Catholics Plan Liberal Arts College in Wyoming

Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune
11 May 2004

CHEYENNE — Wyoming may, within two to four years, be home to a Roman Catholic liberal arts college that focuses on a Great Books curriculum, as well as a connection to nature that is nonexistent in most institutions of higher learning.

The Diocese of Cheyenne has formed a committee to begin planning for the college, with site selection among its first orders of business.

The Catholic college would be the second college that recently announced plans to come to Wyoming. CollegeAmerica, a Denver-based college with 12 campuses in five states, plans to open a branch in Cheyenne this fall.

The Rev. Bob Cook of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Casper is among the chief planners of the Catholic college and is acting as a coordinator of the founders committee.

“I think the hope is that we can have found the site and secure it within the next year, and we’re hoping that at least a small number of students can be gathered in the next two- to three-year period so classes could actually begin,” Cook said.

A focus on the natural world, from appreciating its beauty to getting involved in a down-to-earth way with agriculture, is part of what will make the college unique, according to Cook.

“Part of the methodology of the college is to put the youngsters back into contact with the real world, especially the world of nature,” he said.

He said some members of the founders committee are college educators.

“They have noticed that so many young people, they read a poem about a horse, but they don’t know what a horse is,” Cook said. “I mean, they’ve seen a picture, but knowing a horse? They don’t.”

The yet unnamed college first needs a location, and the church is soliciting help in finding one of at least 640 acres with topography suitable for large buildings, scenic land with streams or ponds, reasonable proximity to a major highway and a moderate-sized community, and the capacity to build housing and facilities for eventually up to 400 students.

Cook said the founders are eying that 400-student limit in order to maintain a sense of community that doesn’t exist in larger colleges or universities.

The college will focus strictly on undergraduate education.

“Once you leave our school, you’ll be more than really prepared to do to graduate school for your specialty study,” Cook said. “Our purpose is not to specialize. It’s to educate the whole person in their ethics, their spirituality, their intellect, and there senses and appreciation for beauty in nature.”

He said the college will also offer a prep school for high school seniors to give them a chance to get an early start at college, as many teens spend their senior years “simply just waiting until college starts.”

The college will target students across the country for recruitment, as well as those who have been home-schooled,
who Cook said would likely share some of the same values that the college will promote.

Many people who school their children at home “typically are liberal arts kinds of families,” he said, who think history, philosophy, theology and literature are important elements to a college education.

Cook described the Great Books program as a collection of writings by roughly 100 authors generally considered to contain much of the wisdom of Western civilization.

He said part of the idea behind the college was that young people today get caught up in a technology-heavy world, and they would benefit intellectually and spiritually from a college experience that involved such things as caring for a horse, or a calf, and hikes through the country.

“It is really an attempt to establish a remedial connection to the real world, the natural world. … The creativity that’s engendered by living on a farm is pretty good, pretty helpful, I think,” he said.

He said the founders consider Wyoming to be an ideal place for learning the kinds of natural values that come from living close to the land.

Hank Coe, chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, said he would welcome the college to Wyoming if it will offer a quality education.

Coe, a member of Wyoming’s Education Commission of the States, said the Legislature last year passed legislation to
prohibit “diploma mills” from forming in Wyoming and to prohibit schools from claiming a religious affiliation to avoid paying taxes.

But as long at the Catholic college will play by the rules, Coe said it would likely be a benefit to Wyoming.

“If they come in and they want to open up a liberal arts college here, that’s fine,” he said.

The undertaking is a joint plan of Bishop David Ricken and several lay persons, according to Cook. The founders committee includes Ricken, Cook, Casper College Philosophy and Humanities Professor Robert Carlson, Catholic Monsignor James Conley of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, Hillsdale College Associate Provost David Whalen, Wheatland attorney and rancher Ray Hunkins, Kansas City attorney Marc Kuemmerlein, and Gary Seaton, a private financier from Albuquerque.

Cook said there are few Catholic liberal arts colleges left in the country.

“They sort of became abandoned before we realized how valuable they were,” he said.

Considering the unique experience the Wyoming Catholic college would offer its students, Cook said the founders do not see it as being in direct competition with the kind of education a student would receive at the University of Wyoming or the state’s community colleges.

“We think it’s of great importance to offer this in today’s world,” Cook said.

Posted 29 May 2004/sl