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June 2015




By Joe Ward

June 2006

If 56-year-old Bellarmine University succeeds in increasing the number of its schools from five to 12 or more by 2020, and if the Louisville private college doubles the number of its buildings and triples the number of its students — if it becomes the Vanderbilt or Emory or Notre Dame of Kentucky — there will be people at Fordham University in New York who will refer to all of these occurrences as the “Revenge of the Jesuits.”

Here’s why: President Joseph J. “Jay” McGowan, who proposes to make his school the premier independent Catholic university in the South, was a Fordham administrator for many years, before he took over Bellarmine in 1990. Fordham has another Kentucky connection. It was founded in 1841 by the Archdiocese of New York, which soon turned it over to what McGowan says was “a band of French Jesuits who had been kicked out of Kentucky.” (Accounts of Catholicism in this state corroborate this story. The Rev. Augustus Thebaud and some fellow Jesuits taught for a time at St. Mary’s College in MarionCounty, then apparently had some differences with Kentucky Catholic clergy and went to New York to take over Fordham. Fordham became one of the most respected universities in the country and Thebaud became renowned as a college president and Catholic author.) Fordham’s Kentucky connection remains part of the New York’s school’s lore: When McGowan left Fordham for Bellarmine, another Catholic college, friends at his going-away party there spoke of the “Revenge of the Jesuits on Kentucky.”

It’s been a constructive sort of revenge. Those old French priests who laid the foundation for Fordham’s top ranking as a university might be looking down on McGowan’s progress so far and saying the equivalent of, “That’s what I’m talking about.” Since McGowan took over what was then BellarmineCollege, the number of buildings and students living on campus has doubled, and its endowment, annuities and trust values have tripled. Its plant assets and operating budget have nearly tripled, and its lacrosse team has achieved NCAA Division I status. U.S. News and World Report has recognized Bellarmine as one of the outstanding liberal-arts universities in the South for the last 12 of McGowan’s 15 years as president. The scores of incoming students on the American College Test, or ACT, averaged 21.8 in 1990 when McGowan arrived. They average 24 now, a significant jump in a major indicator of how good a college is. The student retention rate has increased from 74 per cent to 84 per cent over that time.



Past expansion: the Bellarmine “quad,” with the
1997-completed W.L. Lyons Brown Library on the left.

McGowan, 61, outlined his plan for Bellarmine’s trustees last October. “It was the most important professional speech in my life,” he recalled in a recent interview. He proposed to add seven schools to the current five, including schools of pharmacy, law, veterinary medicine and architecture. He said he’d increase the university’s endowment by 20 times — to $400 million. The annual budget would triple to $150 million by 2010 and then rise to the same figure as the endowment, $400 million, by 2020. He wants to make an architectural gem of the campus, fitting buildings and open spaces modeled after the Italian hill towns and monasteries of Tuscany into his university’s similarly hilly terrain along Newburg Road. St. Roberto Bellarmino, for whom the school is named, was born in the Tuscan village of Montepuciano in 1542.

McGowan said his plans for Bellarmine include a serious look at entering NCAA’s Division I in all sports except football (men’s lacrosse is the only program at that level currently). As a Fordham vice president, he was in charge of the 22-sport Division I athletics program there. “We’d be similar to XavierUniversity or many other Catholic urban universities” in that respect, he said. “We’d be the Gonzaga of Kentucky.” Highly visible athletics programs attract students, donations and grants to a university. And McGowan proposes building Bellarmine into a school that would have an annual economic impact on Louisville like Notre Dame has on South Bend, Ind. – $833 million — or like those of Vanderbilt on Nashville or Emory on Atlanta, each of which is estimated at $3.4 billion. Louisville and Kentucky could use that sort of impact, he said. They will depend for their economic future on building a much stronger base of “knowledge” workers who have “at a minimum, college degrees.”

“Louisville and Kentucky are doing many things well,” McGowan said, but “unless they dramatically increase the number of well-educated people living here, their future is qualified.”

Some say McGowan’s plan is a long shot. John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor and author of the well-received 2004 book History of American Higher Education, said Kentucky is “about 120 years late” for building what McGowan suggests. It’s a “superb” idea, he said, but it would be like “developing a baseball team that would challenge the Yankees.” It would be a great addition to Louisville and to the state, he said, but the going would be expensive and slow. “It’s very late in the game to do this well and to gain legitimacy among established strong universities,” Thelin said, noting that the University of Louisville was once private but had to enter the state system to survive. “The same with (the University of) Cincinnati,” he said. “It’s too late.”

Others have been less skeptical, though there is wide agreement that achieving the plan will be a big job. McGowan said he’s been pleased with the plan’s reception where it counts most: The Bellarmine trustees listened to his speech last fall, and when he stopped talking there was a reflective silence, followed by a burst of applause. “It was overwhelming to me,” he said. He said his exuberance built further as he rolled the idea out for faculty and students, donors and community leaders. “I can’t believe how transforming this has been for me. I am engaged and energized beyond measure.”

McGowan didn’t set out early in his career to build a first-tier university, though he once thought he might take one over. He was born in Louisiana, where his father, an Army Air Force captain, was stationed. His parents took him back to their native Scranton, Pa., after World War II, where his father became an American Standard executive and his mother a grade school teacher. Both valued education and an intellectual life. They saw that their son attended some of the best schools in the country, including St. Joseph’s, a Catholic prep school in Philadelphia — where the family moved after McGowan’s seventh-grade year — and the University of Notre Dame.

Joseph Duffy, an English teacher at Notre Dame, brought significant energy to McGowan’s intellectual life and inspired him to consider the academic world as a career path. He has undergraduate and master’s degrees from Notre Dame and a doctorate in higher education from ColumbiaUniversity in New York. He went from Columbia to Fordham, where he reached increasingly responsible jobs in administration over 20 years. He started thinking seriously of becoming a college president in 1985, when he was studying at the Institute for Educational Management at HarvardUniversity.

At Harvard, he said, he met men and women who were already college presidents and found them not so different from himself. “I had labored under the illusion that presidents were a different species,” he said. But he faced a dilemma. It was fairly clear that he would not be president at Fordham, where presidents traditionally have been clergymen. Not a man of the cloth, he had to ask himself, “Do you want to be vice president forever in a great institution in a big city?”

Bellarmine was a major factor in his deciding that he did not. McGowan said he first heard of Bellarmine in 1966, “sitting in Grandma Barry’s kitchen” in Louisville. McGowan’s wife Maureen is a niece of the late Mike Barry, who was the fiery editor of Louisville’s now-defunct Kentucky Irish American newspaper, and later a Louisville Times sportswriter. Maureen McGowan is chief financial officer at LouisvilleCollegiateSchool; one of her first cousins is Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson’s wife Madeline. The McGowans have twin sons, now 35 years old. Joseph, who was a basketball standout at Fordham, has an MBA degree from there and works for Con Edison Company in New York. Matthew has an MBA from Bellarmine and works on the stock-options desk for Garban Capital in Jersey City, N.J.

When Bellarmine’s presidency opened up, McGowan had a look. Bellarmine seemed to have a lot of potential, he said. It had a faculty that struck him as talented, though in need of leadership and support. It had a distinguished board of trustees, all of them supporters of private higher education and committed to developing Bellarmine. They were people like Maurice Johnson, Henning Hilliard, Allan Lansing, Wilson Wyatt, Ina Bond — “men and women,” McGowan said, “who could be on any board of any corporation in the world.”

But Bellarmine had some serious needs. “I considered the library an embarrassment,” McGowan said. It was “like the library in that Texas town in The Last Picture Show. It had technology developed immediately on the heels of the Cro-Magnon period.” Student life was, in his words, “bleak.” There were undeveloped operations, policies and standards. In general, the school had “a lot of basics to be addressed in order to build the capacity of the place for competitive excellence.” And that made it very attractive to McGowan. “It was a blank slate,” he said. “What impressed me was what could be done.” He said his two predecessors at the helm had begun the process of upgrading the school, and had “set a very nice table at which I could feast.”

He waded in and started chomping. During his tenure, Bellarmine’s Rubel School of Business has achieved accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which is an international recognition of quality that only 15 percent of the business schools in the world reach. Another of McGowan’s priorities has been study abroad by Bellarmine students. The number of undergraduates taking a junior year overseas has grown significantly; one recent graduating class had 30 percent with this foreign-study credential — one of the highest percentages in the country. The library, too, has been upgraded significantly.

By 2003, McGowan was beginning to wonder what he might do next, about the time the president’s job opened up at DePaulUniversity in Chicago, the nation’s largest CatholicCollege. It was tempting. “It’s one of the largest Catholic universities in the world, in one of the greatest cities,” he said. “They had given an indication that they might be open to considering Catholic laymen.” McGowan was one of three finalists, though DePaul chose a clergyman in the end.

To his surprise, McGowan said, he recovered from the news quickly. He committed himself to a grand ambition for Bellarmine.

David L. Warner, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities — and a friend of McGowan, who has twice served on the association’s board — said McGowan is in a very good place to work on such a project. “Among peer metro areas, Louisville is well down the ladder in terms of college graduates, which are the human capital necessary to really move a metro area forward,” Warner said. He said Louisville and its region need 25,000 more college graduates a year, and a strong private university could be a key factor in producing them. Also, Kentucky is conspicuous among states for its lack of a major private university to complement its public ones. North Carolina’s Research Triangle has Duke to spur it on. OhioState has CaseWestern ReserveUniversity. St. Louis’ WashingtonUniversity has synergy with the University of Missouri. “What you see in other areas is possible as well in Louisville,” Warner said.

A private university, he said, brings something to the strength of an educational system that public schools really can’t. “They are not creatures of the state, not shackled by bureaucracy and politics” as state institutions can be, he said. “They have more flexibility to be entrepreneurial. They can turn on a dime” with new emphases, new programs, to meet an area’s changing economic needs. “The mission drives the institution when it’s private,” Warner said. “The state drives the mission when it’s public.”

Public institutions of higher learning can benefit as well, according to Warner. “Business will move there. Students will want to come there. Clearly the community will benefit, and the state will benefit,” he said. “The area will become a rising center of intellectual capital. It is a moment to be grasped.”

Both University of Louisville President Jim Ramsey and University of Kentucky President Lee Todd applauded McGowan’s vision, but both mentioned recruitment of students as a key to success or failure. “It depends on how his strategy is implemented,” Ramsey said. “If he’s trying to grow his enrollment by shuffling the chairs on the deck, it’s a zero-sum game. If we’re really going after students who wouldn’t otherwise go to college, or who would go out of state, that’s good because we know there’s a high propensity for them to live and work where they go to school.”

Todd said competition for students already exists among Kentucky colleges. But he said if it’s stepped up, that should be a good thing “because it forces all of us to do our jobs better and it means, ultimately, that more students are gaining access to postsecondary education.”

That’s what McGowan has in mind. “In no sense should this be or can this be a zero-sum game,” he said. Private institutions benefit more from coexisting with strong public schools than they would from luring students away, he added, noting that in order for a truly beneficial catalytic reaction to occur in the mix, we need strong leadership in both sectors.

McGowan’s idea makes a lot of sense to Mayor Abramson. “I’m extremely excited,” Abramson said. “Communities with that type of university receive incredible benefits from students, faculty and reputation. A lot of young people who come in (would) end up staying here.”

In person, McGowan has an engaging, friendly manner, backed by an unmistakable air of erudition. He comes across as very well-educated, but quicker on his feet than is sometimes expected from the ivory tower. He’s also in possession of a wonderful singing voice and has been known to belt out Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond songs at parties and in a favorite New York City Irish bar. “He has a wonderful balance of education and business sense,” said Dan Ison, a retired Louisville public relations executive and Bellarmine donor. “Great academic credentials, wonderful street smarts.”

Warner, the NAICU president, would agree. “He’s got the moxie to make it happen,” he said.


Growth by the numbers

Jay McGowan’s pitch for his Bellarmine expansion plan emphasizes the need for a dynamic, high-caliber private college in Kentucky. He notes that such schools as Centre College at Danville and Transylvania University in Lexington are venerable schools that are very good at what they do, but they don’t aspire to be urban-centered gems like Emory or a Vanderbilt.

“Indiana has Indiana University AND the University of Notre Dame,” promotional literature says. “Tennessee has the University of Tennessee AND Vanderbilt University; Ohio has Ohio State AND Case Western Reserve University; North Carolina has the University of North Carolina AND Duke University. . . . And the list goes on.”

“Bellarmine,” it says, “is the institution in the right place, at the right time, with the right visions, to become this area’s Notre Dame, its Vanderbilt, its Emory — to the great benefit of the Louisville region.”

Toward that end, McGowan proposes adding a school of communications, media and culture, plus a graduate school offering degrees in several disciplines, including a school of management, by 2010.

Between 2011 and 2015, he wants to add a school of pharmacy, a school of visual and performing arts, and a school of hotel, food and beverage industry management. The school of law, school of architecture and school of veterinary medicine will come between 2016 and 2020.

Current enrollment stands at 2,500. McGowan wants 4,500 students by 2010, 6,000 by 2015 and 8,000 by 2020. Of current students, 680 are residents of the campus. He wants to boost that number to 1,000 by 2010, 1,500 by 2015 and 2,000 by 2020.

Bellarmine’s current budget is $52 million, up from $10.9 million in 1990. McGowan projects that the school will need $150 million by 2010, $300 million by 2015, and $400 million by 2020. Bellarmine’s endowment was $7.2 million when McGowan arrived, and it is $20 million now. The proposal would boost it to $100 million by 2010, $200 million by 2015 and $400 million by 2020.

In general, McGowan has proposed making Bellarmine “the premier independent Catholic university in the South, and thereby the leading private university in the state and region.” He wants to educate “with excellence each Bellarmine student in the knowledge, skills and values for successful living, work, leadership and service, to help create a sustainable future for our regional, national and international communities.”

Joe Clayton, chairman of the board of Sirius Satellite Radio and head of Bellarmine’s fund-raising committee, said he and the rest of the board of trustees are “very confident” they’ll be able to raise the needed money. “Look at the track record,” he said, noting that Bellarmine had only four buildings when he was graduated in 1970, and now has 35. “The quality of the students and the dedication of the trustees” will make it go, he said. “This year has been the best fund-raising year we’ve ever had.”

Hunt Helm, Bellarmine vice president for university relations, said there will be a capital campaign to get the ball rolling. “Then,” he said, “the strategy is that you design your new graduate and professional programs in such an excellent way that you get enthusiastic support and funding for them from individual donors and/or foundations.”

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