David Malloy, the new principal at King’s University College, has 30 years of academic experience behind him, most recently with the University of Regina. Photo by Michael Swan

The King’s philosopher: new principal looks to create meaning in the lives of students

  • October 16, 2019

David Malloy may be the philosopher in charge at King’s, but he’s no philosopher-king.

Plato was the Athenian philosopher who proposed philosophers would make the best kings. Malloy knows Plato, but prefers Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and existentialism. 

“That’s my grounding — in existentialism,” Malloy, 60, told The Catholic Register as he began his 10th week as the new principal at King’s University College, affiliated with Western University in London, Ont.

Malloy’s brand of existentialism has a lot in common with Pope St. John Paul II’s contribution to a school of philosophy called personalism.

“That’s what existentialism is all about. What is the person? What is our responsibility? What is our freedom? How do our actions define who we are?”

By putting a philosopher in charge, the King’s crowd is getting a leader whose first thought is about the meaning of life at King’s.

“The primary function of leadership is to help people to find meaning,” Malloy said.

As a third-year English and History major who hopes one day to be a high school teacher, Josh Stephenson gets what Malloy is talking about. Stephenson chose King’s for practical reasons — smaller classes, more one-on-one time with professors. But in his time at the Catholic liberal arts college, he has noticed his student experience is about a lot more than what happens inside the classroom. There’s faith, there’s community and there’s a sense of responsibility, he said.

“If you are looking to be more involved, they will help you every step of the way,” said Stephenson.

It is especially helpful that the communities at King’s — whether they involve student politics or issues involving the federal election — encourage respectful dialogue, he said.

“This is a great place to have conversations and not want to kill each other,” is how Stephenson puts it.

Whether the students know it or not, talking and not wanting to kill each other is one of the defining characteristics of a Catholic education as defined in the Vatican’s constitution for Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesia.

“It’s the willingness to embrace the discussion about uncomfortable truths — that’s a fundamental tenet of Ex Corde,” Malloy said. “So here we welcome debate and as a Catholic university we welcome uncomfortable truths. We want to talk about them in terms of both-and, as opposed to either-or.”

Where the culture wars, political attack ads and social media often reduce debate to a game we play to win, the Catholic intellectual life engages in debate as one way to find the truth by listening to others.

“If you and I are debating, my intent is not to carve you up and logic you out of the room — and therefore I score a win,” explained Malloy. “No. I want to hear your point of view and I want you to hear my point of view.”

Through his years teaching philosophy at the University of Regina, as an adjunct professor at Hunan University, China, and as a researcher in bioethics at the International Institute for Bioethics Research in Shandong Province, China, Malloy has never been the sort of philosopher who flies off into abstraction. He has been a prominent contributor to codes of ethics for health care professionals and has served on the Law and Ethics Committee of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and helping CIHR assess grant applications. 

He’s headed research teams that have pulled in over $4 million in research grants and along the way published six books, including Golfing With the Enlightened Dead — Lessons on Leadership and Meaning From the Pros.

A King’s education has to consist of much more than sitting in classrooms, reading the right books and passing exams, Malloy said. “Experiential learning has got to be key. For me, that’s a given,” he said. 

King’s students travel to Rome to study immigration issues at the Vatican, to the Dene nation in the Northwest Territories, or down to Arizona to study the politics and history of borders. Such experiential learning is part of the Catholic brand in higher education and it represents significant value added, said Malloy.

When a King’s graduate walks into an employer’s office they should be able to show they have had some experience of the world.

“We, as in universities, haven’t done a good job of preparing our (liberal arts) students to market themselves. I don’t mean to be crass by that, but we just haven’t,” Malloy said. “Experiential learning is critical for us to do that. It’s not just skills. It’s using those skills in the community.”

Malloy walks the walk on community service. He and four musically-inclined friends from the University of Regina who call themselves The Garage Band have raised just over $1 million for community charities playing old rock and roll for free at events. Gripping his Hofner H500/1 electric bass, Malloy doesn’t look much like Sir Paul McCartney, who made the Hofner famous. About twice the size of the Beatles front man, the father of four still looks like the 200- and 400-metre runner who once led the Western University Mustangs into track and field competitions in his student days, then later coached the team.

Whatever he’s doing, Malloy does it with energy and focus. His next goal is to raise $16 million to help King’s complete its purchase of 18 acres from St. Peter’s Seminary next door.

“What that land represents is just pure potential,” said Malloy.

The land may end up being the site for new student housing, chaplaincy and student government offices. Malloy recognizes that where the previous eight principals at King’s had to worry about attracting enough students to keep the doors open — there are 3,300 today — and drawing quality academics so the college could live up to its ambition to be a better university, he gets to dream.

“I’m coming at a time where we’re in very, very good shape,” he said. “Our enrolment is up. We’ve got outstanding academics here. I’m in a position where I’m not up at night worrying about students coming in. What I get to stay up at night worrying about — not worrying about, thinking about — is the value proposition of this place. Which I think, if I may be so bold, is what I’ve really been preparing to do the last 30 years.”

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