|A Present Enriched by the Past l History of the College
- Centre College was founded in 1819. Instruction began in the fall of 1820, with a faculty of two and a student body of five. Classes reflected the classical curriculum of the day, which included Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and logic. They were held in Old Centre, a building that has been used continuously since Centres beginning and that today houses the Colleges administrative offices as well as the Heritage Room and a classroom.
Old Centre was completed in 1820 at a cost of $8,000. It was designed to hold up to 400 students in the College and also a grammar school.
Despite early financial hardships, disputes within and outside of the Presbyterian Church, and six wars (including the occupation of Old Centre by both Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War), Centre has remained open and committed to its educational mission since its founding.
The roots of the College, officially chartered by the Kentucky Legislature on January 21, 1819, lie deep in the history of the region. Presbyterians, eager for an educated clergy and educated people to teach their children, were laying the groundwork for the establishment of a college in what was then the Kentucky County of Virginia. At the same time, the Revolutionary War was being fought and the region west of the Allegheny Mountains was being settled out of wilderness.
In 1780, the Virginia Assembly set aside 8,000 acres of land for this "seminary of learning." Three years later, a board of trustees met at Tom Crows Station (still standing as a private home in Danville) to organize the school. Instruction began at the Transylvania Seminary near Danville in 1785.
But the seminary fell on hard financial times. Unable to raise proper funding in the small community of Danville, the trustees moved the school to the larger settlement of Lexington in 1788. By 1794, the founding group of Presbyterians, alarmed by what it viewed as secular philosophies invading public institutions, moved to establish a more Christian school near Pisgah, Kentucky. The Kentucky Academy opened in 1795, funded by donations from the faithful. George Washington and John Adams gave $100 each to the new school, and Aaron Burr donated $50.
By 1819, the Presbyterians began to realize that they had again lost control of their institution and its board of trustees. Once more they petitioned the Kentucky Legislature for a charter, and Centre College was established. The name reflects the Colleges location in the geographic center of Kentucky; British spelling was common at the time.
The legislature placed some of Kentucky's most important citizens in charge of Centre as its first board of trustees. Isaac Shelby, the states first governor, was chair of Centres board. Dr. Ephraim McDowell, a Danville resident who 10 years earlier had made medical history by performing the first successful abdominal operation, was also on the board. (These two leaders shared family connections in addition to civic responsibilities, as Dr. McDowell was married to Governor Shelbys oldest daughter, Sarah.)
The struggle between the Presbyterians and others who were eager for a more public institution of higher education continued beyond Centres opening one year later. While the Kentucky Legislature gave complete control of the Colleges board of trustees to the Presbyterians in 1824, it added an amendment stating that "the College shall at all times be conducted on liberal, free, and enlightened principles, and no student shall be excluded in consequence of his religious opinions, or those of his parents, guardians or relatives." Today the College maintains its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church but welcomes students, faculty, and staff of all faiths.
While the first 50 years of Centres history was a period of preparation and planning, its second phase, from 1830 to 1857, was an era of consolidation and growth. Dr. John C. Young, Centres president during the later period, found "the College without reputation, without endowment, without students....But, he was young, hopeful, and earnest." according to Dr. Ormond Beatty who served as Centre president from 1870 to 1888. Dr. Youngs qualities and the support of loyal alumni and friends of the College helped Centre advance under his presidency.
"Before his death, Dr. Young saw a permanent fund of $100,000 provided for the support of the school," Beatty noted. This occurred along with additions to the curriculum, enlargement of the faculty, and a fivefold increase in the student body. Under Dr. Youngs tenure, Centre advanced to a position among the highest-ranking colleges in America.
Founded primarily as an institution devoted to training young men for the ministry, Centre has changed throughout its history to keep pace with the educational demands of a growing region and nation. The Kentucky School for the Deaf, also in Danville, was founded in 1824 as the first state-supported institution for the deaf, and in its early years was controlled by Centres board of trustees. From the 1890s until 1912, a law school was operated at Centre with J. Procter Knott, a former Kentucky governor, as its dean. In 1901, the Central University at Richmond was consolidated with Centre. Danvilles Kentucky College for Women merged with Centre in 1926, becoming the Colleges womens department. The department maintained a separate campus until the early 1960s when a unified campus organization was formed.
During the early and mid-20th century, many of the educational resources of Kentucky and the nation were committed to the establishment and expansion of state-supported land-grant universities. These institutions were often vocationally oriented. But Centre remained steadfast in its mission of providing superior education in the liberal arts tradition. Centres image as a tiny school capable of startlingly large achievements was enhanced in this period by its 1921 football victory over No-1-ranked Harvard, a game often referred to as the greatest sports upset in the first half of the 20th century. Also during this period, Centre continued to educate students who went on to achieve distinction in a variety of fields, many of whom later served as leaders in helping the College further advance its tradition of alumni loyalty and support.
During the 1960s, a period of explosive growth in American higher education, the Colleges financial resources doubled. Eleven new buildings were added to the campus, the enrollment increased from 450 to around 800, and the faculty was enlarged. The College has continued to grow, with enrollment now about 1,050. In 1997 Centre completed a capital campaign that raised more than $76 million, well over the original $60-million goal.
And the College continues to be recognized for academic excellence. In 1971, the National Council of Phi Beta Kappa established a chapter at Centre. Today Centre is among the smallest coeducational colleges in the United States to have been selected to receive a chapter of the national honor society, and Centre is the only private institution in Kentucky to have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. In 1996 U.S. News and World Report listed Centre among the 25 national liberal arts colleges that are "tops in teaching" and in 1997 added Centre to its list of "top-tier" national colleges (the highest ranking achieved by any Kentucky school).
In 2000 Centre made history as the smallest institution ever to host a General Election debate. Sen. Joe Liberman and now Vice President Dick Cheney debated on October 5 in the Colleges Norton Center of the Arts. Newsman Bernard Shaw moderated. CBS news anchor Dan Rather later described the debate at Centre as "the best Vice Presidential Debate ever held."
Throughout its long history, Centre has been supported and enhanced by its alumni, who have taken positions of prominence and usefulness in a variety of fields. Centre alumni include two U.S. vice presidents, one Chief Justice of the United States, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, and at least 13 U.S. senators, 43 U.S. representatives, 11 state governors, and 11 moderators of the General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church. Other Centre alumni have been and are leaders in a variety of fields including teaching, business, medicine, law, and journalism. Centre alumni are widely known as the most loyal in the nation, leading all of Americas colleges and universities in the percentage who give financial support each year.
Centre College and its people have much to be proud of and thankful for in the past: outstanding leaders who demonstrated a consistent preference for quality over quantity; generations of devoted, caring teachers and students; and an exceptionally successful body of alumni. But equally important among these qualities is a sense of connection with the past, giving added meaning to the present and providing inspiration for this tradition to be continued in the future.
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