I suspect my visit to Thomas More College of Liberal Arts will be among the most surprising stops on my road trip. I admit that I knew nothing about the college when I came to New England, and though I learned a bit more about Thomas More in my first months on the job, I still didn’t know quite what to expect when we drove onto the campus in Merrimack, New Hampshire on a rainy autumn morning.
First impression? It’s strikingly tranquil, very beautiful, and very small. Fewer than a handful of buildings sit on just over 12 wooded acres, including the original farm house dating back to 1726. But with a total of only 80 students, the campus seems to work in every way. The chapel, for now, is in the barn, although President Fahey hopes they will be able to add a stand-alone chapel before too long. (Can you say Capital Campaign?)
President Fahey and I spoke on the back porch of the historic farmhouse, home to his office. He’s a classicist by training and had never imagined himself an administrator, but came to Thomas More to teach and work on its Great Books curriculum. As the third president in the college’s history (the first president served over 40 years, and the second not quite three), he inherited a few challenges.
Enrollment had dropped to below forty students after the former (first) president opened a competing college down the road and siphoned off many of Thomas More’s faculty and students. While that institution didn’t last long, its impact on the college’s finances still lingers and much of Fahey’s seven years at the helm have been focused on increasing enrollment.
Finding students who want to do a Great Books curriculum is always a tall order, despite the allure of small classes and the promise of study abroad. All students at Thomas More spend a semester in Rome during the second half of their sophomore year. Among the surprises from my visit was the fact that eighty percent of their students come from outside New England. (Many of the smaller private colleges in the region look exactly the opposite.)
As for ambitions, besides a small building here and there, Fahey’s enrollment goals are modest — into the mid -100s — yet given Thomas More’s unique position in higher education and its strongly traditional Catholic roots, he recognizes that won’t necessarily be a simple undertaking.
The morning of our visit there was a constant drizzle, but the small and beautiful campus was full of students, about sixty percent female, walking between classes, going from their dorm rooms to the library to read (and trust me, students at Thomas More read and read and read).
No mistaking the fact we were on a college campus, but one that was utterly unique and engaging.
Listen more to my intriguing conversation with President Fahey here: