It’s all too common to hear that “nobody (especially no woman) can have it all”, and in a world rapidly growing in complexity, it can be easy to believe. Even if doing it all isn’t impossible, it’s certainly difficult. Sometimes too difficult. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Too difficult”, however, is not a phrase with which Spalding University president Victoria “Tori” Murden is familiar. (Often called Tori Murden McClure, she prefers simply "Murden")
“I grew up the the idea that I just needed to be a little better,” said Murden. “If I was just a little quicker, a little stronger, a little faster, I could stop bad things from happening to people I care about, or to people who I don’t know but who don’t deserve it.”
Murden is an explorer--essentially what many of us dream of being as children, only for real--though she prefers the term “adventurer” (even better). And aside from the world of leadership and innovation, what has Murden explored? The ocean. The Arctic. Unforgiving terrain on all fronts, and she’s conquered them, taking on the Atlantic in two attempts, the first of which she had to cut short.
“He [Muhammad Ali] told me, ‘Tori, you don’t want to be known as the woman who almost rowed across the Atlantic Ocean,’” said Murden, remembering advice from Ali, for whom she worked as a public policy assistant, after her first attempt to row the Atlantic. Not surprisingly, she tried again.
In late fall of 1999, Murden set off again in a twenty-three feet long, four feet high, 1,800 lb rowboat near the Canary Islands and completed a 2,962 mile course across the Atlantic Ocean, finishing her journey in Guadalupe on December 3, 1999. She did this by herself, completely self sufficiently--and then she wrote a book about her first trip, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean published by Harper-Collins in 2009.
“I do consider myself a writer and it is a part of me,” said Murden, “but I don’t get to do much of it here at my current job aside from speeches.” Speeches that Murden enjoys writing, if not giving; she considers herself a definite introvert.
“Sometimes people will assume you’re aloof, stuck up; when you tell them that you’re an introvert and need a little more space, they treat the interaction entirely differently,” she said.
11 years earlier, Murden had already achieved a mind-blowing, groundbreaking milestone when she became the first woman and first American to reach the peak of Lewis Nunatak, an isolated Antarctic mountain ridge. Not one to shy away from what would seem to many a living nightmare, she rounded off her exploration of Antarctica and became the first woman to ski the geographic South Pole--in 1999, the same year she rowed across the Atlantic.
“I prefer the mentality, ‘I may not have had every advantage in the world, but here I am doing it anyway’, said Murden. “I’ve never heard of a successful victim.”
Born in Brooksville, Florida, Murden got a taste of adventure at an early age with a move to Connecticut and then to Pennsylvania. Moving to Louisville at 15, where she lived with her grandmother and attended the Louisville Collegiate School, she grew to love the city. Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Smith College in 1985, a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 1989, a J.D. from the U of L School of Law in 1995, and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Spalding, where, since 2011, she serves as University President.
“I deeply bristle at the notion of a ‘dumb jock’, said Murden. “I think the most successful athletes in the world are very bright. Academia seems to honor just a sliver of human intelligence. We need to find ways to honor different kinds of intelligence.”
Intelligence and initiative seem as innate in Murden’s life and career as breathing. She served as chaplain for Boston City Hospital, executive director for a women’s shelter, and the Mayor of Louisville’s policy analyst before becoming the Spalding University President on June 1, 2010. Previously, she had already taken over many responsibilities as the Vice President of Student Affairs, among other positions.
“I read the history of the Sisters of Nazareth, who started Spalding and realized that they would have liked me, and I would have liked them,” joked Murden. “I decided I would apply for the [president’s] job, and if I didn’t get it, no harm, no foul.” (No surprise--she got it.)
“We’ve continued to roll up our sleeves and keep working,” said Murden. “I realized early on that I wasn’t going to be content to parade around saying nice things about Spalding; I actually wanted to do some work.”
Even someone as accomplished--in such an incredible variety of ways--as is Murden can admit the uneven terrain that lies before that kind of administrative work. Though she has undoubtedly achieved more so far in her life than most people could ever claim, the road to success has been paved with complicated challenge.
“It’s not a very satisfying answer for women, but what has helped me is that I’m six feet tall and built a lot like a guy,” said Murden. “I often get away with things that a lot of other women don’t get away with just because I’m big and strong.
“I think women need to embrace their femininity,” said Murden nevertheless. “I think if you’re not six feet tall and broad shouldered, you have to find a strategy, and different strategy work for different women. I think a great quote is, ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’.”
Murden and her go-getter, quiet motivation are right at home in a city like Louisville, where she attended high school and later went on to earn her J.D. from the U of L School of Law.
“It’s a great blend of people,” Murden explained, “not really Midwestern, not really Southern. We value kindness and fairness in a Southern sense, we value hard work in a Midwestern sense. It’s almost an overgrown small town, and I consider Louisville home.”
And Louisville is lucky to have her, as well as her incredible internal motivation and ever-expanding worldview.
“The best things in life we don’t learn in two seconds,” said Murden. “We’ve got to get back to honoring the struggle, and you’ve got to struggle to really get those things that are worth knowing.”
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