Centre College: A History
A Present Enriched by the Past
Centre College was founded by Presbyterian leaders and officially chartered by the Kentucky Legislature on January 21, 1819. The name reflects the College’s location in the geographic center of Kentucky; British spelling was in common use at the time.
Instruction began in Old Centre—the College’s first building—in the fall of 1820, with a faculty of two and a student body of five. Classes followed the classical curriculum of the day, including Latin, Greek, rhetoric, and logic.
Construction on Old Centre began in 1819 and 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. It has been used continuously since Centre’s beginning and today houses administrative offices as well as meeting rooms and a classroom.
Despite early financial hardships, disputes within and outside of the Presbyterian Church, and several 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.
Roots of the College
The roots of the College lie deep in the history of the region. Eighteenth-century Presbyterians, eager for an educated clergy and educated people to teach their children, began 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 Crow’s 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.
Important Citizens among First Centre Trustees
The legislature placed some of Kentucky’s most important citizens in charge of Centre as its first board of trustees. Isaac Shelby, the state’s first governor, was chair of Centre’s 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 Shelby’s oldest daughter, Sarah.)
The struggle between the Presbyterians and others who were eager for a more public institution of higher education continued beyond Centre’s opening one year later. While the Kentucky Legislature gave complete control of the College’s 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.
Era of Consolidation and Growth
While the first 50 years of Centre’s 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, Centre’s 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. Young’s 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. Young’s 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 Centre’s 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. Danville’s Kentucky College for Women merged with Centre in 1926, becoming the “women’s department” of the College. The department maintained a separate campus until the early 1960s when a unified campus organization was formed.
20th Century Achievements and Growth
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. Centre’s image as a tiny school capable of startlingly large achievements was enhanced in this period by its 1921 football victory over Harvard, then ranked No. 1. In a 1971 article marking the game’s 50th anniversary, the New York Times called it “Football’s Upset of the Century.” At Centre, the game is recalled simply by its score: C6-H0.
During the 1960s, a period of explosive growth in American higher education, the College’s 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 latter part of the 20th century brought continued recognition of Centre’s academic excellence. In 1971, the National Council of Phi Beta Kappa established a chapter at Centre, and Centre continues to be the only private institution in Kentucky to have a chapter of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society. In the 1990s, U.S. News and World Report listed Centre among the 25 national liberal arts colleges that are “tops in teaching” and added Centre to its list of “top-tier” national colleges (the highest ranking achieved by any Kentucky school).
Toward Centre's Third Century
In 2000, Centre made history as the smallest institution ever to host a General Election debate. On October 5, the two vice presidential candidates, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney, faced one another in the College’s Norton Center for the Arts. CBS news anchor Dan Rather later described the debate at Centre as “the best Vice Presidential Debate ever held.”
In 2008, Centre celebrated the start of construction on a new Campus Center and dining facility, which opened in October 2009. This was but one of several new expansion and renovation projects on campus taking place over a three-year span. One of these projects, Pearl Hall, was completed in 2008; the building later became the first building in Kentucky to be certified LEED GOLD for its environmentally friendly design and construction. Other projects included the expansion and renovation of Centre’s science facilities and a refurbishment of the College’s Norton Center for the Arts.
In 2010, Centre hosted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on its American tour. In October of 2012, Centre reprised its role as host of a Vice Presidential Debate, known as “The Thrill in the ‘Ville II.”
These and other events have led many to describe the College, in the words of the L.A. Times, as a place “that consistently punches above its weight.”