Centre College Founders Day 2011
Centre College, Newlin Hall, January 19, 2011
by Richard L. Morrill, President of the Teagle Foundation and Chancellor of the University of Richmond;
Centre College president 1982-88
Good morning, everyone. This is a Founders Day celebration but also a homecoming for me. We didn’t have a Founders Day event when I came aboard at Centre, but I wish we did. It is a good way to show that some of the faces in portraits on the wall are still walking around.
It is always a joy to return to Centre to see colleagues and friends and to reflect on the College’s trajectory through its 192 years. I have reached the stage in life that I am pointing toward the 200th Founder’s Day celebration in 2019. I want to be around for that day in more than spirit.
In preparing for this visit, I have had the good fortune of perusing two new publications that do so much to fill in Centre’s history for a wider audience. The stunning pictorial narrative Our Standard Sure by C. Thomas Hardin and Bob Hill and Beau Weston’s insightful Centre College: Scholars, Gentlemen and Christians have given me new perspectives on the Centre story that I love to tell. The telling is never complete, and new insights surface in these texts that help to decipher things we all know about Centre but often have a hard time to put in words.
As I turned the first pages of Our Standard Sure, I found the Rodes family tree with five generations of Centre graduates, dating back to Charles Henry Rodes, Centre Class of 1867. He must have started Centre in 1863 when the battle of Perryville caused such trauma on the campus and in Danville. Right there in the middle of the tree are my dear friends Nelson, our Centre life trustee, and Martha Rodes, their two children and daughter-in-law and grandson—all Centre graduates, including daughter Priss, who finished her work at Centre in 1988, the same year that I did.
The books reinforced one of the motifs in Centre’s narrative as a place that is all about deep and enduring relationships—at Centre, we often use the metaphor of family to describe it, and it is more than a turn of phrase. Centre is family writ large. Its intimate campus community sets the conditions for exceptional closeness, which is reinforced by the high expectations and deep respect that define the relationships between and among faculty, staff and students. Those relationships provide the framework for the deep forms of learning that occur on the Centre campus both in and beyond the classroom. Through life in the Centre community, self-awareness is deepened, self-confidence grows, empathy for the thoughts and feelings of others is nurtured and skills in listening and relating to others from many different backgrounds become stronger competencies. As educators we should capture better than we do these powerful forms of learning that occur in lifelong Centre relationships and friendships.
Several other illustrations may help to make this point about the deep bonds of family and friendship in the Centre experience. One of the two first ever graduates of Centre in 1824, Lewis Warner Green, returned 33 years later to become president. His daughter Leticia married an 1857 graduate, Adlai Stevenson, who went on to serve as vice president of the United States under Grover Cleveland. His grandson, by the way, would be governor of Illinois and twice democratic candidate for president of the United States.
And, of course, the two president Youngs demonstrate the place of family in the leadership of Centre. John and William, father and son, led the College for almost half of its first 80 years. But they did not do so as a stifling inheritance, but through leadership in Kentucky and beyond. When Centre took form under John C. Young, it did so by disproportionately educating young men who came to weave leadership and service into their lives. Woodrow Wilson noticed, and we never let anyone forget for a minute what he said about “the men of distinction” among Centre alumni.
When I was president, I had one of the original, famous 1890 directories of Centre alumni in my office that included brief bios of Centre graduates from the founding until that date. I thumbed it often, and it helped me to see the remarkable legacy of leadership at Centre that arose in the mid 1800’s. Many generational family blood lines were evident in the lists, but they were not required to be part of the Centre family of learning. Partly through its intimate size and partly though its high expectations, and in some measure through a Presbyterian culture that prized education, an aristocracy of achievement and service began to take hold at Centre.
Just like all of you, it has been my deep privilege to witness and to share in a range of Centre relationships. I came to Centre largely because one of my closest friends in graduate school suggested my name to the search committee, even though I had no intention of pursuing the opportunity. The irrepressible Dr. Eric Mount later called and said the search committee had met five candidates but they had not found the person they wanted. “Someone is going to get in touch with you just to advise the committee about the search.” The rest is history. I paid Eric back for disrupting my life by making him Dean of Students two years later, and our families and daughters remain very close friends.
During that search and later, I came to share in a fabled friendship between two of the College’s most distinguished graduates, Pierce Lively and James Evans. Judge Lively has had an exemplary career in legal and judicial leadership, first in private practice and then on the bench as Judge and Chief Judge of the Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. For the past 15 years, he has taught constitutional law at his alma mater with professor Dan Stroup. He is a life trustee of the College and has done it all for Centre for decades and has chaired the search process that has hired the last three presidents of the College. He embodies Centre’s spirit, demonstrates unfathomable commitment to the College and personifies the depth of Centre relationships. His lifelong friend Jim Evans, who chaired the Centre board and has been intensely devoted to Centre, also as a life trustee, is one of the leading American business executives of the last quarter of the 20th century. His charm and grace and intelligence personify the ideals of scholar, gentleman and Christian about which Beau Weston writes. This relationship has been nurtured by Centre, and the College’s values of rigorous and honest intellectual inquiry have fueled this transcendent friendship.
One last Centre relationship, between the 18th and 20th presidents, deserves a brief word for the record, for it includes some irony and carries a message about the College. In the fall of 1987, I had been nominated for the presidency at the University of Richmond. I had some contact on the phone and by mail with the Chief of Staff to the President at the University of Richmond, one Dr. John Roush, who encouraged my involvement. About two minutes after my arrival, I figured out that this man deserved even larger responsibilities, and I promoted him to vice-president. We could not have worked more closely or well together than we did for the next 10 years, at which point I decided to retire. Soon I had a call from Pierce Lively asking if I had anyone to nominate to succeed President Adams. I said, “Pierce, you will want to consider John Roush here at Richmond.” Later, David Grissom, another of Centre’s leadership legends and chair of the board, called for a reference and I said, “David, let me sum this up. If you want a president who will become one of the most effective and beloved leaders in Centre history, you should hire John. He’s good as gold.”
After almost 13 years of John Roush’s leadership, the record shows I was right. John has served longer than all but three other Centre presidents. He and you together have done nothing less than rebuild the campus and make Centre stronger than it has ever been.
The bonds that are formed here are deep and lasting because at Centre everyone participates in a single and intense community of engagement. Everyone is needed, everyone matters and everyone cares. There is no place to hide, no one is redundant and there are no secrets. If you don’t go to class, your friends and probably your professor will hail you on campus and ask what’s up. Professors and students make natural and telling claims on one another because Centre serves a larger educational cause. The relationships are important because Centre is important, and it serves the compelling purpose of liberal education as a transformative process of human development. That form of development, since the Founding, has been uniformly seen to require formation of the powers of mind as well as the habits of the heart. Every president in Centre’s history has given voice to the belief of the faculty and the governing board that education has a deep moral purpose. John C. Young’s inaugural in 1830 shows a strong Calvinist belief in human corruptibility with the certainty that knowledge alone will lead to power as dominion over others. At the same time, he echoes thoughts about the possibilities of education that were also being advanced by other presidents at the largest and most esteemed institutions in the land, including Jeremiah Day at Yale in the famous Yale Reports of 1828.
Yale was the largest college in the country in 1828, with an enrollment of 325 and a graduating class of 82. When understood as the development of the different powers of the mind through liberal education, and formed by moral purpose and practice, Day could offer these famous words, “The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline of the mind and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two.” In his inaugural just two years later, Centre’s Young would say, “A good instructor will make it a great part of his business to induce his pupils to observe, compare, combine and judge for themselves . . . The power they thus acquire will be of greater value than any amount of information than can be communicated to them within the walls of a college.” I note from Beau Weston that very similar language defines the purposes of Centre’s new curriculum of 1967. In the mid 1980’s, when we revised the curriculum, I often paraphrased a quote from Thomas Green of Syracuse University to the effect that, “we are born into the world but educated into the possession of our powers for reason, imagination, judgment, and coherent action in the world . . . that is the value, the worth, if you will . . . of education.”
I can suggest with some confidence that much of the thought that informs today’s best practices in liberal education takes a very similar form. The aim is to engage students deeply in the tasks of learning and to evaluate their achievements in terms of essential learning outcomes. The outcomes include the competencies and values required for the practice of democracy and for effective relations with others. Each of the most influential recent analyses of liberal education whether in the publications of the Association of American Colleges and Universities or in a book like former president of Harvard Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges makes similar arguments about the development of intellectual capacities and personal competencies as the core of liberal education.
In the telling of Centre presidents and faculty, serving that larger cause has special urgency for the College to serve as a model of national excellence in and for its region. At a time when doubts continue to be raised about the levels of student achievement in American colleges and universities, Centre relationships occur in the context of a strong sense of community and pride in the College and its high standards, and they produce the most acute forms of loyalty to Centre. The unparalleled support of Centre alumni suggests nothing less. Respect for learning takes up residence in the relationships that faculty and staff members forge with students and that faculty members have with one another. There is no time or energy at Centre for pettiness or politics since too much is at stake in serving as a model for Kentucky and the nation.
The commitment to learning that defines the Centre environment serves it well as it now extends its reach to include global citizenship. The conditions for effective liberal education include intellectual values that make the transition to a global landscape a natural one. The respect for dissenting views that one learns as a scholar translate directly into curiosity and openness to the different ideas and cultural patterns that exist in other countries and places. The humility of the scholar to bow to the facts and the courage of the scholar to face difficult findings are the sorts of virtues that underwrite learning in the arts and sciences. They also come decisively into play as new and different ideas and practices confront the learner in a different world of belief and practice. These academic virtues turn on empathy for the feelings and experiences of others and the ability to see oneself as others do. The commitment to curiosity and to continuous learning in an ever enlarging global community provides the vehicles for the journey.
The voyage will be tough and bewildering at times and will not lead to easy acceptance or celebration of all that is discovered in other places. New fields and bodies of knowledge about distant places and civilizations will as well have to be added to the curriculum. But the powers of the mind and heart will be enlarged and the capacity for independent thought will be enabled in the global context, as has always been the Centre goal. The steady beat of Centre’s powerful education will learn the new rhythms of a global age and offer new opportunities for students and faculty in the years ahead.
A skeptic might ask, how can these possibilities for global learning and citizenship be forged at a small college in a small town in the middle of nowhere? The answer is that Centre always lights a path to somewhere and now everywhere. That light is crystal clear in the history of the College and in the relationships that it enables.