EDGEWOOD, Ky. – David Armstrong is a football guy. The former high school center and former college head coach peppers his speeches with quotes from Lou Holtz and anecdotes of his teams overcoming adversity.
One of his first acts as the new president of Thomas More College was to create a marching band that will add to the energy of the school’s already raucous football games – and not just any marching band.
“I want to build the best and the biggest marching band in Division 3 in the country,” he told the crowd at this month’s Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Eggs ‘N Issues breakfast meeting.
Armstrong began the job on July 1, but he is formally inaugurated at 2 p.m. Friday.
The 49-year-old Cleveland native is bringing a rah-rah spirit backed by a quarter century in higher education and practicing law to the top post at Thomas More, a Catholic liberal arts college with good but not great enrollment numbers that has a pressing need to grow to survive.
His enthusiasm is just what the school needs, according to John F. Hodge III, chairman of the trustees board and the chairman of the search committee that selected Armstrong.
Thomas More’s top priorities are increasing enrollment from the current 850 traditional students and 750 part-time and online students, he said, along with more robust fundraising.
“He’s energetic, he’s enthusiastic, he’s got passion,” Hodge said. “He was the man to address the challenges we face.”
Hodge said Armstrong’s leadership in creating the band, a women’s lacrosse team and an athletic training major will all help with those goals.
“I think we have the right ideas. We just have to implement them,” he said.
Thomas More is one of just 10 colleges or universities that are part of a Catholic diocese (all other U.S. Catholic colleges and universities run independent of the diocesan system). That means Armstrong’s boss is Bishop Roger Joseph Foys, Thomas More’s chancellor, who gave Armstrong a warm welcome.
“As bishop of the Diocese of Covington and Chancellor of the College, I am especially grateful that President Armstrong accepted the position of president,” Foys said. “I have every confidence that he will build upon the strengths of the College and especially on the wonderful work of his immediate predecessor, Sister Margaret Stallmeyer.”
Armstrong, a devout Catholic who internalizes the concept of team spirit, embraces the hierarchy.
In an interview in his office, Armstrong said, “We take our guidance, our mission, from the bishop. That does set us apart from other institutions. Our new chapel sets the tone. Every 15 minutes, bells chime, a constant reminder of our values.”
"A bifurcated future of bricks and mortar and digital learning"
Many academics and politicians say the ever-rising tuition costs imperil schools like Thomas More, whose tuition, room and board is about $34,000 a year, when students have a growing number of less expensive higher education options, especially online learning.
Armstrong readily acknowledges the challenge, but he expressed confidence that Thomas More can grow and thrive. He plans to simultaneously sell the virtues of a liberal arts education and to grow the school’s own online offerings.
“We will always be a small, liberal arts, Catholic, faith-based institution. But in the next five to seven years, we need to get our full-time enrollment over 1,000,” he said.
The school has 400 beds in its resident halls but had 31 empty. He wants to fill those up sooner than later with the help of women drawn to the school’s new lacrosse team.
In the longer term, he’d like to build more residential facilities and grow the resident population to 500 or 600 students, he said.
“Catholic education means quality, and catholic with a small ‘C’ is universal, we can take it to anyone,” he said. “It’s even more important that the colleges like Thomas More survive.”
What they offer, Armstrong said, is “integrity for your whole life through values education. Employers want graduates who think critically, who can analyze information, speak and communicate well. The fact that it’s a values-based education is another plus,” he said.
As for cost, 100 percent of students receive some financial aid, and the school is exploring ways to offset the cost of textbooks.
The school needs money to accomplish its goals, and Armstrong plans to beef up fundraising. “I’ve never asked for money in my life,” he told the chamber crowd. “I’ve told the story of a great quality program, and people want to invest in that.”
Armstrong contends that online learning can be part of the equation for a liberal arts education and can be a growth area for Thomas More. While online classes can be taken from anywhere with an Internet connection, Armstrong said most students choose schools close to home to have the option of visiting campus.
“Online learners, on average, are 32-42, female, with two kids. They want to stay within 50 miles of home for online courses,” he said.
Thomas More has a branch campus in Blue Ash that caters to
online learners. He said the school has no plans yet to offer a Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC), as University of Cincinnati is, but he is open to partnerships to operate one or more.
“We’ll collaborate with anyone who maintains our values and costs,” he said. “I’d like to get ahead of the trend. We are not going to put our heads in the sand.”
Armstrong grew up in Cleveland, the fifth of seven children, with four older brothers and two younger sisters. His love for the Catholic Church and Catholic education was nurtured at Cleveland’s Holy Name parish. The church earned his family’s undying respect a generation ago by providing a Catholic education to Armstrong's mother and her siblings despite their inability to pay. With his grandmother forced to work outside the home to support the family, Armstrong's mom, at 11, became a de facto parent to her younger siblings, helping to run the house. She’s a hero to Armstrong and will be at his inauguration Friday to cheer him on.
He and all of his brothers graduated from St. Peter Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio, an institution he loved. He watched it decline as the neighborhood around it deteriorated and enrollment shrank, until it closed in the spring.
“It’s a motivation because it’s always in the back of my mind what happened to St. Peter,” he said.
Armstrong earned his undergraduate degree from Mercyhurst University, a liberal arts institution in Erie, Penn., where he was an all-American football player and Rhodes Scholarship candidate.
Since he was 6, he said, Armstrong dreamed of being a Wall Street lawyer, living the high life litigating cases. After college, he earned his law degree back in Cleveland at Marshall College of Law on track to realize his childhood dream.
But during an internship in Westlake, Ohio, he participated in 70 prosecutions of mostly low-level criminal offenders. He watched defendants go to jail, get released, and find themselves right back in court in a dispiriting cycle.
His parents had taught him the importance of service, and he decided he would better serve the world in education and coaching, influencing young people before they got into serious trouble. He turned down three offers from law firms, he said, and instead went back to Mercyhurst to coach the freshman football team as a volunteer. He took two full-time jobs as dormitories director and director of alumni relations.
Armstrong moved on to the head football coaching job at Thiel College in Greenville, Penn., where he endured three 1-9 seasons before jumping out to a 3-0 start in his fourth season. Then, his team came to Thomas More, the first visiting team to the school’s new field. Thomas More won.
One of the stories of persistence Armstrong likes to tell is what happened a year later in a rematch with Thomas More. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, he took his quarterback aside and asked him in colorful language whether he had the courage to try the very same play that failed to win the game the year before. He did, they tried it, and it worked. Thiel won.
Armstrong spent the last 10 years at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, where he was vice president and general counsel. He is thrilled to join the team at former rival Thomas More.
“We have to answer this question. How do we make a positive difference in the lives of those we are privileged to serve,” he said. “I believe the answer is we transform lives at Thomas More.”