Thomas O'Malley

Jean Merl covers the South Bay for The Times

From his roomy, high-ceilinged office in the heart of Loyola Marymount University's campus atop a bluff in Westchester, Thomas Patrick O'Malley presides over the largest Catholic university in Southern California, one of the nation's 28 institutions of higher learning run by the Society of Jesus. A Jesuit priest since 1952, O'Malley made his mark as a classicist, theologian, academician and administrator at a half-dozen Catholic universities before taking the reins of Loyola Marymount seven years ago. As a newcomer to California, he arrived in Los Angeles just as the city was beginning to grapple with the highly publicized beating of a black motorist at the hands of white police officers.

Although LMU has never had the visibility of its big neighbors--UCLA, USC and even Cal State L.A.--it has been a steadfast fixture of Los Angeles' civic and cultural life for most of this century. And it became O'Malley's job to steer Loyola Marymount during a period of upheaval and dramatic change in the region it calls home.

Upon his arrival in 1991, O'Malley said he was enthralled by the city's diversity, some of which is reflected in the university itself. Of its nearly 4,000 undergraduates, 55% are white, 21% are Latino, 15% Asian or Pacific Islander and 8% African American. Some 57% are women and about 35%-40% are non-Catholic, O'Malley estimates. Around 80% of undergraduates receive some form of financial assistance, and the university has set aside an additional $34 million--from a recently completed $144-million fund-raising campaign--for student financial help, including a new no-interest loan program.

Helping students meet their college expenses is one way the university can ensure access to a broad mix of students, a goal O'Malley views as central to its mission and consistent with its history. Loyola College was founded in 1911 as an outgrowth of St. Vincent's College. In 1928, it moved to its current 100-acre site overlooking what is now Marina del Rey and became Loyola University two years later. In 1973, the university merged with Marymount College, a Catholic women's institution founded by the sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Loyola Law School, begun in 1920, is still located in downtown Los Angeles.

Born in Milton, Mass., to Irish immigrants, O'Malley earned a master's degree in classical languages at Fordham University before launching an academic career that included earning a doctorate from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, chairing the theology department at Boston College and serving as president of John Carroll University in Ohio.

Now 68, O'Malley announced recently that he will step down as president in the summer of 1999. His campus office, comfortably furnished with sofas and overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcases, seemed an ideal place for reflection on what it means to be a private, religious-oriented university in a diverse, rapidly changing city.

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Question: What responsibility does a university have to its home city? Does it have a role to play that is shaped by its location?

Answer: That's a debate that goes all the way back to the '60s, when many activists thought a university should take a real, problem-solving hand in the affairs in the city in which it lived; the problems then being the decay of the inner cities and a growing difficulty in race relations and things of that sort. Many universities did answer that call. Boston College, for example, ran citizens' seminars and brought various factions of the city that normally did not talk to one other together. One the other hand, universities feel that their real role is turning out educated people. In my observation, universities still try to do both, with greater or less success.

Q: What helps define a local university's role in Los Angeles?

A: I don't think that anyone can be a university in Los Angeles without realizing the whole life story of the United States has been the advent of the immigrant and of diversity. There is no city more diverse in the United States than Los Angeles, and a university ought to respond to that. The history of this university has been a history of access for new populations: new populations coming to college and to the law school, especially. The law school was founded [largely] to afford access to people who otherwise would not have had a chance to go to law school.

Q: Do you see other appropriate roles for this university?

A: Some universities have taken an active hand in things like redevelopment, such as what Yale has done in New Haven. I think we, at Loyola Marymount, come down on the other side of the equation, though. We do have a rather new development, the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, by which we try to help shape policy decisions, through opinion polls and also by gathering in archives some of the history of L.A., which we hope to make available for scholarly study. But what we prefer to be offering is the developing of intellectual capital.

Q: How do the roles differ for public and private, secular and religious universities?

A: A lot depends on the nature of a university. A large "research" university can, by studying the situation in, for example, urban planning, or by studying the attitudes of people toward one another, be very helpful to the political process. But the first and foremost thing that both public and private universities have to do is to offer education and to make it affordable. And make it available to what the Romans would have called the "novi homini," the "new people."

At Loyola Marymount, the prime responsibility that we have is to turn out people who are going to be smart creators of wealth and perhaps with a hair more awareness of the necessity of giving back to the city and the country.

Q: To that end, what kinds of things does the university do to improve prospects for future generations?

A: Teaching is a big part of it. The school of education has a reputation for turning out people who are perfectly capable and perfectly willing to teach in any number of situations. We are also doing some interesting outreach. With funding by the National Science Foundation, we are involving students in community colleges in research in our labs with our faculty and with at least one of our own students on the research team. We similarly have a relationship with Westchester and St. Bernard's high schools, and with the Hughes company that involves tutoring: having the high school students using our labs and the Hughes labs and high school faculty members having a point of reference with our faculty members.

Q: Where does the Catholicism come in?

A: First of all, even in just the shape of the education, it is possible for us to do more than a public institution, or a private institution that does not have a religious bent. If you live in an atmosphere where you can speak about God and the creation and human liberty and responsibility, about sin and grace, about a judgment, if you can do that, then your "canvas" is ever so much broader. You can talk about a lot of things that other folks talk not at all about, or talk about uncomfortably. Even within the intellectual framework of a liberal arts curriculum, it is possible to do more in this area because we have a religious bent.

Secondly, we put a lot of emphasis, not only on ethics but before even getting to ethics, we spend a lot of money and time trying to get students to develop what I like to call their "interiority," on which, perhaps, ethics is best based.

Then every single one of our students has to take at least one undergraduate philosophy course in ethics. We have three chairs in specialized ethics, located across the colleges in liberal arts, business and communications and finance. We would dearly like to add a fourth chair in science and engineering.

All this is so students will begin to wonder about the art of work, the art of life. I believe that turning out people like this is of great use to the "commonweal" of society.

Q: What do you mean by "interiority"?

A: Another word would be "spirituality" . . . to come to almost a reflex awareness of oneself and an awareness of God, the mystery that we call God. To begin reflecting on my liberty and at the same time my responsibility, to have a sense also of the aesthetic as well as the esthetic . . . . Sometimes it's as simple as to watch students sitting on the bluff, looking at the sun go down over the marina.

So many people are bounced around by life, live it unreflectively. St. Ignatius had this notion that people should come to an awareness of self and God and freedom and then not to be "lived by" life and not to do things simply because everyone is doing them, but to choose and to always look for the greater good and how to be of service. This is really a key idea.

Q: What does a Catholic university offer its non-Catholic students?

A: The theory of this education is that God is to be encountered in the world every day. Now how do we put that into practice? It's difficult. We first require courses in theological studies . . . . We want for all of our students a better understanding of their religious traditions. We would very much want for our Jewish students to come out of here better Jews than when they came in here. That is to be more knowledgeable of their tradition, more aware of the strong sense that there is in Judaism, and so it is with other things and with other traditions. We need to be a place where development of the moral self is important.

Q: You arrived in Los Angeles near the start of one of its most tumultuous periods of racial and ethnic disharmony, around the time of the police beating of Rodney G. King. How can this university help pull together this diverse city?

A: In part through our Catholicism. The church, always in her history, has found it difficult to hold people together. They have different views of theology, different views and styles of worship. They take a different view even in the right and the wrong sometimes. And now the church is torn between camps to the left and the right. So it is our view that students will have the opportunity, in theological studies, to come to grips with these things and see that perhaps the reading, the interpretation, of the scriptures is not as simple as some might make it out to be . . . . This striving toward unity is a very Catholic, Christian thing.

I also think that this university has an obligation to the Catholic Church in Los Angeles to supply teachers, to supply help to people in the parishes, to supply some really smart, intellectual people who can help figure out some of the tough problems, for example, in medical ethics, in law, in philosophy.

Q: What about diversity on campus? The university last month received the Theodore M. Hesburgh award from the American Council on Education for its work in building a multicultural faculty, among other factors. Tell me a little about that.

A: I was really very pleased with that because the prize was based not on a proposal of what we were going to do but rather on the narrative of what we had done. Beginning with the spring of 1992, we decided that we were going to hire more minority faculty and we were going to build into the structure of the core curriculum a course on American culture, which is, of course, not just one but all the cultures to be found here in Los Angeles. The Irvine Foundation, which gave us two grants, has been helpful to us in a program that has enabled us to expand our minority faculty hiring. And we have been able to hang onto those faculties.

Q: What about diversity among your students? Are you satisfied with the mix?

A: I would have to say that we really have made some very significant progress. We're not there yet. Not in the sense that we're still noticing that "X" is a minority. And there will be a day when perhaps we won't even notice that. People say to me, "Oh, Loyola Marymount, you must have a great affirmative action program." No, it's rather that this is our natural population, this very diverse region. We are attracting some extremely competent people, and we are able to see them through to graduation.

Q: You've spent most of your academic career on the East Coast or elsewhere. Do you see any particular advantage to attending college in Southern California?

A: It's a huge advantage to a student to live with all this diversity, because the way we are in Southern California today is the way America is going to be.

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