Hosting VP debate helped Centre improve facilities, faculty and students

A statue of Abraham Lincoln stands in front of Crounse Hall on the Centre College campus in Danville. The school announced Tuesday that a former student has arranged for a $250 million gift.
A statue of Abraham Lincoln stands in front of Crounse Hall on the Centre College campus in Danville. The school announced Tuesday that a former student has arranged for a $250 million gift. Herald-Leader

DANVILLE — A few weeks back, Centre College employees moved every piece of workout equipment from the Sutcliffe Hall athletics center into another building across campus.

On Oct. 11, Sutcliffe Hall will be used by the 3,000 or so members of the media expected for the vice presidential debate, so its basketball courts have been turned into seating and its workout room will be the cafeteria.

As everyone from Centre remembers when it played host to the vice presidential debate in 2000, debate preparation is hard work and inconvenient for everyone. But officials point to how much Centre's facilities, faculty and students have changed in the past decade to show the value of hosting such a national and international event.

Moving the furniture is a pain worth enduring, officials say.

"One of the things that happened following 2000 was the beginning of a decade of extraordinary growth and development of the college," said Clarence Wyatt, a Centre graduate, history professor and co-chairman of the 2012 vice presidential debate steering committee. "It is absolutely fair to say the debate contributed to a lot of the development that has happened."

The debate, he said, "ignited a sense of possibility," among alumni, faculty and staff.

The most tangible result is $94 million that's been raised in private gifts to reinvent Centre's physical face, Wyatt said.

■ In 2005, Centre raised $25 million to renovate and add on to Sutcliffe Hall and Crounse Hall, the campus library and office complex. Sutcliffe grew enough to accommodate the debate media in a space that's big enough to hold three basketball courts. Also that year, the Norton Center for the Arts, the site of the actual debate, received about $3 million in upgrades.

■ In 2008, Centre opened Pearl Hall, a $15 million residence hall that was the first academic building in Kentucky to earn gold certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program. Pearl Hall sleeps 146 students.

■ In 2009, the $15 million, 50,000-square-foot Campus Center opened, earning silver LEED certification for its dining facilities, office and meeting spaces.

■ In 2010, a $21 million renovation of Young Hall added 40,000 square feet for science instruction, including new labs. It received gold LEED certification. That renovation allowed the Centre campus to knit all of its main buildings — Sutcliffe, Crounse and Young — together with columned Greek Revival facades that echo Old Centre, the school's most historic building.

■ This year, the school opened the A. Eugene Brockman Residential Commons, a $15 million project that added 124 beds. Also this year, Centre added six acres of sports fields, including a new turf field and a softball field.

The debate also helped change the student profile at Centre. The year after the debate, applications spiked 20 percent, officials say, and have climbed every year since.

Its student population has grown from 1,000 to 1,340, half of whom are from out of state, and most of whom scored 26 to 31 out of a possible 36 on the ACT.

This year, 3,500 students applied for admission. Nearly 20 percent of those students are minorities or international students. Ninety-eight percent of students live on campus, which is one reason the new housing is so important.

Top students attract superior faculty.

"Certainly the debate put us on the national scene more than we might have been otherwise," said Christine Shannon, a math and computer science professor at Centre for 22 years. "I think we've attracted some very fine faculty, and that is in part because the student body has become stronger, it's become far more diverse. There's been a lot of good changes, and it's a very fun place to teach."

According to the Alumni Factor ranking system, Centre and the University of Kentucky have the happiest, most satisfied alumni among colleges in Kentucky. Centre spokesman Michael Strysick said that translated to more money donated to the school. Alumni, parents and seniors each have a 50 percent rate of giving in recent years, he said. In 2011-12, that came to $18 million in gifts.

It also helps to have some heavy hitters: The chairman of the Centre Board of Trustees, Robert Brockman, is an alumnus who gave $15 million for Pearl Hall in honor of his mother. The A. Eugene Brockman Foundation, named for his father, gave the $15 million for the Brockman Residential Commons.

In addition, Centre always gets high marks in rankings by U.S. News & World Report. This year, it ranked 52nd on the list of best liberal arts colleges in the nation.

Patrick Noltemeyer, Centre's associate dean of students, was a senior there in 2000.

"There's an allegiance people feel because it was an all-hands-on deck event, a common purpose that really bonds us together," he said of the 2000 debate. "We have a greater affinity for the institution as a result, and a lot of pride was instilled. People are proud to be part of an institution that's known nationally, and that feeling of connectedness is something a lot of our alumni point to."

Wyatt said both debates have "expanded the ambitions" not just of key donors but of everyone who works or attends school at Centre.

"It created a sense of 'what can't we do at a place like this?'" he said.

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