the late 1960s is the stuff of movie plots.

Anne Forsyth’s entire life has deeply involved with this amazing story. The daughter of John Schaeffer, one of TAC’s redoubtable founding board members, today Anne is the Director of College Relations there. In this interview, Anne graciously conducts REGINA readers on a guided tour of this modern day Catholic miracle.

REGINA: From the perspective of 50 years later, what inspired the founders to take on this mammoth project?

ANNE FORSYTH: The period of the 1960s was a time of great tumult in the United States, one that had devastating effects on the country’s institutions and mores. Its ravages could be seen perhaps nowhere more clearly than on college campuses. Truth gave way to skepticism and relativism, and expressions such as “free love” and “question authority” became the catchphrases of student life.

REGINA: In Catholic colleges, as well?

ANNE FORSYTH: Catholic colleges were not immune to these influences. Venerable institutions that for many scores of years had faithfully passed on the intellectual patrimony of the Church began to adopt the diluted curricula, methods, and aims of their secular counterparts. Not only was campus life at many of these institutions succumbing to the permissiveness of the time, a long-standing commitment to Catholic liberal education was quickly disappearing.

REGINA: How did Catholic colleges react?

ANNE FORSYTH: In 1967, against this backdrop, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, convened a group of prominent Catholic educators in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. Their aim was to chart a new course for Catholic higher education in America, one that would resemble all too well that of their secular counterparts. The meeting resulted in a document entitled a “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University.”  

Hoping to garner the kind of reputation for academic excellence enjoyed by secular institutions of higher learning, the statement declared, “The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” (emph. added) Going even further, it stated that the Catholic university “should carry on a continual examination of all aspects and all activities of the Church and should objectively evaluate them.”

In other words, where once the measure of the Catholic university was the Magisterium of the Church, now the Catholic university would not only be its own judge, but in an audacious upending of the tradition, it would also be the measure of the Church. Truly, this was a watershed moment for Catholic higher education in the United States.

REGINA: Ah, so they thought they could garner more prestige in the academy outside the Catholic world with this?

ANNE FORSYTH: Implicit in this declaration of autonomy was a deeply flawed understanding of the meaning of freedom. The teachings of the Catholic Church had for centuries been understood as a guide in the pursuit of truth, assisting those engaged in rigorous intellectual inquiry and bolstering their pursuit of knowledge about nature, man, and God. The Land O’Lakes Statement, however, asserted the opposite – that the truths of the Faith were instead an impediment to legitimate, academic inquiry.

REGINA: So, how did this contribute to the beginnings of TAC?

ANNE FORSYTH: This notion captured the attention of the founders of Thomas Aquinas College, themselves professors at this turbulent time, and it galvanized their desire to found a new institution that would embody St. Anselm’s description of the Catholic’s quest for wisdom, “faith seeking understanding.” In 1969, they published what would become the governing document of a new college. Entitled A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Education, it articulated an alternative view of the Catholic intellectual life, one that echoes Christ’s teachings that He “is the way, the truth, and the life,” and that the “Truth shall set you free.” 

In a key section of the Proposal, our founders describe the Faith as a “light … which illumines understanding and serves as an indispensable guide in the intellectual life….Contrary to what is often assumed, liberal education does not take place in spite of or even apart from the Christian faith. Rather, the Christian student, because of his faith, can be liberally educated in the most perfect and complete way.” Thus reasserting fidelity to the teaching Church as its foundation, Thomas Aquinas College opened its doors in 1971.

REGINA: With university education widely available at affordable prices at that time, what you’re your founders think there was a market for TAC’s offering?

ANNE FORSYTH: To be honest, our founders did not know how much of a market there would be for the kind of college they were establishing. They publicized it in both the Catholic and secular press, held regional meetings to raise awareness of the school — and they prayed. They were united in the conviction that if God wanted the College’s success, and they did nothing to impede His will, the school would indeed attract students well-suited to the rigorous program they had designed — four years of mathematics, four years of natural science, two of Latin, and four of philosophy and theology. They believed that the mass apostasy of the 1960s had put the need for authentic, genuinely Catholic education into high relief and that there would indeed be families who would sacrifice heroically to obtain it for their children.

REGINA: So, what happened?

ANNE FORSYTH: The first year (1971) saw some 33 young men and women enroll, a number of whom already had undergraduate and even graduate degrees in hand, some from prestigious institutions. They were attracted to the school by its orthodoxy and by its unique academic program — the breadth of the curriculum, the use of original texts (the Great Books) rather than textbooks, and Socratic discussions rather lectures. These students found themselves more engaged intellectually than they had ever been, and those with degrees found the pursuit of truth across the disciplines more satisfying than the specialized study or training they had done at other institutions.

REGINA: Okay, a great start! What happened next?

ANNE FORSYTH: The next 20 years or so saw classes of similar size, and enrollment grew to 150 or so. As the College grew in size, so also did it in reputation for orthodoxy and academic excellence, drawing students from across the country. Interestingly, from the beginning, the school was national, not regional in nature: even now a steady one-third of the student body comes from the College’s home state of California while an equally steady forty percent comes from east of the Mississippi. In the late 80s, the College undertook a campaign to increase enrollment steadily to its maximum level of 370, which it achieved in 2007. And in recent years, we have had a growing waiting list.

REGINA: Was better academics one reason for starting TAC? 

ANNE FORSYTH: Certainly. Until 1825, most institutions of higher education offered much the same kind of program that we offer now — the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric); the Quadrivium (geometry,  arithmetic, astronomy, and music); natural science, philosophy, and theology (because most colleges were faith-based). Courses were prescribed for students who essentially followed the same curriculum, with little or no variation. Specialization was undertaken only at the postgraduate level.

In 1825, Harvard introduced the elective system, allowing for choice in the study of modern languages. By 1885, the majority of classes taken by students at that revered institution would be elective. In the field of higher education, this was a revolution, one that has had reverberations throughout the country over the last 200 years.

We are now at the point that most schools require very little in terms of “core” studies. Liberal arts programs have been gutted of their mathematics and science content, and courses such as “Queer Musicology” and “The American Vacation” take their place. Specialization and job-training predominate, with little or no general foundation of knowledge and little or no training in how to think well. Where once a college education was understood to be essential to the formation of the citizens of our democratic republic, it now is almost universally perceived to be preparation for a job or profession. In a culture where citizens have been reduced to “workers,” we should not be surprised.

REGINA: This is both very true – and very depressing. 

ANNE FORSYTH: This state of affairs  has resulted not only in widespread ignorance of the most basic information, but also a sweeping loss in the sense of what is true, what is good, what is beautiful — of all that uplifts human beings and makes our lives worth living.

Our founders perceived these trends 45 years ago and were intent, as their founding document shows, to renew genuine liberal education — an education for the free citizen, one that included all the major disciplines from science and mathematics to philosophy and theology. Not only was there a body of knowledge to transmit to the next generation — the great intellectual patrimony of Western Civilization — but it was just as essential to train the minds of the next generations to be actively engaged in the pursuit of truth so that it might form — and transform — them.

REGINA: Quite prophetic of your founders.  

ANNE FORSYTH: Their plan thus focused on both curriculum and pedagogy. Instead of offering textbooks, the curriculum would be composed of the seminal works in all the disciplines, original texts known as the Great Books, so that students might grapple directly with the works of the greatest minds in Western Civilization. Rather than listening to lectures, they would instead engage in Socratic discussions, acquiring the ability to think logically, inquire fruitfully, analyze well, and defend their positions.

REGINA: What about the Catholic aspect of the College?

ANNE FORSYTH: Regarding theology, in particular, our founders wanted to re-ground the study of God in the works of the Angelic Doctor, our patron, St. Thomas Aquinas. They took seriously the 500 years of exhortations by our pontiffs to, as one put it, “Go to Thomas,” and they wanted to foster intellectual discipleship to the Common (‘Angelic’) Doctor in their students. Thus, freshman spend their first year reading nearly the entire Bible; sophomores study the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, especially St. Augustine; and juniors and seniors study substantial parts of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.

REGINA: Poor catechesis in the last 50 years has resulted in widespread ignorance about the Faith — its teachings, history, culture, etc. Yet, TAC has more students applying for admission than you can accept. Where are they coming from?

ANNE FORSYTH: You’re certainly right about the wholesale loss of knowledge of our faith that has occurred in the last 50 years or so. But there are some in the Church who, witnessing it being swept away, clung every more tightly to it and have, through their own steadfastness and God’s grace, succeeded in transmitting the treasures of our faith to their children and grandchildren. It is from this pool of young people that many of our applicants come. And yes, there are more and more each year — so many that we now have long waiting lists each year. Interestingly, there are some from that list who rather than enrolling elsewhere, wait until the following year to matriculate here at the College.

Many of our applicants are homeschooled — many through the Mother of Divine Grace School curriculum designed by our graduate, Laura Berquist (’75). Some attend parent-founded schools. And others attend parochial, private, and even public schools. It makes for a good mix in the classroom, as the discussions benefit from the varied backgrounds of the students.

We also have non-Catholic applicants, and we’ve even had some atheists over the years. With a deep thirst for knowledge of the truth about reality, they are drawn to the College’s rigorous curriculum. Not surprisingly, a good percentage of these students become converts to the Catholic Church, for honest search for the truth will, in time, bring one to the Fount of Truth Himself.

REGINA: What reactions if any has TAC elicited from the Catholic educational establishment over the years? Non-Catholics? The broader education field?

ANNE FORSYTH: In the beginning, there were many who were skeptical of our enterprise, including our accrediting body, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. I recall as a student going through our first self-study — the visits by their assigned examiners and the many prayers we offered that we would receive their imprimatur. In time, we did, and it has been renewed with every cycle.

It took some time before the College began to appear in the rankings by the secular college guides, as well, e.g., U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and others. But for the past 20 years, we have regularly received the highest ratings and rankings from these and other organizations and are grateful for the national reputation for excellence that we have established.

REGINA: Yes, we are aware that the College has sterling ratings today. But that wasn’t always the case, was it?

ANNE FORSYTH: I believe that what underlay the original skepticism about Thomas Aquinas College was the widespread notion that a school that took the Catholic faith as seriously as we did could not at the same time be academically rigorous — a notion in turn based on the false opinion that faith and reason are incompatible. It is a notion that we still regularly encounter, but given that we now have a track record and a solid reputation, it is more easily dispelled and replaced with St. Anselm’s description of the Catholic’s pursuit of truth in all its facets as “faith seeking understanding.” A more difficult reaction for us has more often than not come from some colleges and universities within the Church. It should not be surprising, though, because after all, we are doing the very thing that they rejected years ago — achieving academic excellence while remaining fully faithful to the teachings of the Church.

OUR TUTORS ARE A UNIQUE GROUP OF MEN AND WOMEN. Nearly all hold doctorates, in a variety of specialized fields. Yet our program calls for them to teach all of the courses in our one curriculum, just as our students progress through one and the same curriculum. It is not at all unusual to find, for instance, a tutor with a Ph.D. in literature assigned to teach natural science to juniors, a class in which Newton’s Principia is studied; or again, a tutor with a Ph.D. in biology leading seniors in their study of St. Thomas’ treatise on the Trinity. Finding tutors with this kind of breadth of interest and ability, as well as a desire to guide classroom discussions rather than lecture, was quite a challenge in the beginning. But as our reputation has spread, we have succeeded in finding highly qualified faculty members, among them some of our own alumni.

FROM THE BEGINNING, THE COLLEGE HAS BEEN COMMITTED TO A POLICY OF NOT TURNING AWAY ANY QUALIFIED STUDENT FOR LACK OF FINANCIAL WHEREWITHAL. To make that possible, we have relied on the tremendous generosity of our benefactors across the country who we sometimes refer to as our “spiritual alumni,” as their loyalty to the College and our students rivals that of our actual alumni. The early years were the most difficult for us: we had no track record and no alumni to point to as signs of the value of our unique program. And of course, we had no alumni on which to depend for financial contributions! Even now, because the College is intentionally small, we have a relatively small group of alumni, the vast majority of whom are under 40 and in the midst of raising (mostly very large) families. So even now, we continue to rely on our “spiritual alumni” who make it possible for so many of our students to benefit from this life-changing education. While among them are parents of alumni and alumni themselves, all of whom have received a great personal benefit from their generous giving to the College, there are an even greater number of generous souls who while receiving no benefit at all for themselves, nevertheless faithfully support the mission of Thomas Aquinas College and our students. They are, in a very real sense, making an investment in our students, recognizing that the intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation they receive at the College will have a ripple effect within the Church and in our culture. They truly are our partners in this noble endeavor.

THEN AND NOW: Those of us who were students in that fall of 1978 recall the spartan conditions under which we lived. One of the most notable features of that first fall and winter was the historic amount of rainfall we experienced. The campus was entirely un-landscaped, without even a paved pathway, and the result was mud — so very much mud, for months on end, until the spring when the sun at last shone again. As poor as these conditions were, we were happy, deeply happy. Yes, we lived in “trailers” and attended classes in ugly “double-wides” on a campus that resembled, in the words of our founding president, “a gulag.” But we loved our classes which were endlessly engaging, and we developed deep friendships that were pure and sweet, and that have lasted through the decades since. And at the center of our lives, was a humble, makeshift chapel where Our Lord dwelt with us in the Blessed Sacrament.

REGINA: TAC’s campus is stunningly beautiful, and shows a clear architectural guiding spirit.

ANNE FORSYTH: To begin with, we were struck by the sheer natural beauty of the campus, It is the perfect setting in which to contemplate the true, the good, and the beautiful. Because we are in “Mission” territory here, on land which Saint Junipero Serra may well have traversed in a day-trip from Mission San Fernando to Mission San Buenaventura, it was a natural for us to choose the Spanish Mission style.

It was thought from the beginning that the campus ought to both reflect the nature of intellectual and community life that take place here and facilitate it. The four years that our students spend at the College are in a sense a retreat from the world (not a permanent retreat, but a retreat by which to fortify themselves for the work they will do in the world). Because our program requires such intense study and many scores of hours quietly reading the original texts that compose our curriculum, we wanted a campus that would be serene and restful, with open spaces and airy, outdoor corridors, all of which would be conducive to a spirit of learning. 


IN 2009, THE CROWN JEWEL OF THE CAMPUS WAS DEDICATED, OUR LADY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY CHAPEL, which sits at the head of our academic quad, anchoring the campus just as the Faith does our program and community life. The location of our chapel at the head of our academic quad was by design, as a sign of the pre-eminence of the Catholic Faith in all that we do. That its bell tower can be seen rising outside our gates extends this message to all who pass our way, many of whom stop in to visit the campus and learn about the College.

The other striking feature about the campus is our landscaping. We have been blessed to have on our staff an extremely talented full time landscaper who, with his assistant, have designed the layout of the gardens all around the campus and supervise their maintenance. What is surprising to most people is that their work crew is entirely made up of students who do all of the irrigation, weeding, fertilizing, trimming, and pruning over much of the 132-acre campus. These are students who are in return for their financial aid are employed in the College’s work/study program, spending 13 hours each week caring for the lawns and gardens and, in the process, gain valuable skills.

AMONG OUR MANY REWARDS ARE THE ALUMNI OF THOMAS AQUINAS COLLEGE. While relatively small in number (nearly 1,900), they are having a tremendous influence for good in the Church and in our culture. In addition, they have a 0.0% loan default rate (as compared to the national average of 13.7%). And in 2013, because our alumni had the highest rate of giving to their alma mater, we were ranked #1 by U.S. News & World Report for being the “most loved” college in the country. There are a remarkable number of vocations: to date, we have 62 alumni priests and 40 religious sisters and brothers. Stunned by these numbers, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education commissioned an article some years ago by our then president, the late Dr. Thomas Dillon, to explain how it is that an institution that is not a seminary, that is run entirely by laymen, and that is co-educational could produce such a steady stream of vocations. In this piece, Dr. Dillon explains how our genuinely Catholic academic program and vibrant spiritual life are a fertile soil in which vocations flourish.


REGINA: Thomas Aquinas College is a great inspiration to Catholics around the world – many of whom are starting up Catholic colleges in the English-speaking world today. What are your next challenges? How can people learn help?

ANNE FORSYTH: We would be extremely grateful for your readers’ prayers — for the College, its tutors, its staff, its administration, and its governing board — that we may continue to be faithful to our mission and to the teaching Church. And please pray for our students, too!

Please share what you have read here with friends, read news about the College on our Facebook page, and spend some time on our website. From our fact sheet to the FAQs in the Admissions section, to the seminal documents that undergird the College, there is a great deal of information there.

Please also consider making a gift to our Annual Fund. We need to raise nearly $5 million in financial aid this year for the nearly 75% of our students who could not otherwise attend the College. These are worthy young people who, in the years ahead, will go on to do great good for the Church and our culture.

Our challenge now is to build up our endowment so that Thomas Aquinas College can become a self-sustaining institution. By arranging to make an estate gift to the College through your will or trust, you will be helping to ensure that young people for generations to come will continue to receive a genuinely Catholic liberal education.

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