University of St. Thomas Celebrates 70th Anniversary

By | March 13, 2017

The University of St. Thomas is celebrating two major milestones this year: its 70th anniversary as a university and the 20th anniversary of its iconic Chapel of St. Basil, designed by legendary architect Philip Johnson. The university was founded in 1947 by the Basilian Fathers, an order of Catholic priests who wanted to give Houstonians the opportunity for a faith-based college education.

“That’s why we were founded, because Catholic families did not have a place to educate their children,” explained UST President Robert Ivany. “And the beautiful thing that has happened since then is that what started out as a very modest endeavor [but have] blossomed into something that has changed countless lives.”

“Modest” is the right word. The university started with a single building, the former mansion of T. P. Lee, at the time the largest private home in Houston, on Montrose Boulevard. Now known as the Link-Lee Mansion, the building serves as an administration building. In the 1950s, Houston arts patrons Dominique and John de Menil commissioned Philip Johnson, then a little-known New York architect, to design a master plan for the UST campus. The Menils were crucial early benefactors of the university, helping build its art programs and achieving international recognition for the small university.

Today, UST enrolls 3,312 students, 1,602 of them undergraduates, giving it the feel of a small liberal arts school in the middle of an enormous city. Former president Joe McFadden, who led the school from 1988 to 1997, recalls walking behind a group of prospective students on a campus tour. “I overheard one of the girls turn to one of the boys and say, ‘Boy, I’m not coming here.’ The boy asked why, and she said, ‘Because I want to be anonymous.’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘You’re absolutely right. There’s no way you’re going to be anonymous here.”

UST’s small size allows it to maintain an average of 16 students per class and a 10-1 student/faculty ratio, with 94 percent of its teachers holding PhDs. It has a rigorous core curriculum, requiring all students to take three courses in English, three in philosophy, and three in theology, as well as courses in math and the performing arts. But it’s also strong in health sciences. The school recently revived its long-dormant undergraduate nursing program, and a $50 million, state-of-the-art science center is currently under construction on the south side of the school’s 19-block Montrose campus.

While it builds on its strengths in the sciences and pre-professional programs, President Ivany said that UST will maintain its commitment to providing a humanistic, faith-based education:

“If you look at CEO surveys and ask them what they want out of their employees, they invariably say they want people who can think critically,” Ivany said. “The other thing they invariably say is they want people of integrity. You can’t take Integrity 101, but hopefully by coming here you strengthen your belief in God, in a moral foundation. So when it comes to what you do on a certain business deal, you do the right thing. That’s what we mean when we say we educate leaders of faith and character.”

University of St. Thomas. 3800 Montrose Blvd. 713-522-7911.

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