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Smith College Medalist Tori Murden McClure ’85
“We are a long way from reaching equity for women”
Tori Murden McClure ’85’s eclectic career spans several fields: author, athlete, explorer, policymaker, and education and nonprofit administrator.
In addition to her degree from Smith, she holds a master’s from Harvard Divinity School, a law degree from the University of Louisville, and a graduate degree in writing from Spalding University. She has served as a chaplain at a Boston hospital and—in Louisville, Kentucky—as director of a women’s shelter, policy assistant in the mayor’s office, and head of development at the Muhammad Ali Center.
She is also a woman of many “firsts.” McClure was the first woman and first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, ski to the geographic South Pole, and climb the Lewis Nunatak in the Antarctic. Since 2010, McClure has served as president of Spalding University in Louisville, expanding the campus by 40% during her tenure. She is a vice chair and interim chair of the NCAA, the top governing body in collegiate athletics, and, from 2002 to 2010, sat on the Smith College Board of Trustees.
Murden will receive the Smith College Medal during Rally Day, which will be celebrated on Feb. 23 beginning at 1:30 p.m EST. The event will be streamed on Smith College’s Facebook page.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
For 13 years I have served as the president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Spalding is an under-resourced school located at the heart of the need in a gritty urban neighborhood in downtown Louisville. It is difficult work, but we have a splendid mission “to meet the needs of the times,” and our times have been needy. I am most proud of the work I do each day surrounded by a remarkable and compassionate team. My biggest claim to fame is not skiing to the South Pole or rowing alone across an ocean. I was the acting chair of the board of governors of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) at the start of the 2020 football season. Conference commissioners were losing their minds that a woman was at the head of the body that would decide whether football would happen that year. I was the vice chair of the NCAA board of governors when we voted to cancel the men’s basketball tournament in 2020—my first billion-dollar decision.
What Smith lesson continues to impact your life today?
The excerpt below is from my book, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart In the Middle of the Ocean (HarperCollins, 2010)
It was 1985, my senior year. “At the end of the year, I went to the annual banquet for the athletes. Because I was the president of the athletic association, I was asked to hand out many of the awards. When the time came to announce the highest honor of the evening, the associate athletic director, Linda Moulton, quietly asked me to sit down. She stepped to the podium and explained that each year the coaches and the team captains selected the student who best represented the ideals of the scholar-athlete at Smith College. I was confident the honor would go to either Margaret Broenniman or Maura Fitz Patrick, who had capped off their summer vacation by swimming across the English Channel.
When Linda Moulton read the name of the honoree, I was horrified. Me? I’m not the best student. I’m not the best athlete. I’m certainly not the best scholar-athlete at Smith. When Linda handed me the silver platter, I examined the engraving, expecting to read someone else’s name and to have a chance to correct the mistake. The name on the platter was Victoria E. Murden. The athletes stood, applauding.
The next day, with the platter in my book bag, I went to Linda Moulton’s office. I’d never returned an award before, and I wasn’t sure of the etiquette. As I stood at the edge of Linda’s desk, all the words in my carefully rehearsed speech vanished from my head. I must have looked like a lost puppy. Linda walked over to her small conference table and invited me to sit. Linda was a marathon runner who exercised unending patience with everyone but herself. She asked what she could do for me, but the words didn’t come. After giving me a few seconds, Linda began to name various athletes. All were athletes who’d been injured at one time or another.
I knew each of them. In my four years at Smith, I’d earned my spending money by working as a student athletic trainer. Most student trainers didn’t progress much beyond taping ankles and filling ice buckets, but that wasn’t enough for me. When a player went down, I could never be content to stand on the sidelines feeling helpless. In my time at Smith, the head athletic trainer taught me as much as the law would allow.
Linda seemed to be trying to explain that it was the injured athletes who’d put my name forward as a scholar-athlete. This only made me feel worse. Standing on a sideline in the rain to clean mud out of a cut doesn’t make me a scholar. Carrying a woman down a flight of stairs because she’s torn a ligament in her ankle doesn’t make me an athlete.
Linda didn’t attempt to argue with me. She thought for a moment and said, 'Most Valuable Players come and go. Being the best only lasts for a few seasons.' She reminded me about how offended I’d been to see female athletes at other schools treated like second-class citizens. She called me an 'idealist,' but the softness in her voice made it clear that she meant it as a compliment. 'You believe in the ideals of the scholar-athlete. No one can live up to that in four years. That may take a lifetime.'"
I strive each and every day to live up to the ideals of the Scholar Athlete in the highest traditions of Smith College.
What advice do you have for seniors graduating this year?
I will freely admit I don’t know anything for sure, but each year I end my commencement address to graduates with 10 things that I think I know:
• If the carrot is big enough, you can use it as a stick.
• Roadblocks only block the road, they do not block the grass, path, water, or way less traveled.
• Silence is golden; duct tape is silver.
• It is never too late to have a happy childhood. I have had several, and I have many more planned. Or the corollary, I may grow old, but I will never be old enough to know better.
• Not every problem you face can be solved, but no problem can be solved if it is not faced. H.L. Menken said to the effect that for every difficult problem there is an easy answer—and it is wrong.
• Learn from the mistakes of others; you cannot live long enough to make them all yourselves.
• Do not burn bridges. Just loosen the bolts a little each day.
• If you must keep something that you are doing a secret, perhaps you should not be doing it.
• Don’t take yourself too seriously, no one else does. (This is an important one for university presidents.)
• Do not believe everything you think, or as Socrates said, “All I know is that I know nothing.”
Do you have any special memories of Rally Day at Smith?
Hopkins House was always well represented in the Rally Day shows. I still remember the lines to some of our songs. One year, in a skit, I played “Julia Wild,” who was supposed to have been a roommate to Julia Child ’34. That year at Commencement, President Jill Ker Conway introduced me to Child. I am six feet tall; she was much taller. I was awestruck.
What does being honored with the Smith Medal mean to you?
I am truly honored by it. In 2000, when President Ruth Simmons invited me to join the Smith College Board of Trustees, I did not know that one cannot be a sitting trustee and earn a Smith Medal. Had I known, I might have declined to become a trustee. It all worked out in the end, being a trustee taught me so much that I decided to go into higher education administration. My life has been greatly enriched by the experience.
Rally Day is a celebration of the many ways Smithies have changed the world. What do you see as major issues today that you would like to see Smithies tackle?
Climate change is a monumental threat to our world. That issue will require a generational commitment. In the short run, we are a long way from reaching equity for women across the globe or here at home. Title IX has lost meaning in college athletics. Compensation for name, image, and likeness goes overwhelmingly to men. I was raised Presbyterian, and I lead a Catholic institution, so I am careful about how I approach reproductive issues. Pandora is said to have opened a “box” and all the evils of the world flew out, except for hope, which remained inside. “Box” is a poor translation; a better translation is “jar,” which was a historical euphemism for the womb. Pandora opened the “jar,” and all the evils of the world flew out, except for the hope of future generations. Let us agree that Pandora did not open that “jar” all by herself. If a man and a woman collide in two automobiles, the woman’s insurance is not left to bear all the costs. If the health insurance of men was charged for half the cost of a pregnancy, we might be leaning a little more in the direction of equity.
In conjunction with Rally Day, the Smith board of trustees is planning to collectively donate $500,000 in support of student scholarships. Why is it critical to support Smith philanthropically?
The United States is falling behind other industrialized nations because apart from the small contributions to Pell Grants and other targeted federal programs, we do not—as a nation—fund the higher education of our young people. This is placing an enormous economic burden on current students. Institutions like Smith College are able to raise significant funds to offset the cost of education. These funds allow bright women with less economic means to access one of the finest educations on the planet, and for this I am very grateful.