The executive committee of Aquinas Institute’s board of trustees on Monday declined to hold a special meeting with a group of parents and alumni concerned with what they view as a leftward drift in the Catholic school’s curriculum and culture.
The group’s petition, which has garnered 469 signatures on Change.org, requested an opportunity for parents and alumni to address the board at its next regularly scheduled meeting or to “quickly schedule a separate special board meeting to directly present and discuss” their concerns.
On Monday, Board Chair Nicholas Dobbertin responded to the petition in an email to one of its organizers, Aquinas parent and alumnus Michael Kennedy. The board is “engaging in a discernment process,” Dobbertin wrote, and is “committed to unifying our beloved school in accordance with our Catholic faith and our values of Goodness, Discipline, and Knowledge in the Basilian tradition.” The school, he continued, “values all viewpoints,” adding that “in the coming months, there will be opportunities for you and all Aquinas community members to provide input and feedback as part of our strategic planning process.”
According to Aquinas’ public relations firm, the school’s strategic planning process started in October and will continue through the fall of 2022.
When he submitted the petition request, says Kennedy, he asked that “the board consider this matter as serious and indeed urgent. I reiterated that we expected that this matter must be discussed in person, and with full participation of the parents and alumni as signatories to this plea. The board’s response is not granting us an in-person opportunity to state our grievances and hear their response first-hand. We expected this to be a full and transparent process; it’s not.
Adds Kennedy: “Why won’t they talk with us? Hiding does not make the problems go away. Their refusal to hear us will not silence us. We are the trumpets of Jericho. Our volume is only going to become louder and spread farther until we are heard and change is made; or until their Catholic-in-name-only facade comes tumbling down.”
After its receipt of the petition on Jan. 18, the board also received another petition from a different group of Aquinas parents, alumni, and students, this one supporting the school’s administration. That petition has received 591 signatures on Change.org. It is not known which parents or alumni organized it.
The counterpetition, “Support Critical Thinking at Aquinas Institute,” asserts that the school “embraces gospel values and reflects Catholic values and teachings” while also offering 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.” It concludes by asking 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.”
Read more about how the rift surfaced between parents and alumni: The culture wars come to Aquinas
Parents who supported the first petition, entitled “Restore Academic Freedom and Christian Values at Aquinas,” say the school in recent years “has drifted from its Christian Core Beliefs and Mission, to accommodate political correctness.” Their petition 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.”
Their grievances are longstanding, these parents say, but what spurred them to organize and request a face-to-face meeting with the board was an incident that occurred last November when alumnus Robert Agostinelli visited the school and gave an invited talk to students. During the talk he encouraged them to pursue happiness and the American dream and not “fall prey to the tyranny of false deities” such as critical race theory, the “Marxist Black Lives Matter organization,” feminism and “gender confusion.” At that point, three or four students walked out of the auditorium. Within hours, his remarks were disavowed by the school’s top administrator.
Agostinelli, one of the school’s wealthiest alumni, is active in philanthropy internationally and is managing director of Rhone Group, a global private equity firm he co-founded in 1996. The school had long sought a major donation from him.
Asked to comment on the board’s response to parents and alumni who filed the first petition, Agostinelli wrote in an email: “Over 500 families and alumni from across the nation have expressed their fervent concerns about the lack of academic freedom and the imposition of radical views being imposed on their children in a conscious departure from the traditions of the Faith and the school.”
He added: “They have expressed an urgent desire to engage in a serious dialogue with the Board and Administration regarding the same. Many alumni have explicitly placed a hold on any further financial commitment pending a satisfactory resolution.”
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.