From his suburban home south of Cleveland, David
Armstrong is apologizing. The doorbell is ringing (a deliveryman is
inquiring about the Corvette he’d rather sell than move). The dogs are
barking (his wife, Leslie, works with rescue animals; they have three).
There are rooms to be painted, boxes to be packed.
“It’s a madhouse here right now,” the new president of Thomas More College says.
But Thomas More didn’t tap Armstrong, vice president
and general counsel at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, for
his ability to juggle the household jobs inherent in relocation, nor did
Thomas More choose him just to keep its own house running smoothly.
Among the qualities Thomas More liked most in Armstrong, chosen to
succeed the retiring Sister Margaret Stallmeyer as president of the
Catholic diocesan school in Crestview Hills, was his vision for how to
best position the liberal-arts college in a changing 21st-century
landscape for higher education.
“I love Sister Margaret,” Armstrong says. “She’s
been incredibly helpful, and she’s a wonderful woman, which tells me why
she’s been so successful and why everybody loves her. But I couldn’t be
more different from Sister Margaret.
“I think what Thomas More saw in me, and Sister
Margaret would say ‘this is someone with experience in where the
challenges in higher education will be going forward.”
The Most Rev. Roger J. Foys, bishop of the Diocese
of Covington and chancellor of Thomas More, said of Armstrong in a
statement: “I was very impressed with him during my interview and I have
every confidence that he will build on the solid foundation of those
who have gone before him.”
And John F. Hodge III, incoming chair of the Thomas
More board of trustees who also chaired the search committee, added
Armstrong has “the experience and skill set to serve successfully as
president of Thomas More College. He will bring enthusiasm, passion and
energy to the position. I look forward to him building upon what Sister
Margaret has achieved.”
The 14th president in the history of the school –
founded as Villa Madonna College in 1921 and rededicated as Thomas More
in current-day Crestview Hills by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 –
doesn’t stand on formality. He prefers to be called Dave. He celebrates
and suffers with the Cleveland Browns. He likes chicken wings, the
occasional round of golf, spending vacations porch-sitting in
Chautauqua, N.Y., and is happiest when watching his son, David, 15,
pitch in a baseball game, or seeing daughter Johanna, 13, act or sing on
“That’s my heaven on earth right there,” he says.
Though he’s not the first layman to hold the top
post at Villa Madonna or Thomas More, a priest or nun has been president
for 18 of the past 21 years. But Armstrong, 49, is rooted deeply in the
Catholic faith. One of seven children, he attended parochial grade
school and high school, and was one of the four siblings who moved on to
a Catholic college. “I’m what you’d call a cradle Catholic,” he says.
Aside from his calling, here’s where Armstrong
further diverges from his predecessors in the president’s chair: his
background in higher education – his alma mater, Mercyhurst University
in Erie, Pa., at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., and at Notre Dame –
has come in the arenas of legal support, development, fundraising and
athletics. The initiatives he has spearheaded are focused on growing
enrollment and online education. Working seven years in a variety of
roles at Mercyhurst, Armstrong helped secure a $1 million charitable
trust, the school’s largest gift. At Notre Dame, he helped secure the
school’s largest gift, $2.1 million. He’s looking forward to doing the
same for Thomas More, by asking not so much for open checkbooks as for
open ears and minds.
“What I’ve learned is, if you’re not part of
something special that is mission-centric, you can’t raise money,”
Armstrong says. “You have to have a quality product.”
“I’m not asking you for money; what I do is I tell
people the story of Thomas More College, the past, present and future.
By our passion, by our excitement, by our mission focus, people will
want to invest in that. I want them to be part of what we do at Thomas
More. I want them to know it’s worth their time and investment, because
what we do is special.”
While at Notre Dame, Armstrong helped bolster
enrollment to around 2,000 (from 20 states and a dozen different
countries) in part by advocating the expansion of successful programs
for adult education and online learning. He plans to do the same at
“To be in the adult education business, you have to
be in the online business,” he says. “Adults are looking for convenience
and lower costs to get that degree quickly and get out in the
marketplace, and that makes online the best mode of delivery. That
doesn’t change the educational requirements and standards; it’s just a
different mode of delivery.”
From experience, Armstrong says expansion of online
learning “is not without its bumps and bruises,” but that it’s vital for
the future of college campuses.
“In the future, there’s still going to be a place
for brick and mortar, certainly,” he said. “If you look at where
students say they get the best education and the best overall
experience, it’s in that traditional setting. But we have to be open to
serving students where they are, and online allows us the opportunity to
Armstrong and his family have been house hunting in
Northern Kentucky, though he says friends thought he’d surely stay on
the Ohio side of the river. Armstrong said he and his family were taken
with the friendliness of the Kentucky side and want to be part of it.
“Cleveland is one of the greatest places on earth.
People are shocked that I’m leaving,” he said. “It would take a very
special place to get me to leave. But Thomas More is that place.
Northern Kentucky is that place.”