Rowed a boat alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Skied 750 miles across Antarctica to the South Pole. Became the president of Spalding University. What do all these accomplishments have in common? They are all huge feats, and not for the faint of heart. That is why Tori Murden McClure chose to do all of them. They are all part of her ongoing adventure-seeking life, and her uncanny way of combining her scrappy nature with her formidable curiosity. And today, she’s our FACES of Louisville feature.
Tell us a little bit about Spalding University, how you got involved with it and what makes it special to you.
I am a rower. I tend to do things with all my strength and backward. At Spalding, I began my work in 1998 as a member of the Board of Trustees. While still on the board, I became a student in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. I was still a student in the MFA program in 2004 when I became a vice president at Spalding. In 2010, I became the president. I like to think of myself as scrappy. Spalding is a great fit. Our students are extraordinary, brilliant and scrappy. Our faculty and staff are extraordinary, brilliant and scrappy. Backcountry adventures no longer change the world. The true tests of endurance, persistence and resourcefulness occur in civilization. Spalding University is a fabulous urban adventure.
You have accomplished some impressive physical feats in your lifetime. Is there one that you are most proud of?
People would expect me to say skiing to the South Pole or rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, but “impressive physical feats” for university presidents go like this: jumped over the bushes, tripped down the stairs, knocked down a dean and caught the Frisbee.
What has been harder, doing these great physical feats or being the president of a college?
Rowing an ocean is easy. Being a university president is difficult. For starters, a person cannot spend three months alone in a rowboat that is not an introvert. Presidents are with people almost every waking hour of almost every day. There is precious little time for reflection or for solitude. Fortunately for me, the things that bolster success in the backcountry are the same as things that bolster success in the frontcountry. Ocean rowers and university presidents must be comfortable with uncertainty and tolerant of adversity. They must have endurance, be resourceful and be persistent. In the backcountry, we talk about “expedition behavior;” in the frontcountry, we talk about “compassion.” To my mind, the two are synonymous. It is essential to foster a positive culture and to worry about the people who are getting blisters. Building competence and good judgment takes time, and one hopes to gain these things without learning from one’s own incompetence or bad judgment. It is essential for a leader to be self-aware and willing to own up to one’s flaws and shortcomings, otherwise no one should follow you.
What’s next on your horizon personally?
Spalding University is the most important thing on my horizon. Apart from that, my pleasures are simple. I still enjoy rowing and having coffee with my rowing sisters. I roller ski in Cherokee Park. Sometimes, I ride my bicycle to school. I shoot archery in my basement. I am a terrible cook, but I love to build things. I built cedar-strip canoes for each one of my three nephews. Now, I am building a forth canoe for “the chaperone.” My husband and I have a terrific workshop. Mac sometimes brags, “I am the luckiest man in the world: my wife loves it when I buy her power tools.”
What’s next on your horizon professionally?
We trace the roots of Spalding University back to Mother Catherine Spalding and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth; they opened a school in a log cabin back in the fall of 1814. Those women were explorers. They were adventurers whose feats were both intellectual and physical. I am merely following in their footsteps.
Higher education in the United States is at a crossroads. Many institutions are sitting still. Spalding is not. According to our mission statement, we are a “diverse community of learners dedicated to meeting the needs of the times.” We have been changing and innovating to meet the needs of the times for almost 200 years. This is a dynamic time for Spalding, and I am excited to be able to play a small part in our continuing history.
What is your favorite part about your job?
Spending time with our students
I cannot tell you.
Who are your mentors, and what advice do you treasure?
I have had many wonderful mentors: Barry Bingham, Jr., Muhammad Ali and the great books. Two other college presidents have been role models for me: Ruth Simmons, who led Smith College [Tori’s alma mater] and then Brown University, and Mary Pat McPherson, who led Bryn Mawr. Ruth said, “A president must have the intellectual stomach of a goat.” She was right. Pat, after sending along pages of sage advice, ended with, “Remember to have fun.” I HAVE the intellectual stomach of a goat, and I am having fun.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
On a good day, I rise early and work out for about an hour. Then, if there is time, I work in the woodshop on the latest project. If it is a Monday, I start with a meeting of our leadership team. We rotate who is “president for the day.” This group fits our mission: we “are a diverse group of learners.” Then I meet with the director of advancement. Lunch often involves me giving a speech. Afternoons are full of meetings, briefings, email and telephone calls. Evenings usually involve going out, dinner engagements, often with more speeches. If I am lucky, I will be home by 9:30 p.m. and can spend a few minutes with my husband before I fall asleep. At 2 a.m., I wake up and worry about all the things I did not accomplish the day before.
Fill in the blank. You’ll never see me without my ________.
Pearls. I wear them with my bathing suit.
Where can we find you hanging out around town?
Cherokee Park or the Ohio River
What’s your bucket list travel destination?
On the couch, next to my husband, Mac
Favorite thing to do in Louisville?
Have coffee with my rowing sisters
Night owl or early bird?
Earllllllly bird. If I’m out past 9 o’clock at night, I am on a mission to save someone or to shake someone down for Spalding.
Tell us some of your favorite local restaurants.
Spalding University dining commons and the Brown Hotel.
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius. He wrote it around 500 AD. Anything that has been around more than 1,000 years is usually worth reading.
Lightning Round! Give us your:
- Candy or junk food splurge: Chocolate
- Guilty pleasure song: “I Will Survive,” the Alien Song version. John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and chief scientist for NASA, introduced me to this version.
- Tearjerker movie pick: The Lion in Winter or Hamlet
- Standby nail polish color: Mas Epoxy. It takes about 24 hours to dry. I tried red nail polish once. My husband is still laughing about how I couldn’t get it on straight.
- Cartoon alter-ego: Underdog
As always, much gratitude to our FACES photographer, Adele Reding, for her fantastic work. Visit her website at adeleredingphotography.com.