Few people have the deep and unique historical perspective of UofL as Ralph Fitzpatrick. The senior vice president for Community Engagement is a double alumnus, graduating with two undergraduate degrees in 1974 and a master’s degree in 1975.
In the 50-plus years since he first stepped foot on campus as a freshman, Fitzpatrick has served in positions with the Athletics Department, Enrollment, Minority Affairs and as an assistant to the president. He eventually “meandered” over to the office of Community Engagement and will retire in May in that capacity.
Perhaps with a little bit of serendipity, Fitzpatrick took a major gamble to get his UofL career up and running. After working with Athletics for about a year, a job came up as a board-appointed administrator. It was only guaranteed for 30 days.
“Our Upward Bound program was in disarray,” Fitpatrick said. It was his job to fix it within those 30 days.
Not only did he fix it, the program recently helped students attain more than $1 million in scholarships.
“I took a chance and accepted the job and Upward Bound is still at the University of Louisville today,” he said.
Since overseeing the Community Engagement department, UofL has collaborated with community partners for the Signature Partnership initiative, provided services in underserved neighborhoods and helped build stronger communities internationally. In 2019-20, for example, the university reported 1,358 partnership and outreach activities in collaboration with community partners and over 520,000 hours of student community service.
In retrospect, Fitzpatrick’s dedication to the University of Louisville and its programs should be of no surprise. As he took a chance on the institution by accepting a temporary job that evolved into a lifelong career, UofL also took a chance on him.
The first-generation college student was dismissed from his high school during his senior year for “failure to adhere to school regulations and dress codes.” It was the late 1960s and racial tensions were high following the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“You would laugh. I had a light mustache. But the reality of it was that was the excuse for the district citing me for civil disobedience. There was no due process. I was just told to leave,” Fitpatrick said.
His case caught the attention of both the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and the ACLU. Together, they sued the school district and the case went all the way to federal court. The court didn’t want to set a precedent on this case, according to Fitzpatrick, so his case was ruled against. That’s not to say all was lost, however.
The case also caught the attention of an adjunct law faculty member at UofL, who worked out an agreement that he could take one course in public speaking to make up for his one missing high school credit. He enrolled as a freshman in 1970.
“UofL took a mighty chance on Ralph Fitzpatrick,” he said. “The long story short is that was the start of my academic career and what got me to the University of Louisville.”
At that time, he was inspired by the active environment on campus, led by the late Blaine Hudson and the first wave of African American students post-desegregation.
“I was blessed to be one of those students. We had probably one of the best support systems of all time. UofL created the Office of Black Affairs. There were about 10,000 students at the time and 200 African American students. They understood the need – we had that level of support and we had each other,” Fitzpatrick said.
He reminisces about his early days at UofL with fondness and it’s clear his affinity for UofL was solidified immediately.
Now, he reflects on that time as it relates to UofL’s current work in becoming the premier metropolitan research university, as well as the premier anti-racist metropolitan research university.
“That word ‘metropolitan’ means more than just being located in Louisville. Our university has a footprint in everything that moves in this city and even in the state,” he said. “You can’t talk about education without the University of Louisville. You can’t talk about health without the University of Louisville. You can’t talk about economic empowerment …”
It’s worth noting that now such reflection comes a bit intuitively as he prepares for retirement after a lifelong career here. He is optimistic about the path UofL is on, which is further along than it was when he came on board. He is especially optimistic that the university still has that support system in place for first-generation African American students and faculty.
“Those levels of support are our greatest window of opportunity,” he said. “We’ve got to walk the walk because so many are dependent on us. As long as folks of goodwill can come to the table and work together as a family, we can make those things happen.”
Check out the full conversation between Ralph Fitzpatrick and UofL President Neeli Bendapudi below.