The Economics of Excellence: Philanthropy in the Shaping of Centre College

Centre College is one of the few small colleges in America with an endowment in excess of a million dollars. On June 30, 1940, the endowment of the College was $1,743,195.96.
The first $100,000 was raised in the administration of Dr. John C. Young, and the second $100,000 was raised in the administration of his son, Dr. William C. Young. The greatest campaign for funds was for $600,000 additional endowment, which was completed in 1922 with the inclusion of a gift of $200,000 from the General Education Board (Rockefeller Foundation). In March, 1939, upon the decease of Mr. Guy E. Wiseman, a devoted alumnus and faithful trustee, Centre College was bequeathed an amount exceeding $400,000, of which $178,000 was designated by Mr. Wiseman for the erection of two new buildings, the endowment of the Music Department, and the purchase of a pipe organ.
The present value of the plant, buildings, equipment, and grounds of the two Colleges amounts to $939,809.88. The libraries include more than 32,000 volumes.
— Centre College Catalogue, 1940-1941
John Roush
As this excerpt illustrates, after more than a century of determined effort, Centre College at the end of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II was in an enviable position with a growing endowment, adequate campus facilities (albeit in two locations), and impressive library holdings. Unfortunately, the years immediately ahead would be among the most challenging in the College’s long history. The forward momentum of 1940 came to a screeching halt little more than a year later when the United States entered the war and Centre’s enrollment, like that of most colleges, collapsed. A training program for future Army Air Corps pilots kept the College from closing during the war years. But it would be at least two decades later and well into the presidency of Thomas Spragens before Centre could again move beyond the urgency of immediate needs to focus on its long-term future.
As the social historians Merle Curti and Roderick Nash observed in their classic, Philanthropy in the Shaping of American Higher Education (1965), “Few institutions in the United States bear the marks of private, voluntary giving as noticeably as higher education.” While this is true of American higher education as a whole, the excerpt above from the College’s 1940–1941 catalogue illustrates just how true it has been of Centre as well. Moreover, it does not stretch the truth to say that the Centre College of today, with its beautifully maintained grounds and campus buildings and endowment in excess of $260 million, is largely the result of the success of the College’s last four campaigns: Fund for the Future, 1979–1982; the Campaign for Centre, 1985–1989; Front and Centre, 1994–1997; and the Campaign for A More Perfect Centre, 2003–2007.
Fund for the Future 1979–1982
In many respects, the Fund for the Future was the capstone on the remarkable presidency of Thomas A. Spragens, who served the College from 1957 through 1981. Under President Spragens’ leadership, Centre became racially integrated, the men’s and women’s campuses were consolidated, the Quad, Crounse and Young Halls, and the Norton Center for the Arts were constructed, and the Board of Trustees became self-perpetuating, effectively ending church control. How appropriate for the last major initiative of the Spragens presidency to be an effort to enhance the physical facilities and to grow the endowment of the College he had served so well.
While the Fund for the Future was the culmination of the Spragens years, it showcased the talent and energy of the young trustee, J. David Grissom ’60, who chaired the campaign. The overall goal of the Fund for the Future was $30 million. The stated purposes of the campaign were as follows: to increase the level of annual giving, improve physical facilities, especially athletic and recreational facilities, and to expand food service facilities; and to grow the permanent endowment toward a level of $25 million by the mid-1980s. The Fund for the Future exceeded its goal, generating commitments totaling $34,146,801. As a result, Farris Stadium, Sutcliffe Hall, and Cowan Dining Commons were renovated. Also, $4 million was added to the endowment and the register of future gifts (i.e., deferred gifts) was enlarged by more than $22 million. Significantly, during the course of the campaign, gifts for current use increased by 90 percent and Centre began to attract national attention for the rate at which its alumni participated in annual giving to the College.
The Campaign for Centre 1985–1989
The Campaign for Centre was launched during the presidency of Richard L. Morrill, who led the College from 1982 until 1988. Following a two-year silent phase of leadership gift enlistment, the Campaign for Centre was publicly launched in early March 1987. Under the leadership of co-chairs, James H. Evans ’43 and Jane Morton Norton, the campaign sought to raise a total of $33 million, an increase of $3 million over the goal of the Fund for the Future. By this time, David Grissom and Jim Evans had switched roles, with Grissom chairing the Board of Trustees as Evans had during the Fund for the Future. Jane Norton, a prominent Louisvillian and non-alumna trustee of the College, was the greatest friend of the arts Centre has ever had and the person for whom the Norton Center is named. Evans, a retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Union Pacific Corporation, remains a life trustee of the College.
Strengthening the faculty and the College’s academic program was the particular emphasis of Richard Morrill’s presidency. In keeping with that focus, the largest funding priorities of the Campaign for Centre were endowment for faculty salaries and endowment for student financial aid. The campaign also sought funds to develop a campus computer network.
By the time The Campaign for Centre drew to a close, Richard Morrill had left the College to assume the presidency of the University of Richmond and Michael F. Adams was on board as the 19th president of Centre. The Campaign for Centre was not only successful but it also exceeded its goal by a healthy margin, generating total gifts and pledges of $39,042,850—$6 million over the goal. Endowment growth at Centre had also exceeded earlier expectations, bringing the total to $40 million by 1987.
Front and Centre 1993–1997
The official name of the major fund drive launched during the presidency of Michael F. Adams was Front and Centre: The 175th Anniversary Campaign. Indeed, its silent phase already had been under way for some months when the College family celebrated the 175th anniversary of Centre’s founding in January 1994. The Front and Centre Campaign was publicly announced in April 1994, one year after the silent phase of leadership gift enlistment had begun. Front and Centre had a goal of raising $60 million by December 31, 1997, when the drive would end. Under the leadership of long-time trustee and secretary of the board, James D. Rouse ’62, who chaired the campaign, this goal was not only met, it was exceeded by $16.1 million.
The Front and Centre Campaign made possible the construction of nine new fraternity and sorority houses, the conversion of an old hemp warehouse into the Combs Center for student activities, and the renovation of another warehouse into the Jones Visual Arts Center. Additionally, Boles Hall was constructed, completing the Old Centre Quadrangle as first envisioned in 1939 when Wiseman Hall was built with proceeds from the bequest of Guy E. Wiseman referenced in the quote from the 1940–1941 Catalogue.
Of the $76.1 million generated by the campaign, some $54.3 million was designated for the College’s endowment. Moreover, during the course of the Front and Centre Campaign, in September 1996, Centre’s endowment broke though the $100 million mark.
Six months prior to the end of Front and Centre, Mike Adams departed Centre to become president of The University of Georgia. During the 1997–1998 academic year, Milton Reigelman served as interim president during the search that would give me the opportunity to serve as 20th president of the College.
Campaign for A More Perfect Centre 2003–2007
When planning began for the Campaign for A More Perfect Centre, the trustees and I hoped it would be Centre’s first $100 million campaign. On the one hand, this seemed a reasonable expectation given the results of the Front and Centre Campaign. On the other, there was still a great deal of lingering economic uncertainty in the aftermath of the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. As it turned out, our timing could not have been better, a reality that proved to be profoundly good.
We did know that we had a proven leader in trustee Randy Kell ’69, who agreed to chair the campaign. (Randy now serves as chair of the Board of Trustees.) So the prospect of setting the goal at $120 million — twice the goal of the last campaign — seemed a little less daunting. Initially, the campaign had only one building project among its funding priorities: The College Centre, which involved major expansions and renovations of Crounse and Sutcliffe Halls. Otherwise, the campaign was intended to increase the endowment, especially for student scholarships and faculty support, and to make significant upgrades to the equipment in the College’s science laboratories.
However, as we neared the mid-point of the campaign, trustee Robert T. “Bob” Brockman ’63 stepped forward and offered to build Pearl Hall as a memorial to his grandmother and mother, both named Pearl. Soon thereafter, three anonymous trustees combined forces to create the $22.5 million Trustee Challenge, which would make possible the building of the Campus Center (replacing the old Cowan Dining Commons), the renovation and expansion of Young Hall, and the renovation and refurbishing of the Norton Center. In the process, the College built Chowan, an attractive, multi-functional metal building on the western edge of campus, installed an artificial playing surface and lights on the football field, and built a new running track around the field.
Total gifts and pledges did not merely exceed the $120 million goal, they literally blew through the goal and did not stop until $169,374,192 had been committed. Moreover, during the course of the Campaign for A More Perfect Centre, the College’s permanent endowment broke through the $200 million mark. And at the January 2008 trustee meeting, David Grissom, who had served as chair of Centre’s board for 22 years, handed the gavel over to Bob Brockman.
A Culture of Philanthropy
Clearly, one can trace the growth and development of campus buildings and facilities as well as the endowment though these four campaigns. The campaigns also played a vital role in the growth of Centre’s faculty and its student body. New buildings have made it possible for Centre to remain highly residential with 98 percent of our students living on campus. Growth in the faculty has allowed the College to reduce our student-faculty ratio to 10:1 and keep our average class size at 18, letting our
faculty mentor students, not just lecture to them. Moreover, because of our extensive scholarship program, Centre remains a place of high opportunity and high academic achievement.
Although I have called off a handful of names of people who have served on the Board of Trustees and who played top leadership roles in these four campaigns, hundreds more alumni, friends, and parents served in volunteer roles. And they and thousands more made the gifts that enabled each of these campaigns to exceed its goal. In the process, something even more important happened. As the people who care most about Centre have taken charge of securing its future as a leader in American higher education, a culture of philanthropy has developed around the educational mission of the College.
How do I know this? An interesting article in the July/August 2014 edition of Trusteeship magazine addressed the topic of “Cultivating A Culture of Philanthropy.” The author, James Michael Langley, a veteran fundraiser and consultant, maintains that fundraising itself does not engender philanthropy. Rather, fundraising is the harvesting of the philanthropic goodwill of people who embrace the work and mission of the institution, take pride in their affiliation with it, and believe they are contributing to the greater good (i.e., creating a better world) through their giving to it.
Significantly, Langley also maintains that there are quantifiable measures for determining if a college has cultivated a culture of philanthropy. The simplest and most basic measure is the percentage of its alumni who have made at least 15 annual gifts to the college. At Centre, we have just over 11,000 solicitable alumni (graduates and non-graduates). Of these, 4,182 (or 38 percent) have 20 or more years of giving (an even higher standard). Moreover, of the alumni who have graduated in the last 19 years, and therefore are excluded from the 4,182 twenty-year donors, 570 have given every year since their graduation.
This means that it is possible for me to maintain with some certainty — and even greater conviction — that Centre alumni are not only the happiest alumni in America, as reported for the last two years by The Alumni Factor, they are the most loyal, something many of us have long known in our hearts. There is a culture of philanthropy at Centre, one that has been nurtured and reinforced by the four campaigns of the past 35 years. And this is why despite all of the challenges that Centre and American higher education face today, I remain very optimistic about the future of this College…our College…Centre College.
Centre College President John A. Roush’s fifth white paper on the challenges and opportunities facing Centre College as it prepares for a third century of service. View the complete white paper.

By |2015-01-05T12:04:56-05:00January 5th, 2015|Alumni, Campus, News|