My role as president is to understand, interpret and advance this collective vision of the Bellarmine community—a great vision built on great hope. And hope does ring out today, in all its glory. From Berlin to Bellarmine, from Leningrad to Louisville, from Yokohama to Okolona—I had to work that into my speech—and from Rome to Rooster Run, hope does ring out.
“I am mindful of this hope and of all of you today as I formally assume the presidency of this special place. I ask you to join and support me, and I ask our God to bless us all as we now begin together to realize the rich vision and enormous potential of Bellarmine College in vertitatis amore.
–Dr. Joseph J. McGowan’s 1990 inaugural address
True to his word, Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, Bellarmine’s third and longest-serving president, inspired the Bellarmine community over the next 26 years to look beyond what was, envision what could be, and make that vision a reality.
Under Dr. McGowan’s leadership, Bellarmine College became Bellarmine University—a name change that reflected the school’s growth from a “hidden gem” that educated a small number of mostly commuter students to the premier independent Catholic university in the South and the leading private university in the commonwealth and region.
Dr. McGowan initially focused on the basics to strengthen the base: by increasing enrollment; by growing the faculty in size and quality and improving their compensation and benefits; and by beginning to develop the campus to be more residential and regional. In 2006, he and Bellar-mine’s Board of Trustees launched Vision 2020, setting a broad vision for new schools, new majors, new buildings and new ways to serve Louisville and Kentucky. This vision, supported by a significant capital campaign, continues to transform Bellarmine’s campus and academic life.
Enrollment was 2,500 when Dr. McGowan arrived in 1990. Today, Bellarmine’s nearly 4,000 students hail from 42 states and 22 countries. More than half of undergraduate students live on campus. The faculty has grown from 85 to 167. Dr. McGowan added schools of education, communication, continuing and professional studies and environmental studies, and the university awarded its first doctoral degrees during his time as president. He even wrote Bellarmine’s alma mater.
Also during his tenure, Bellarmine added an NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse team, as well as Division II programs in swimming and diving, women’s soccer, women’s golf and women’s track—and in 2011, the men’s basketball team captured Bellarmine’s first NCAA national championship in any sport.
As Bellarmine’s physical campus grew from 15 buildings to 57, it was Dr. McGowan’s love of architecture and of the hill towns of Tuscany, birthplace of university namesake Roberto Bellarmino, that set the template. He gave many new buildings, roads and spaces Italian names—the Palio, L’Aboreto, Via Cassia—and insisted that every structure be beautiful and filled with light, from Our Lady of the Woods Chapel and the Siena residential complex to the new University Dining Hall.
The first and last major construction projects he was involved with serve as fitting bookends for his presidency. An excellent university needs an excellent library, he said, and the W.L. Lyons Brown Library, which opened in 1997, remained one of his proudest achievements—a “sacred space,” he called it. It seemed perfectly fitting that a man who so loved language would have his office on the second floor.
The most recent project—Centro—will be complete this summer. Rising atop the hill, connected by a glass atrium to renovated Horrigan and Treece Halls, it will house a Welcome Center, a School of Graduate Management, the Institute for Advanced Analytics and much needed classroom space. But equally as important, he believed, it will provide wonderful places for students to gather.
“The college experience encompasses many things, and chief among them, I believe, is the personal growth that occurs when we encounter people, ideas and beliefs that are different from us and from our ideas and beliefs—and through authentic conversations, we either change our minds, or we learn why we hold the beliefs that we do,” he said at the 2014 Centro groundbreaking. “Centro, like no other place on the Bellarmine campus before, will provide the perfect setting for these encounters and these conversations, for resident students and commuting students alike. It will become, truly, the beating heart of this university.”
Perhaps what most characterized Dr. McGowan’s presidency was his belief in the core community values that have always characterized Bellarmine—a campus where people value the good of the place and the good in each other. Even as enrollment grew, he insisted that class sizes remain small, that Bellarmine never lose the personal touch that alumni hold dear.
The day after his death, Dr. Helen-Grace Ryan, vice president for Student Affairs, received the following letter from Wendy Franklin, whose daughter Morgan is a first year nursing student:
Upon hearing of the passing this morning of Dr. McGowan I have spent my day reflecting on the wonderful community that Bellarmine has created which is, I am sure in no small way, a testament to his leadership for these past many years. As the grateful parent of a daughter who settled beautifully, happily and immediately into the Bellarmine world, I want to express how deeply the kind and generous spirit permeates the entire fiber.
Last week Moey called me to share a story which she termed as Another Happy Bellarmine Story. She had studied hard for an anatomy exam, still didn’t feel prepared, woke up in the morning still feeling unsure and after the test went to meet her wonderful girlfriends at Einstein’s, where they jokingly go to cry after anatomy exams. Only this time, she said, “I actually did cry.” The girl trio went into the restroom (where all teary girls end up) and were approached by a woman from the campus ministry team who kindly asked Moey if there was anything she could do to help. Her friends urged her to go back to the anatomy professor to talk to him but she had to go immediately to her next class.
When she went into the next class, still upset, she went up to the professor and asked if she could be a few minutes late. The professor, seeing that she was upset, interrupted her mid-sentence, sweetly telling her to go do what she needed to do. So Moey went to the anatomy professor, who invited her in, greeted her by name and offered to get the test out and take a look at it. He then took the time to grade the test right then, talking her through it as he went along. As it turned out, she did bomb one section but was brilliant in the other sections, which saved the overall grade. He encouraged her, spoke to her about being confident in her abilities, complimented her preparation and sent her on her way.
So, to sum it up, she had two fabulous girlfriends to support her, the unexpected offer of campus ministry to help, the intuitive professor who excused her and the original professor who dropped everything to grade her test and give her a pep talk—all before noon.
From start to finish and every step in between I have been stunned at how well Bellarmine does everything. They seem to do it all with graciousness, kindness, attention to the individual and with great sensitivity, humor and ice cream. Please know that as a Mama who misses her every single day, I appreciate you all each and every day. My heart is saddened by the loss of Dr. McGowan, but I know his legacy will live on in every student’s life touched by the Bellarmine community.
Twenty-six years is a long time to be a university president. In an interview shortly before his death, Rondah Kinchlow in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs asked Dr. McGowan what it was about his job that made him excited to get up in the morning. He said, in part, that it was “the fact that you’re dealing in essence with minds and hearts and souls at crucial times in their lives, as most of our students are in the 18- to 24- or 26-year-old range… It’s just incredible the things that are happening in their lives and their consciousness.
“You hear the cliché, ‘the best years of their lives.’ I don’t know if that’s true, [but] it is certainly an incredibly important and dramatic and poignant moment in their lives. To have that going on, to see the difference in what happens with individuals over a four-year period or six-year period, is fascinating and encouraging. And then, one of the joys of being in this position for a while, I can see them out 10 years, or in some cases 20 years; we’re even getting some of the children of the people I knew as students here. It’s just very rich on a human level and it’s very meaningful work.
“I don’t think I would have this kind of love of my work and sense of blessing were it not such a hopeful exercise.”
Dr. McGowan’s loss will be keenly felt, but so will his presence. Now and going forward, hope does ring out.
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org