A Conversation with Vanderbilt Alum Ken Spring
Justin Gung, Assistant Director of Leadership Annual Giving & Alumni Engagement, spoke with Vanderbilt alum, Ken Spring. In this story, you will learn about Ken’s dedication to education and how he continues to grow in his current role as a professor.
“Vanderbilt was absolutely foundational to my career,” he says, “and I have a deep appreciation for the Graduate School especially.” As a college student at Ohio Wesleyan University, Ken Spring was faced with a choice: take either Psychology 101 or Sociology 101 to fulfill a graduation requirement. “Psychology was at 8:00 a.m. and Sociology was at 11:00 a.m. The choice was easy,” he smiles. Who could have predicted that a freshman year course schedule would spark a love for sociology in Spring, lead him to Vanderbilt University as a graduate student, and later to Belmont University as a tenured professor and respected administrator?
In 1996, Spring arrived in Nashville to study with Dr. Richard A. “Pete” Peterson. (Already renowned in his field, Peterson would one day be named professor emeritus of sociology.) Over the years, Peterson became more than just an academic advisor to Spring; he became a father figure, too. For years, they spent every Wednesday afternoon together, discussing sociology and, just as often, life in general. Spring would be Peterson’s final Ph.D. student.
In 2002, with Ph.D. in hand, Spring moved across Wedgewood Avenue to Belmont University and began work as a tenure-track professor. His talent as a teacher was quickly recognized by students, as was his collegiality by faculty. Spring served as Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as President of the Faculty Senate. His work in these roles has greatly improved the faculty experience at Belmont. Spring has even been considered in national searches for higher education administrators in recent years.
But his first love remains teaching and his desire is to impact students similarly to how Peterson impacted him. Spring teaches a number of popular courses. He co-teaches a course with Rev. Dr. Gregory L. Jones, President of Belmont University, on vocation and purpose.
Each summer, Spring takes students to Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, not to wade into mosh pits, but to conduct serious sociological research. (This must be a nod to his mentor Peterson, who was a leading expert on music and culture.) The students in “Bonnaroo U” get to present their research findings to top executives in the music industry, such as those at Live Nation. Some students have even been offered jobs in the field. (A class similar to Bonnaroo U, but focused on the Americana Festival, is now in the works, and other universities are taking Spring’s template and replicating it in their own ways.)
Spring’s commitment to education spills over the bounds of Belmont to the broader community, too. He has helped to create educational outreach and homework-help programs in Nashville, which dramatically boost the literacy and reading comprehension scores of students. He also became active in the Literacy Program of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee and served on the Board of Directors of the Margaret Maddox YMCA. In 2012, Spring was named a recipient of the prestigious Harold Love Award, a state-wide recognition conferred upon only five professors in Tennessee for their service to the community.
For all his success, Spring is quick to point to where it all began. “Vanderbilt was absolutely foundational to my career,” he says, “and I have a deep appreciation for the Graduate School especially.” So, is there anything that could convince him to move back across Wedgewood Avenue to work at Vanderbilt? Spring pauses to think for a moment and then smiles.