Founders Day Address | Centre at 200: Leadership and Purpose

Richard L. Morrill, Centre College’s 18th president (1982-88), delivered the annual Founders Day address on Wednesday, Jan. 22, in Newlin Hall of Centre’s Norton Center for the Arts. Morrill left Centre to become president of the University of Richmond (1988-98), then later served Richmond as chancellor and Distinguished University Professor of Ethics and Democratic Values.

Martha and I are thrilled and deeply honored to be back at Centre at a signature moment for this now ancient and distinguished College. Though I have no authority to do so, I still make bold to affirm and to celebrate that the College has now entered its third century.

In trying to get my bearings after a quite a spell of absence, I scrolled the list of current faculty members. It was a bad choice because I was startled at first that all the names were new to me, only later to find several familiar colleagues. As I was trying to figure out what time had wrought, I found the missing pieces of my puzzle. I located a story with photos in a recent Centrepieceabout the inhabitants of a place called Jurassic Park. The park happens to look a lot like a home on Maple Avenue. The lost were found. I learned that many of my retired colleagues have taken up places in this lovely space for dinosaurs. It comes complete with computers and original artwork of dinosaurs at play, and a sign placed discreetly at the back door.

Some of you may be aware that I tend to think about colleges and universities in terms of their organizational cultures and values, their narratives of identity and aspiration—those defining elements that are always a starting point to forge a strategy. Over the last decade, I have tied these interests to a focus on leadership by college presidents and governing boards and and have written and consulted regularly on those topics.

My experiences at Centre in narrating the College’s identity and in studying its disproportionate achievements through time prompt my reflections today. For me, the College’s distinctiveness jumps off the page in its achievements around leadership, and in the single-mindedness and depth of its purpose to provide a first-rate and transformative education in the arts and sciences. I would like to share some impression and unsystematic thoughts and stories about Centre as a leader, the leaders of Centre and Centre’s capacity to educate leaders. I will also offer my personal take on Centre’s purpose through time.

A Culture of Philanthropy

Let me begin by focusing on Centre as a national leader in philanthropy. When I first stepped on the campus in 1982, it quickly became clear that Centre had developed many aspects of a culture of philanthropy that set it apart as a leader among colleges. I first learned about the reach of the culture from students who would volunteer that they could be at Centre only because others before them had made it possible. They believed that they had to do the same for the next generation. I also traced the roots of the culture to the achievements of President Thomas Spragens and his cohorts during his transformative leadership for 24 years.

I came to see Centre’s culture of philanthropy as a set of mutual expectations and shared values among alumni, a sense of both responsibility and pride, as gratitude for deep relationships with faculty and rewarding campus experiences. All these facets of at tight culture provided the foundation for the methods and systems that took hold in a highly developed process of alumni communication and solicitation. Vice President Rick Nahm, Centre Class of 1969, led, organized and energized a highly talented and devoted alumni and development staff.

I received some news of decisive importance from Rick late in the summer of 1984. He called and said, “The data is just in and we have done it. We beat Dartmouth and Williams in the alumni rate of giving for the last fiscal year. We are in first place.” It turned out to be 68.7 percent.

I asked, “Are you sure the data is good?”

“Yes, we’ve been tracking this for the last few years through a reliable national data base.”

A few years later, the record was set at 75.3 percent. The news got out and the Wall Street Journal ran a story, which was then picked up in several other news outlets over the next couple of years.

One of the special characteristics of effective leadership is that success breeds success. A little friendly competition helps. It turns out that a year or so later Dartmouth College featured a story on the inside cover of its alumni magazine to motivate their donors to beat Centre. It featured the picture of a campaign button in Dartmouth green that said, “Go Dartmouth, Beat Centre.” A little like C6H0, it is great to lead the country, and especially good fun to beat one of the Ivy’s. Most important, though, was to show again that everything is possible at a small college in the middle of nowhere that lights a path of leadership to everywhere.

The story does not end there. It happens that a year later, I was making foundation calls in New York, and managed to get an appointment at the Olin Foundation. This foundation had awarded one or two major grants each year to colleges and universities to fund fully every aspect of a major new facility, usually a library or a science building. They chose colleges that had shown leadership and momentum among their peers. The rumors were that it took three years to get a look from Olin. At the end of my meeting, the Foundation director seemed to find the Centre story intriguing, but the national leadership in alumni participation captured his attention. Olin awarded the grant two years later. It is fabulous to learn that that the College is enlarging and renovating Olin Hall, giving Centre two excellent state of the art facilities in the sciences. Centre leads.

The story continues. Centre had received a $10,000 grant for several years from the Teagle Foundation. Learning of Centre’s leadership in alumni giving, the foundation’s new chief executive became interested in a special fundraising project. Like most foundation executives, he was hoping to make a grant that would keep on giving. Through plans developed by Rick Nahm and Clarence Wyatt, Centre Class of 1978, Centre organized several consortia of colleges in and around Appalachia to learn some of Centre’s techniques in alumni fund-raising. After several years of quite large Teagle grants, we learned that although you can export the methods of fundraising, a culture of philanthropy must be grown at home.

If participation rates and their reverberating influence are not enough to make the point about Centre’s leadership, we can look at the culture of giving that has occurred in Centre’s capital campaigns. There have been five efforts between 1980 and 2020. Each has been successful, and the Third Century campaign recently passed its goal at over $200 million. That number and the transforming gifts behind it is a benchmark of national leadership for colleges of Centre’s size.

Centre Leaders

Let me now turn to a few thoughts about the leaders of Centre. During my years, I learned that decision-making at Centre is decidedly collegial and leadership is widely dispersed at many levels, both in terms of authority and influence. Faculty and staff tend to hold the place in trust, not unlike the board. Disagreements rarely turn into disruptive hostility since virtually everyone seems to know intuitively that it would damage the College itself and its leadership role in liberal education. It would harm as well the centrality of the student experience. The moral ecology of the place both protects and advances the College’s purpose.

I believe that another form of distinctive and effective leadership at Centre comes from the board of trustees.

Based on work I have done around the country with governing boards and presidents, I would claim that the Centre board is in a class by itself. The board’s commitment to the College is the stuff of legends, and their understanding of effective governance has been exemplary. Members know the difference intuitively between engaged oversight and intrusion into management. They put hard and good questions but do not try to control the answers. Unlike most boards, they do not pursue or tolerate special interests.

Jim Evans, Centre Class of 1943, brought me to Centre when he was board chair, and we became lifelong friends. Alumni provided him with a scholarship so he could attend Centre, and he became one of the most influential business leaders in America in the last quarter of the 20th century. He had a unique and extraordinarily close friendship with the board’s vice chair and federal appeals court judge Pierce Lively, Centre Class of 1943, that circulated around and through their incomparably deep bonds to Centre. They both loved the College beyond telling. Pierce was the conscience of the College, its moral point of repair. Through their magnetism, devotion and integrity they shaped the culture, membership and high performance of the board for 40 years.

I have learned through both direct involvement and observation that Centre board chairs and members have handled the critical leadership succession process with diligence and effectiveness. David Grissom, Centre Class of 1960, became chair after Jim Evans’ thoughtful and confident recommendation. David brought the same level of boundless energy and utter devotion to the College as his predecessors, serving for 20 years working with three presidents. I prized the time that we worked together. His and others’ generosity to Centre have become unparalleled in the history of the College, at the level of transforming philanthropy. The Grissom Scholarships and the Fund for Academic Excellence focus on the heart of the College’s purpose.

In each case after David Grissom, I have noted from a distance that the succession of chairs and members has been carried out with deft choices. Board leaders and members have stepped forward to assume the responsibility, especially with an eye on the critical trustee tasks of philanthropy and in supporting and appointing the president.


It would be an omission not to offer a few thoughts about Centre’s presidents as leaders. We all know the extraordinary resilience Centre’s leaders needed to confront a breath-taking set of challenges from the bitter experiences of the Civil War. The College was split in two, both during and after the conflict when disaffected alumni established Central University. While wounded soldiers filled Old Centre and Danville, students largely disappeared. The crisis called out a capacity for tenacity and resilience among Centre’s leaders. While many schools and colleges closed their doors, Centre found the will and resources to stay the course.

Beau Weston’s invaluable history of Centre suggests that John C. Young was the most influential Centre president of the 19th century, and Tom Spragens of the 20th. Both their lengths of service and the profound structural, financial, academic and reputational gains that they achieved make that an eminently sound conclusion.

It also strikes me that much the same can be said of the long and highly successful presidency and generative leadership of John Roush, for the first two decades of the 21st century. John and his team and the faculty and board have set an extremely high mark of accomplishment for presidents who follow. In the last 22 years, he has systematically rebuilt and or renovated the campus with sparkling results. The resources in endowment have nearly quadrupled, enrollment has increased by 40 percent, and academic programs and the faculty have flourished and gown substantially. The latest metrics on student quality, achievement, retention and selectivity are off the charts compared with the past.

I will say briefly again, what I have communicated previously about the advice that I offered to Pierce Lively, David Grissom and others when John was under consideration at Centre. I said that if you hire John, he will prove to be one of the most beloved and effective presidents in the history of the College. He will come with Suzie who will also serve the College and the community in exemplary and endearing ways. As a Calvinist, I do not want to be too proud, but I got it right. More importantly, as an honorary Centre alumnus, I believe that I can suggest that the whole Centre family is forever grateful for the stunning service, mammoth achievements and transformational leadership of John and Suzie Roush.

Preparing Leaders: Engagement in Learning

For the last 25 years or more, American higher education has featured the importance of engaged learning in contributing decisively to student success in liberal education. Often called high-impact practices, the motif suggests that students learn more, retain more, and develop higher levels of motivation and intellectual development when learning is active rather than passive, participatory rather than observational. Engaged learning also contributes decisively to developing the insights and capabilities of leadership as an interactive social process.

The motif of active learning has been a defining characteristic for Centre during the modern period. It is a daily occurrence for students and faculty to interact in learning as it occurs in classrooms, offices, laboratories and studios and on stages and playing fields. This is ever more the case at Centre with the recent huge growth in opportunities for internships, research, service learning and multiple programs of study around the globe. The Norton Center continues to offer unique active learning opportunities in the arts. Centre faculty go the extra mile as a daily journey in engaged learning with their students.

One story can illustrate the range of learning in the Centre experience, and the multiple forms of learning involved in it.

After a football game during my first fall on campus, I walked off the field with Matt, a defensive lineman. He was bone-tired, covered with dirt and sweat, and he moved slowly after a losing effort. That same evening, I attended a student musical in Weisiger. Early in the production, I saw a tall singer enter the stage from the wings. I stared in disbelief because it was Matt. Three or four hours after a bruising football game, he was back in one piece as he took on a lead role with his beautiful voice. Imagine the time, energy and physical effort required in football, and the parallel commitment for rehearsals in a musical, along with all the rigorous demands of courses. The mind boggles. I learned a lot about Centre watching Matt that evening. He demonstrated how he and countless other students learn and grow from multiple involvements in the arts, athletics, student groups, volunteer service and a core commitment to the academic program. Engagement of this kind in this tight community touches the entire person in the development of a large range of human capabilities, including those at work in interactive leadership.

Woodrow Wilson had it right in what he said about Centre graduates as president of Princeton at the turn of the 20th century. He noted that there is a stunning disproportion in the number of Centre graduates who have assumed high positions of public leadership. Leadership by Centre’s education for leadership continues to take one of its forms in the many positions of high authority held by graduates. We have also come to see in studies of leadership that Centre graduates are the kind of individuals with the type of education who lead with or without formal authority. They influence practices in professional and business organizations, discharge the duties of citizenship in a democracy, and meet the obligations that come with family life and religious, volunteer or civic responsibilities. Through engaged liberal education, they have learned multiple ways to think and use evidence. They have developed skills of empathy and imagination to enter the lives of others both far and near, and the capacity to communicate through adept uses of the language. Student also develop skills of practical intelligence in learning how to work effectively in teams and contribute to solving problems collaboratively. Centre is its own school for democracy as a close and increasingly diverse campus community, as students grow in understanding the obligation to show respect for persons with different ideas and backgrounds.


As John C. Young took on the mantle of leadership at Centre in 1830, his inaugural address strikes many notes that remain relevant today. Both the famous Yale Report of 1828 on liberal education, and President Young in 1830 suggest that it is taking possession of the powers of the mind that provides the core of educational worth for the long pull.

The Presbyterian identity of Centre may seem quite remote, and that is the case concerning the governance of the College and the classical curriculum with its focus on Greek, Latin and Biblical texts. Even through the changes that have brought an appropriate secular spirit to the modern academy, the study of the arts and sciences always has reflected its origins in the high humanism of the Renaissance and the underlying values of the Judeo-Christian tradition that focus on knowledge and human dignity. Those values have now been enriched to include ideas that come from intellectual and spiritual traditions around the globe. The ideas and ideals are compelling, even as they have been contradicted consistently in practice.

Liberal education has always included, and still does at its best, a concern for a larger vision of education and of life. The powers of the mind and the habits of the heart nurtured by studies in the arts and sciences inescapably give us a large variety of intellectual and ethical resources. One of these is the ability to press normative questions about the images and values our culture presses on us as ways to define our lives. We are solicited daily through commerce, entertainment, social media and every other cyber intrusion into our privacy, to believe that life finds its fullness in glamour and celebrity, in status and power, in wealth and possessions, and increasingly in tribal political identities. These images invariably distort and trivialize what matters most as ways to define ourselves. It would be more than peculiar and shortsighted if we were not to address these kinds of consequential life choices through liberal education in the arts and sciences. They offer a disciplined and compelling set of questions, methods and vocabularies that are woven into virtually every field in some form that provide intellectual and moral criteria to orient and drive our inquiries and our choices.

Let me offer one narrative that suggests the potential reach of liberal education. A recent column in the New York Times, on Dec. 30, 2019, offers a touching anonymous personal story of the dismay of a young professional woman at a tough point in her life.

“My career in glossy magazines and advertising as a photo editor is all about making beautiful images of beautiful things . . . look even more beautiful. Often, when I think how much of my time I’ve devoted to my own appearance or to matters of aesthetics I cringe. . . There is a clear irony here, given how much thought I’ve put into what . . . interiors and people should look like, that I’ve come to a place in which I no longer know what my own life should look like. I literally do not know what to do with myself and what I should believe in any more, and this does, in fact, seem kind of frivolous, given the very urgent concerns of the society we live in.”

The point here is not to judge, but to empathize and to grasp how the narrative itself shows the questions and criteria that poignantly shape one person’s inner dialogue, a dialogue that is inescapable and continuous in all of us. She thinks that she has wasted time on inconsequential things, and she “cringes” at it. Time is always with us, given with our experience, forever passing. Time is one of the ways we measure the worth of activities and commitments, as either enduring or transient, trivial or consequential. Her choices are not meeting her own tests of time.

She also judges herself as “frivolous” for not being engaged in the urgent concerns of our society, and for not knowing what she believes in any more. She has come to focus so much on the imagery of appearance, including her own, that she has lost her investment in the larger and urgent issues of society. She is consumed by self-doubts. That she judges herself as “frivolous” and her actions as “cringe-worthy” has to mean that there is a hidden sense of fullness that is missing in her life. She feels its presence through its absence. Like all of us, she has many wants but cannot answer the critical question of what is worth wanting. Her inner dialogue takes her to the threshold of questions of deeper, more enduring and transcendent meaning.

My point is simply to suggest that liberal education at Centre and elsewhere always has always pondered the relation of knowledge to virtue, of learning to life, of knowing the truth to doing it. These big questions are always in the background or foreground of liberal learning. It undergirds democracy itself through the give and take of critical reasoning and free expression, as well as through the unequivocal respect for the human person, no one excluded. To be true to itself liberal education must invite everyone to the banquet of liberal education.

This is the broad intellectual and democratic, humanistic and spiritual tradition and larger purpose that I see defining Centre College at its core. All of the College’s changing approaches through time have shared a commitment to become an ever more perfect Centre, to provide the best and now the most engaged education possible, and to become an ever more affirming and inclusive community. May Centre continue in its next two centuries to be a resilient beacon of the transformative power of liberal education in Kentucky, and ever more a model for the nation of engaged learning for leadership and global citizenship. This Centre holds.

by Richard L. Morrill
January 22, 2020

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By |2020-01-31T08:47:19-05:00January 24th, 2020|News|