A Present Enriched by the Past
History of the College
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. 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 later called Centre's achievement “the greatest upset in the first half of the 20th 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. A thriving international studies program attracts around 85 percent of all Centre students, putting the College among the top 5 in percentage of students who study abroad.
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.”
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 (John Cabell Breckinridge-Class of 1838 and Adlai Ewing Stevenson-Class of 1859), two members of the U.S. Supreme Court (Frederick M. Vinson-Class of 1909 and Class of 1911-Law, chief justice of the United States; and Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan-Class of 1850), and at least 13 U.S. senators, 43 U.S. representatives, 11 state governors, and several 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 America’s colleges and universities in the percentage who give financial support each year. In 2007, Centre completed a capital campaign that raised almost $170 million, well over the original $120 million goal.
Centre College Today
As the College heads toward its bicentennial in 2019, it continues to thrive and grow, with enrollment now at approximately 1,300 and the faculty numbering just over 100. By 2011, the campus included 157 acres and a total of 67 buildings, many of which are major new buildings or feature significant recent additions. A state-of-the-art residence hall, 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. The new Campus Center and main dining hall opened in 2009. And the significantly expanded Young Hall that houses life sciences and synthetic chemistry opened in 2010.
Click here for a brief history of Centre College.
Click here for historic preservation at Centre College.
Click here for Our Standard Sure Centre College Since 1819 by Tom Hardin '63