Education

Longtime Bellarmine University President Joseph J. McGowan has died.

He died Tuesday morning after a brief illness, according to a Bellarmine spokesman.

He was 71.

McGowan had led the independent Catholic college in the Highlands neighborhood since 1990, overseeing years of expansion and a transition from a college to a university in 2000.

During McGowan’s tenure, Bellarmine launched a bid to become the “premier independent Catholic university in the South,” and the leading private higher education institution in the state, according to the university. The efforts included new schools, majors and infrastructure outlined in its Vision 2020 plan.

“Jay McGowan was a visionary leader who took Bellarmine from college to university, from a local learning institution to an international destination for innovation and knowledge,” Mayor Greg Fischer said Tuesday in a statement. “He led a physical and educational transformation on campus that challenged his staff, faculty and students to set high goals and achieve them.”

Bellarmine had an enrollment of 3,846 in the fall, according to the university. Its enrollment stood at about 2,500 when McGowan took the post, and its faculty has grown from 85 to 167. The campus also grew during those years, from 15 buildings to 57.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “To put it plainly, Bellarmine University would not be the institution it is today without Dr. McGowan’s vision and leadership.”

Before coming to Bellarmine, McGowan worked for 21 years at Fordham University in New York as a dean and vice president. He held a doctorate from Columbia University and did his master’s and bachelor’s work at Notre Dame.

He’s survived by his wife, Maureen, and twin sons.

“Bellarmine has been ranked as a top regional school for several decades, and we owe Dr. McGowan great thanks for his visionary leadership and for his deep commitment to the students and faculty of this university,” Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to collaborate with Dr. McGowan for the good of Catholic higher education, and I will miss him.”

This story has been updated.