A group of Aquinas Institute parents and alumni, concerned with what they see as a leftward drift in the Catholic school’s academics and culture, want the school’s board of trustees to restore Aquinas to a “God-centered classic curriculum” and learning environment. The group’s petition has garnered more than 350 signatures on Change.org since being posted on Jan. 14.
Parents who support the petition say many of their grievances are longstanding, but what spurred them to organize and petition the board now was an incident that occurred in November when alumnus Robert Agostinelli visited the school and gave an invited talk to students—only to have his remarks disavowed within hours by the school’s top administrator. Agostinelli is managing director of Rhone Group, a global private equity firm he co-founded in 1996.
“This is bigger than (Agostinelli’s) condemnation,” Aquinas parent and alumnus Michael Kennedy wrote in an email. “His experience was the last straw—an event that sparked many parents to come together and fight for what we know is right.”
Entitled “Restore Academic Freedom and Christian Values at Aquinas,” the Concerned Aquinas Parents and Alumni petition alleges that Aquinas in recent years “has drifted from its Christian Core Beliefs and Mission, to accommodate political correctness.” It continues: “The school hides behind a façade of paper mâché Catholicism and is more closely aligned to a secular world view with a non-biblical explanation of life and justice. There is clear evidence of a ‘woke’ ideology embraced by members of the school’s board, administration and faculty.”
The petition drive sparked by Agostinelli’s visit to Aquinas in some sense mirrors the culture wars that have ripped at a number of public and private schools across the country. However, the local petition effort has the backing not only of impassioned Aquinas parents and alumni but also of a billionaire alumnus with influence far beyond Rochester.
Whether many Aquinas parents and alumni share the group’s views is uncertain. A few days ago, a counterpetition to the Aquinas trustees appeared on Change.org. Started by a group identified as Proud Alumni, it calls on the Aquinas community to “join us in showing your support for Aquinas’ board, administration and faculty for their dedication to quality education and their denunciation of racism, bigotry and hate.”
Nor is it clear how the board will respond to the petition. On Tuesday, Kennedy sent the petition to Nick Dobbertin, chair of the Aquinas board of trustees. The next day, Dobbertin replied by email to Kennedy, confirming receipt of the petition and writing that “you can expect a response from our Executive Committee (representing the full Board) no later than January 31.”
My requests to speak directly to top Aquinas administrators were turned down. Dobbertin also declined my request for an interview. Most of the information I have gathered comes from parents and alumni upset about the school’s response to Agostinelli’s visit and dissatisfied with what they see as the cultural drift of the school, and from Agostinelli himself.
A storied institution
Aquinas Institute, a Catholic co-ed school for grades 6-12 located on Dewey Avenue, on Rochester’s west side, has been an important part of the Rochester community for 120 years. Among its distinguished alumni are former mayor and New York lieutenant governor Bob Duffy, who now leads the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, and the late Robert Wegman, who donated $10 million to the school some two decades ago. Aquinas had long sought a major gift from Agostinelli, who graduated from the school in 1972 and is one of the school’s wealthiest alumni.
Agostinelli grew up on Rochester’s west side, both in the city and in Greece, in what he describes as a “classic Rochester immigrant middle-class family.” While at Aquinas, he worked at his father’s service station, at grocery stores including IGA on Lyell Avenue and Loblaws, and had a Democrat and Chronicle paper route. After graduating from Aquinas in 1972, he attended St. John Fisher College, where he earned a B.A. and studied English and accounting. After graduation, he worked at the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand in Boston, then Goldman Sachs, and later Lazard Freres, before co-founding his own firm. Today, he’s an active member or director of many organizations and philanthropies, including the Council on Foreign Relations; the Friends of Israel Initiative, of which he’s a founding member; and the American Italian Cancer Foundation. He describes himself as a major contributor to the presidential campaign of John McCain and as a leader of “anti-Trump Republicans.”
Several months ago, Agostinelli accepted Aquinas’ invitation to visit the school. He was “prepared to consider,” he told me recently, “a seven-figure gift”—a million dollars. On Nov. 5, he and his wife, Francesca Agostinelli, were welcomed at the school by President Anthony Cook and Principal Theodore Mancini. After a tour, they went to the auditorium, where a select group of juniors and seniors had been assembled to hear them speak and to ask questions.
Agostinelli says he spoke for about 30 minutes. No recording of his talk has surfaced, but by his own account and the recollections of a few students who were there, the bulk of his talk was about the dangers of what former Bishop of Rochester Fulton J. Sheen had termed “ego narcissism.” (While at Aquinas, Agostinelli served as an altar boy for Sheen and came to regard him as a mentor.) About 25 minutes into his talk, he exhorted students to pursue happiness and the American dream and not “fall prey to the tyranny of false deities,” as examples of which he mentioned critical race theory, the “Marxist Black Lives Matter organization,” feminism and “gender confusion.”
At that moment three or four students stood and walked out of the auditorium, according to students who attended the talk.
“They were sitting together, and they just got up and marched out,” Agostinelli told me. “In my day, if you walked out on a prominent alumnus speaking, you’d have gotten detention. You just wouldn’t do that; it was an insult.”
After Agostinelli completed his talk, his wife, a TV personality, spoke of her own career. When the couple finished their talks and answering questions, there was applause. They spent about another 20 minutes in the auditorium with students who came up to speak to them. Then, they toured more of the school before leaving.
A few hours later, Cook sent this email to the Aquinas community:
Dear Aquinas Families,
Today we had on campus an alumnus and his wife who wanted to share with our students the secrets of their success in their business careers. They spoke to members of our junior and senior classes. Unexpectedly, both speakers shared some of their personal beliefs. We have heard from several students and parents that they were offended. Please know that this was not the intended purpose of today’s presentation. These personal opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by our guests do not reflect of the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the faculty, staff, and administration of The Aquinas Institute.
We will address this with our students on Monday morning. We will also use this as an opportunity for open dialogue and our belief that we will treat all others as children of God, deserving of respect and dignity.
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel to contact me at (585) 254-2020 ext. 1097 or by email at [email protected].
Dr. Anthony Cook ‘99
According to Agostinelli, Cook also wrote him directly about a football game scheduled that evening. Earlier, the football coach had invited Agostinelli—who had played football for Aquinas—to appear on the field that night as their special guest. In the email, says Agostinelli, Cook wrote they would “not be allowing visitors on the field” that night.
By Monday, according to students I spoke to, the school had arranged counseling for students who had been offended by Agostinelli’s speech, including those who had not attended but had heard about it. According to these students, those who walked out on Agostinelli faced no discipline. (I had messages sent to two of the students who walked out inviting them to share their perspectives, but have not heard back.)
Some teachers made a point of telling their students about Agostinelli’s talk. One senior told me one of his teachers told students “Agostinelli was racist and should be anti-racist,” and that “if students are upset by something they hear it’s OK to walk out to express how they feel.” A sixth grader (with parent’s permission) told me a teacher said “a man had come to school to talk, and he said lots of racist things and very hateful speech.”
Agostinelli was “shocked and disturbed,” he told me, by the reaction of administrators and teachers to his talk.
Regarding students walking out on his talk, he said, “I would have thought if they didn’t agree with me—which is fine—they’d have asked questions. That’s what happens at other schools where I’ve spoken.” He mentioned high schools in England, including Harrow, and colleges in the U.S. including Harvard, Yale, and the Naval War College. “I’ve often gotten reactions, but we’ve always debated it.”
He described the behavior of school administrators in allowing students to walk out and not be disciplined for it as “disgraceful.”
I asked Agostinelli if the gift he had contemplated making to Aquinas was now off the table.
“One hundred percent,” he said.
He also said he’d received more than 200 supportive letters from parents and alumni, and partly in response he decided to go public with his concerns about the school.
On Dec. 8, in the National Review, a prominent conservative magazine of which he sits on the board, Agostinelli responded in an article headlined, “An Alumnus Story: Going Home and Finding Woke.”
Calling the administration at his alma mater “moral eunuchs,” he wrote that their actions “unmasked a cauldron of woke political correctness within the school’s teaching ranks, the administration, and the board of trustees.” At Aquinas, where “young men and women of sound mind … know intimately the tyranny of practicing leftists,” he continued, the school’s “institutional cave-ins have repulsed and roused—even emboldened—many students, parents, and alumni who are prepared to take back this heralded school from those determined to subvert its legacy and mission.”
In declining my request to speak directly with Cook and Mancini, Aquinas’ public relations firm supplied a statement “on behalf of the Aquinas administration in lieu of an interview”:
Aquinas Institute remains committed to honoring our school’s values of goodness, discipline, and knowledge with respect and dignity for all of God’s children. We provide our students with a college preparatory educational environment that encourages ongoing and balanced dialogue. We foster critical thinking skills, in a nurturing learning environment, that will serve our students well in college and throughout their lives.
We value the feedback we have received from members of the Aquinas community following an alumnus visit in November 2021. As we do with all feedback we receive, our administration and Board has given this feedback thoughtful consideration. As an educational institution, Aquinas is committed to an open dialogue with our constituents and respects different points of view. We will continuously evolve to address contemporary issues in ways that are consistent with the mission of the school.
Demand for action
Word of how the school reacted to Agostinelli’s visit spurred like-minded parents and alumni to launch the petition drive.
“The petition,” explains alumnus Dan Dwyer, “is a request by parents and alumni to assure that the board hears concerns they have had for quite some time that have come to a head since Agostinelli’s visit in November when he got treated inappropriately by our alma mater.”
Adds Kennedy, an alumnus with two children currently attending Aquinas: “Agostinelli’s talk has spearheaded this movement. The students who walked out were not disciplined but coddled. Wokism is turned up to 11 at my kids’ Catholic school. But the school should be religious and not be political. We’re trying now to create a platform for parents to be heard.”
In an open letter to parents and alumni urging them to sign the petition, Kennedy wrote Aquinas “has been under sustained assault by those who are brazenly dismantling its traditional Catholic teaching for political correctness, woke ideology and amoral secular bias. Sadly, this is rampant through the faculty and the administration.”
The petition calls for specific changes at the school:
■ Replacement of the NY Common Core curriculum with a “God-centered classic curriculum, aligned with the philosophies of St. Thomas Aquinas and Christian values that teach children how to think, not what to think.”
■ Immediate action to “ensure that no administrator or teacher seeks to indoctrinate students with a particular dogma or self-serving version of current events that reflect personal philosophies or viewpoints. There is no place in our school for such heinous conduct.”
■ A return to the school’s “true foundation based on the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas and Congregation of St. Basil; restoring an air of academic freedom, consciously and actively supporting good citizenship, firm and just discipline, and unbridled patriotic fervor to flag and country.”
The counterpetition, which by this morning had drawn more than 330 signatures, expresses a starkly different perspective. It says Agostinelli and parents who share his views have “spewed outrage that AQ has lost its Catholicity and caters to liberalism.” It continues:
Indeed, Aquinas does exhibit a willingness to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own, an openness to new ideas and a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise (which is the actual Oxford Languages definition of “liberalism.”). It also embraces gospel values and reflects Catholic values and teachings. Plus, it offers a top-notch education, a rigorous curriculum and an opportunity for students to think critically and to become the citizens that this world so desperately needs.
Given the enormous schism made apparent by the dueling petitions, it seems unlikely the board’s forthcoming response to the Concerned Aquinas Parents and Alumni petition will significantly narrow the divide.
I asked Agostinelli what, if any, role he is taking regarding the petition to the board.
“I stand with these parents shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “I’m not in the lead, but what I’m doing is being a voice, and there’s going to be some changes made at the school. I will do everything in my power to help these parents and alumni bring their school back to respect the traditional teachings of the Catholic faith.”
Peter Lovenheim is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect.” He can be reached at [email protected]. Rochester Beacon Executive Editor Paul Ericson contributed to this article.