Home » Louisville’s 203-year-old Spalding University embraces ambitious new programs

Louisville’s 203-year-old Spalding University embraces ambitious new programs

By Russ Brown

Mother Catherine Spalding Square at Spalding University is a now green space just a few blocks south of Louisville’s central business district. The school has been adding programs and renovating, redeveloping and revitalizing multiple square blocks of the “SoBro” area during the past decade.
Mother Catherine Spalding Square at Spalding University is a now green space just a few blocks south of Louisville’s central business district. The school has been adding programs and renovating, redeveloping and revitalizing multiple square blocks of the “SoBro” area during the past decade.

Louisville native Churchill Davenport believes attending art school was a life-altering event for him. And now a joint effort by him and rapidly-growing Spalding University is helping change other students’ lives through the Kentucky College of Art + Design (KyCAD).

“I didn’t do very well in school,” Davenport said. “I was a different kind of learner.”

Davenport’s classroom success skyrocketed when he enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art. “Finally, I could succeed at something,” he said.

After receiving a fine arts degree from MICA and a master’s from Yale, Davenport had a successful art career while teaching at MICA and the Pratt Institute in New York for 40 years. Then in his early 60s, he returned to Louisville in 2007 with the goal of developing an art school in his hometown, to fill a void not only locally but regionally.

“Along the way, I (had) met many students who were like me, having had a hard time with traditional schoolwork but with a gift for visual art,” he said. “I met a lot of kids from Kentucky, kids who had gone off to art school far from home, never to return. And I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to retain some of that talent in Kentucky?”

Davenport felt an art school would be a natural fit for Louisville. While new technologies were creating jobs in the arts and design sector, he’d seen what such schools in other cities had achieved in terms of urban development. He enlisted the help of Louisville native artist and educator Skylar Smith – who was teaching art at the University of Louisville and Jefferson Community and Technical College – and they spent two years gaining financial support from civic leaders and calling upon his network of artists and educators to help design a unique curriculum.

Eventually, Davenport met incoming Spalding President Tori Murden McClure, and when she agreed in 2010 to take the art school under Spalding’s wing and help it grow, that’s when his dream truly started to become reality. It opened as the Kentucky School of Art in the basement of the 21C Museum Hotel, thanks to owners and art school benefactors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown. In 2015, it took its current name.

Aside from McClure, who has been instrumental in the development of KyCAD, a critical early supporter was Davenport’s childhood friend, the late business leader Owsley Brown II, a successful CEO of Brown-Forman who helped with financing, a feasibility study and other areas before he passed away in 2011. Owsley’s son, filmmaker and entrepreneur Owsley Brown III, remains active on the school’s board and last fall contributed $1 million in honor of his father.

Although KyCAD operates more or less independently on artistic issues, it is under the auspices of Spalding, which controls its academic quality and sees to its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Council on Postsecondary Education.

Davenport, now 72, and Smith both continue to teach at KyCAD, where he is chancellor and she is an assistant professor.

Art and design “code for jobs”

“Churchill is a bit of a character and he’s a dreamer, and I have a soft spot for dreamers,” McClure said. “I am more wired for math and science, but I do recognize the need for an artistic point of view. They bring a nice flavor to the university.”

The school started with just nine students but has grown to 130, and the size of its faculty increased from seven to 13. Terry Tyler, a banker and business consultant in Louisville, came out of retirement in 2014 to lead KyCAD as its president and calls it an “exciting time,” both for him and the institution.

“This whole issue of ‘design and technology’ is blowing up the world markets,” Tyler said. “To me, it’s code for ‘jobs.’ Our major mission is to create employment opportunities for our students, so we’re working on that really hard. We’re just at the tip of it now. It’s been real fun for me – the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in.

“We need to try and combine what’s going on in the business school with what’s going on in the art world and create a culture around creative marketing so students won’t be starving artists. That perception isn’t what students or parents want to hear anymore.”

One of those students is Maxwell Roberts, a 19-year-old sophomore from Jeffersontown who fits the profile of the type of student who spurred Davenport to start the art school. Like Davenport, Roberts struggled in high school but has found his niche at Spalding. He is pursuing a degree in general fine arts and plans to add a double major, possibly in digital media.

“I was very unengaged with school,” said Roberts. “My grades weren’t too stellar in high school and (KyCAD) was able to overlook that and accept me for my art. Churchill, especially, made me feel really at home. And once I came here I’ve had a 3.7 (grade point average) the entire time.”

Roberts likes the small class sizes, the opportunity to hear advice from visiting artists, an affordable tuition rate, 24-hour access to studios, the close relationship between students and teachers that allow one-on-one interaction, and the eagerness of the students to learn.

“It’s nice to see a lot of teenagers with their phones in their pockets,” Roberts said. “That’s a lot different from high school; it would have been unheard of to see so many people paying attention in class. Also, I think it’s interesting that you’re treated like adults. There are certain expectations, and I would say 95 percent (of students) live up to them.”

Revitalizing ‘SoBro’

KyCAD’s steady progress has been a source of pride for Davenport, whose vision is to eventually compete with leading arts schools across the country, most of which are on the East and West Coasts but include other top-tier institutions in Chicago, Michigan and Savannah, Ga.

“KyCAD has come a long way already,” Davenport said. “We are immersing our students in the visual language – scale, color, perspective and so forth – giving them a solid foundation so they can go in whatever direction they choose. … We are building a culture. We believe in an open-door policy and welcome students wherever they are in their artistic development.”

The early success of KyCAD is just one of the many areas where Spalding is growing physically at a rapid pace and revitalizing Louisville’s downtown core in its role as an anchor in “SoBro,” or South of Broadway. But first a brief history lesson.

Spalding is over 200 years old, tracing its roots back to 1814, when Mother Catherine Spalding, foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, began her mission of service and education in Kentucky.

It began as a girls’ school of education near Bardstown, then opened a downtown Louisville campus in the 1920s and established the first baccalaureate program in nursing in the state in 1933 during a cholera epidemic. It remains a leader in nursing education, but also offers a blend of business courses, education, fine arts, creative writing, nursing, occupational therapy, athletic training, psychology and social work. With an enrollment of 2,200 students, Spalding promotes itself as having a “Small Campus, Big Impact.”

McClure adds her own one-word description.

“I get really tired of hearing that Spalding is ‘a hidden gem,’ ” she says. “I don’t want to be hidden any more. Can we nix the hidden part and just be a gem?”

Toward that end, McClure, 53, has spearheaded Spalding’s advances in both academics and physical appearance since being elevated in 2010 from vice president to president. As might be expected from an energetic, goal-oriented whirlwind who was the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the first to ski 750 miles to the South Pole and somehow found time to also earn four college degrees, McClure hit the ground running.

Frugality and fundraising for McClure

Her first order of business was to pull the school out of a suffocating $14 million of debt, putting the brakes on borrowing and getting serious about financial equilibrium, which she has accomplished with frugality and increased fundraising while still managing to maintain quality and complete numerous projects. Under her careful watch, Spalding’s debt ratio has plunged from 193 percent to a more manageable 46 percent, even though there are seven new buildings on campus.

“When you look across the table at a student and recognize the money you’re spending comes from that student, it really is sobering because it’s a challenge for them and you don’t want to make that burden any more difficult,” McClure said. “It’s a struggle when you’re not federally or state subsidized, but we’re just inspired not to waste anything.”

Undoubtedly the most visible part of Spalding’s renaissance under McClure has been an emphasis on athletics, which actually started while she was still vice president of student affairs and athletics. At the time she became president, Spalding competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and awarded partial athletic scholarships. There was talk of completely doing away with the athletics program.

As McClure observed, “We were running a college program on a high school budget – and not a Trinity High School budget – and we were a joke. Let’s take what we’re spending on scholarships and spend it on a legitimate coaching staff.”

She convinced school officials to move to NCAA Division III, which consists of non-scholarship programs, and hired former University of Louisville basketball player Roger Burkman as athletics director in 2005 to oversee the transformation and the upgrading of facilities through fundraising.

But McClure wasn’t eager to let Burkman know the size of the task that awaited him if he took the job.

“I’m not proud. I hired him without letting him see any of our facilities,” she said. “We always met off campus.”

When Burkman took over, Spalding competed in seven sports, but as he says, “three had one foot in the grave.” And there were no full-time coaches. After a five-year process, Spalding became a full-fledged member of Division III in 2012 and the Golden Eagles now offer 14 men’s and women’s sports and are a member of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, consisting of schools from Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. While Burkman says that association has been valuable, he doesn’t rule out a move to another conference closer to home at some point.

“We’re traveling I-64 a lot,” he says. “They are really cool, good-quality universities, but it’s a four- to six-hour drive (to other conference schools) and we want our kids to be in the classroom. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting a degree.”

Building athletics, building facilities

Burkman also helped raise $1 million to renovate the building that houses the athletic offices and add a state-of-the-art weight room. Spalding now has 10 full-time athletic positions – six coaches, a trainer and three office personnel. About 24 percent of Spalding’s students are involved in athletics. And Burkman is glad he took former UofL coach Denny Crum’s advice and left his job in development at Trinity High for Spalding.

“Coach Crum told me it was a chance to build something and stamp my name on it,” said Burkman, who played on UofL’s 1980 national championship team. “I could leave here tomorrow and feel good about what we’ve been able to accomplish. I love being a D-III school. We’ve really found a niche. Half of our student-athletes are first-generation college students, and a lot come from disadvantaged situations. To me, it’s a real mission. We’re helping these kids get a degree, and we care about every one of them.”

There is more significant progress on the horizon. Spalding’s most prominent current initiative involves plans to develop major sports facilities on 7.4 acres it owns in the 900 block of South Eighth Street, bounded by Eighth, Ninth, Kentucky and Breckenridge streets.

The school will develop two multipurpose soccer fields, one women’s softball field, batting cages, a 5,000-s.f. fieldhouse with lockers, classrooms and storage areas, and parking for several hundred vehicles. Spalding is raising money for the projects, which is expected to cost about $6 million.

The vacant site is an eyesore, with numerous exposed foundations from previous buildings that have been partially demolished, a few remaining parking lots and a vacant building located along Ninth. So the development should be a welcome improvement for the neighborhood.

‘A real gift to the neighborhood’

“Right now it’s a sea of asphalt and if we can create green space there, what a change that would be for Ninth Street,” McClure said.

“We’re really looking forward to the day we can break ground on that thing,” said Burkman, adding that spring 2017 is the target for that ceremony.

It won’t be the first time that Spalding has concentrated on developing green space and making the campus more attractive from an aesthetic standpoint. The campus greening initiative began in 2012 with Mother Catherine Spalding Square and will encompass 7.5 acres of park-like area. It features an environmentally friendly design to address the neighborhood’s rainwater overflow and to counter the heat-island effect in SoBro.

McClure jokes that when alums come back to Spalding they ask about THE tree, because there was only one – a big poplar tree in the courtyard.

“I tell them, well, we have more than one tree now,” she says, laughing. “Mother Catherine Spalding Square has been a real gift to the neighborhood, and we’re getting ready to do another two acres at Second and Broadway. That will be a big game-changer for the perception of Spalding. Adding a little more grass and trees in an inner (city) neighborhood is wonderful.”

Spalding prides itself on being a leader and a good neighbor in the SoBro community and downtown. As part of that mission, McClure recently announced the creation of the Muhammad Ali Scholars program at the school. It will provide up to $5,000 in scholarship aid per year for traditional, first-degree students. The grant is renewable for a total of $20,000 over the course of a four-year degree.

When he was young and known as Cassius Clay, Ali trained at what was then the Columbia Gym that is now part of the Spalding campus. Furthermore, McClure was one of the first staff members at the Muhammad Ali Center when it opened in 1999, and developed a friendship with both Ali and his wife, Lonnie.

“Muhammad was one of the most compassionate human beings I’ve ever met,” McClure said. “He knew each person has their own hurts and pains. As an institution, Spalding tries to address hurts and needs both at the community and individual level. The scholarship will address unseen needs and bridge the financial gap between federal and state student aid and the cost of a college education.”

Ali Scholarship and urban learning

Spalding offers a private college education at the cost of a public education, she said, and the Ali Scholarship program is part of the effort to make private education more accessible. One-third of Spalding’s students are from under-represented minorities and the school is more diverse on a percentage basis than UofL, and is close to Jefferson Community College levels.

“Diversity carries through not just in undergrad, but in our graduate programs, too,” McClure said. “We’re still a predominantly white institution, but there’s a sense of real-world experience and all types should feel comfortable.”

She believes Spalding’s downtown location resonates with students and that the school has changed the perception of its area.

“There was a time when it was perceived as a bad location because folks didn’t want to be downtown,” she said. “Downtown was dangerous. But that has changed and that’s one of the things that will keep Spalding going for another 100 years. What’s going to make Spalding viable in the internet age – when you can sit at home in your pajamas and earn a college degree – is the experiential connection with downtown.

“You’re studying to be a nurse, you’re working in a hospital downtown; studying to be a teacher, you work in the schools. And our teachers come out learning how to interact with an urban population.

“I think downtown is now seen as more vibrant. It’s seen as a place of opportunity, a place where you want to go get your feet wet and a good place for a young person to learn how to interact with the world. The alternative is some green, grassy campus in the country where you might study philosophy and have a lovely time, but are you really going to learn what it takes to get out and keep a job? And what are the soft skills that are required to interact with people, and not perfect people, but people?”

Spalding’s progress in the last 10 years has been dramatically more than McClure she expected, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. If anything, it’s speeding up.

“The core of the turnaround has been about a collaborative leadership model,” she said. “It’s not all about me or my ideas. Our leadership team is really strong. To have a default answer in academia is unusual. When someone asks Spalding, ‘Can you do X, Y or Z?’ we try to get to yes. We’re working on starting new programs that meet the needs of the times, like supporting KyCAD. An institution that can get to yes can do all kinds of great things.”

Times and needs change in education. As McClure notes, it’s like a finish line you never cross or an ocean you never finish rowing. But Spalding intends to keep pace, stay on the cutting edge of private schools and be described as one of Louisville’s downtown gems. 


Russ Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]