Transylvania University

Transylvania University, colloquially known as "Transy", is a private university in Lexington, Kentucky. It was founded in 1780 and was the first university in Kentucky. It offers 36 major programs, as well as dual-degree engineering programs, and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Its medical program graduated 8,000 physicians by 1859.[5]

Transylvania University
Seal of Transylvania University
MottoIn Lumine Illo Tradimus Lumen (Latin)
Motto in English
In That Light, We Pass On The Light
TypePrivate, liberal arts
Religious affiliation
Disciples of Christ
Endowment$174.6 million (2018)[1]
PresidentJohn Norton Williams (interim)
Location, ,
United States

38.0522°N 84.4936°W / 38.0522; -84.4936
Colors     Crimson
AthleticsNCAA Division IIIHCAC, OAC, ORLC
MascotRaf the Rafinesque's big-eared bat[4]

Transylvania's name, meaning "across the woods" in Latin, stems from the university's founding in the heavily forested region of western Virginia known as the Transylvania Colony, which became most of Kentucky in 1792.[6]

Transylvania is the alma mater of two U.S. vice presidents, two U.S. Supreme Court justices, 50 U.S. senators, 101 U.S. representatives, 36 U.S. governors, 34 U.S. ambassadors, and the one Confederate President, making it a large producer of U.S. statesmen.[5] Its enduring footprint, both in national and Southern academia, makes it a significant institution in the American South.[7]

Transylvania University is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ.[7]


Transylvania was the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains, and was named for the Colony of Transylvania, Latin for across the woods, which aimed to educate good citizens.[8] Thomas Jefferson was governor of Virginia when the Virginia Assembly chartered Transylvania Seminary in 1780, before Kentucky was separated out as its own state. Its first sponsor was the Christ Church Cathedral's (Episcopal Church) rector, the Reverend Moore, although the school later became affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.[9] Originally situated in a log cabin in Boyle County, Kentucky, the school moved to Lexington in 1789.[8] The first site in Lexington was a single building in what is now the historic Gratz Park.

By 1799, the institution was called Transylvania University. By 1818, a new main building was constructed for students' classes. That building burned down in 1829, and the school was moved to its present location north of Third Street. Old Morrison, the only campus building at the time, was constructed 1830–34, under the supervision of Henry Clay, who both taught law and was a member of Transylvania's Board.[10] After 1818, the university included a medical school, a law school, a divinity school, and a college of arts and sciences.[8][11]

An institution that aided in the development of today's Transylvania University was Bacon College of Georgetown named after Sir Francis Bacon which would, for a brief time, be known as Kentucky University. This school was not affiliated with the modern University of Kentucky. Founded by Baptist churches in Kentucky, Bacon College operated from 1837 to 1851. It was also distinct from nearby Georgetown College, another Baptist-supported institution. Bacon College closed due to lack of funding, but seven years later, in 1858, when the school had secured significant financial backing, Bacon College's charter was amended to establish Kentucky University, and it was moved to donated land in Harrodsburg. This school closed in 1860 and its Harrodsburg building burned in 1864. By mutual agreement and an act of the state legislature the college was merged with Transylvania University in 1865.[8][11][12]

From these early years, Transylvania has dominated academe in the bluegrass region, and was the sought-out destination for the children of the South's political leadership, military families, and business elite. It attracted many politically ambitious young men including Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Texas.[13]

After the Civil War

Following the American Civil War, Kentucky University was hit by a major fire, and both it and Transylvania University were left in dire financial condition. In 1865, both institutions secured permission to merge. The new institution used Transylvania's campus in Lexington while perpetuating the Kentucky University name.[8] The university was reorganized around several new colleges, including the Agricultural and Mechanical College (A&M) of Kentucky, publicly chartered as a department of Kentucky University as a land-grant institution under the Morrill Act.[11] However, due to questions regarding having a federally funded land-grant college controlled by a religious body, the A&M college was spun off in 1878 as an independent, state-run institution. The A&M of Kentucky soon developed into one of the state's flagship public universities, the University of Kentucky.[11] Kentucky University's College of the Bible, which traced its roots to Bacon College's Department of Hebrew Literature, received a separate charter in 1878. Kentucky University's seminary eventually became a separate institution, but remained housed on the same campus until 1950. It later changed its name to the Lexington Theological Seminary. In 1903, Hamilton College, a Lexington-based women's college founded in 1869, merged into Kentucky University.[11]

Due to confusion between Kentucky University and its daughter institution, the University of Kentucky, the institution was renamed "Transylvania University" in 1908.

1988 trademark dispute

In 1988, Transylvania University experienced an infringement on the institution's trademark when Hallmark Cards began selling "Transylvania University" T-shirts. The product, developed for the Halloween season, was intended to be a novelty item purporting to be college wear from the fictional Count Dracula's alma mater. When contacted by Transylvania University, Hallmark admitted that they were not aware of the Kentucky-based institution and recalled all unsold product immediately.[14]


The university is located on a 48-acre (19.4-hectare) downtown campus about four blocks away from the town center of Lexington, Kentucky. It has 24 buildings, 3 athletic fields, 4 dining areas, and a National Historic Landmark.[15] The campus is divided in two by North Broadway, with the east side of Broadway containing the university's academic buildings, and the west side containing the majority of the residential buildings.

Academic campus

On the East side of North Broadway is the academic side of campus. Old Morrison is the main administration building for the university. Old Morrison was built in 1833 under the supervision of Henry Clay who was serving as Transylvania's law professor. The building, designed by pioneer Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock is a National Historic Landmark and is featured on the city seal of Lexington. It houses the offices of financial aid, the president, the registrar, communications, accounting, and development. During the Civil War, Old Morrison served as a hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers.[16] Old Morrison was gutted by fire in 1969 but was renovated and reopened in 1971. The building also houses the tomb of Constantine Rafinesque, who was a natural science professor at the university from 1819 to 1826, and Sauveur Francois Bonfils, who taught at the university from 1842 to 1849. A native of France, he was apparently forced to flee due to political discord.[17]

Located adjacent to Old Morrison, the Carpenter Academic Center houses the faculties of English, philosophy, history, political science, foreign language, and classics as well as offices for professors. Behind Carpenter Academic Center is Alumni Plaza, opened in 2015, an outdoor classroom and social gathering area.[18] Also on the academic side of campus, a state-of-the-art student indoor athletic facility, called the Clive M. Beck Center, was completed and opened in 2003. The Beck Center facilitates men's and women's athletics and student fitness equipment.

The Carpenter Academic Center, formerly known as Haupt Humanities, was renovated over the 2017-2018 school year. This project updated classrooms and faculty offices, added student gathering spaces, and integrated new technologies.[19] Carpenter Academic Center reopened in May 2018.

The Mitchell Fine Arts Center is the home of the university's music program and provides offices and classrooms for the drama and music programs. It contains a large concert hall, a small theater, a recital hall, the Morlan Gallery, the Rafskeller (sic – see "Traditions") dining facility, the music technology classroom, and the Career Development Center.[20] The Morlan Gallery in the center hosts six to seven art exhibitions every year during the academic calendar. It primarily serves as a gallery for exhibiting contemporary art including Appalachian Folk art, Chinese art, contemporary African art, sculptural installations, and performance and video pieces. The gallery offers guided tours and lectures for school groups, civic clubs, and senior citizen organizations.[21]

The Cowgill Center for Business, Economics, and Education holds classrooms for these subjects and offices for professors. It features a high-tech multimedia classroom, a specialized classroom for training education majors, a computer lab, lecture halls, seminar rooms, study areas, faculty offices and the Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum.[22] The L.A. Brown Science Center houses classrooms, laboratories and offices for the natural sciences, computer science and mathematics programs. A state-of-the-art nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer is available to enhance students' academic and research experience.[23]


Originally completed in 1952 with a dedication from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the main library building was renovated and had an addition added in 1985, and was re-dedicated by then Vice President George H. W. Bush as the Douglas Gay Jr. and Frances Carrick Thomas Library. The Special Collections of the library houses a manuscript collection with letters, diaries, and documents of notable historical figures associated with the university including Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis, Robert Peter, John Wesley Hunt, Daniel Drake, and Horace Holley. The rare books section houses a collection of books relating to the history of horses and natural history, as well as a collection of pre-1800 medical books.[24] The books belonging to the Transylvania Medical Department, which closed in 1859, are now kept in special collections. The library is the setting for the film American Animals, telling how four twenty-year-old students stole and attempted to sell some of the rare books.[25]

The basement of the library was renovated and became the Dugi Academic Center for Excellence in 2013[26] and the first floor was renovated in 2015.

The Glenn Building was constructed as a multi-purpose building in 2005 and houses a coffee shop, Jazzman's Café, the admissions offices, and expansion space for the library. It was named in honor of James F. Glenn, a Board of Trustees member who donated $1.1 million for its construction. It utilizes an environmentally friendly geothermal heating and air conditioning system and several mature trees near the site were preserved during construction.[27]

Residence halls

The western half of the campus contains most of the residential parts of campus. Dalton-Voigt Hall opened in Fall 2015 and houses upperclass students and currently has its first two floors divided among the four active sororities on campus with the top two floors for all upperclass students. This $7 million 144-bed facility offers suite-style living and common spaces for studying and activities.[28] Jefferson Davis Hall and Henry Clay Hall were demolished in June 2015 to make space for construction of Pioneer Hall and Bassett Hall, which are similar to Dalton-Voigt and opened in January 2017.[29]

Thomson Hall was opened in the fall of 2008. It received Energy Star rating in 2009. It serves as a residential building for upper-class students that meet a certain GPA requirement and features 31 suite style living-units which include study areas, living rooms, kitchenettes, bathrooms, and bedrooms. The building is three stories tall, has 28,000 square feet (2,600 m2) of space, and cost $5.5 million. Thomson Hall was built to be an environmentally friendly building and it exceeds state insulating value requirements by 28 percent. It has geothermal heating and energy, low flow shower heads, a total energy recovery wheel on outside ventilation, fifty percent recycled material in the parking lot surface, and energy saving lighting.[30]

Dalton-Voigt, Thomson, Pioneer, and Bassett Halls all surround Back Circle, a central outdoor field where students are able to socialize, play sports, or do homework.

The other residence spaces on campus are Poole Residence Center, Hazelrigg Hall, Rosenthal Apartment Complex, and Fourth Street Apartments. Poole houses upperclass students in large, suite-style rooms. Hazelrigg offers upperclass students a mandated 24-hour quiet time, single rooms, and a location on the academic side of campus. Rosenthal houses upperclass students in an outdoor apartment style. Fourth Street Apartments are offered for upperclass students who wish to live most independently in apartments. The apartments have kitchens and one to two bedrooms.[31]

Campus Center

As part of ongoing campus building projects, the William T. Young Campus Center is being renovated and expanded into the space where Forrer Hall stood.[32] The new Campus Center, with an expected completion of Fall 2020, will offer new space for student organizations, dining, fitness, and more.


University rankings
Forbes[33] 307
Times/WSJ[34] 381
Liberal arts colleges
U.S. News & World Report[35] 72
Washington Monthly[36] 86

Transylvania has a selective and international admission process. Transylvania presently offers 38 majors and 37 minors spread among four divisions: Fine Arts, Humanities, Natural Sciences & Mathematics and Social Sciences. It offers such majors as Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication (WRC),[37][38] as well as interdisciplinary studies, or the ability of students to design their own majors.[39] In 2018, Transylvania became the first of Kentucky's liberal arts colleges to partner with the Peace Corps to establish a Peace Corps Prep program, a diversity-oriented program designed to prepare undergraduates for international development fieldwork and potential Peace Corps service.[40][41]

Student life

Starting in the fall of 2012 Transylvania began August Term, a 3-week orientation period with an introduction to liberal arts education for all first-year students. Students take part in an introductory course and various community building exercises including long-standing traditions such as the first-year serenade and greet line. The serenade breaks students up based on their August Term class for a sing-off. The greet line starts as a large arch made up of every member of the first-year class (and various faculty, staff, and upperclass campus leaders). Every member of the line goes down and shakes hand with all other members, introducing themselves along the way.


There is a week-long celebration of Halloween by students known as "Rafinesque Week" in honor of the 19th-century botanist, inventor, and Transylvania professor Constantine Rafinesque. The university ends October with a unique combination of activities including a lottery for four students to win the chance to spend the night in Rafinesque's tomb.[42] The steps of Old Morrison are lined with pumpkins carved by students, faculty, staff, and members of the community around Halloween for what is called Pumpkinmania. In honor of Professor Rafinesque, the downstairs grill in the Mitchell Fine Arts Building is called the "Rafskeller" – a pun on the word Rathskeller.

Transylvania is also known for the Kissing Tree, a white ash tree that is estimated to be approximately 260 years old – 35 years older than the university itself. In the 1940s and 1950s, the administration turned a blind eye to students kissing in public near the tree, at a time when it was frowned upon elsewhere on campus.[43] Today, with the rules on public displays of affection slackened, students refer to the tree as the Kissing Tree. In 2003 The Chronicle of Higher Education included the Kissing Tree among the most romantic places on college campuses in America, and it was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about romance on college campuses.[44]


The Transylvania Pioneers student-athletes compete under colors crimson and white at a variety of venues throughout the country; maintain successful results; and often compete against larger institutions including Ohio University.[45]

The Pioneers participate as a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division III, primarily of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC). Men's sports include baseball, basketball, cross country, equestrian, golf, lacrosse, soccer, swimming & diving, tennis and track & field; while women's sports include basketball, cheerleading, cross country, equestrian, field hockey, golf, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming & diving, tennis, track & field and volleyball.

Philanthropists have increased sizable gifts to the university in its present period more so than ever before, and coaches at Transylvania University have been continually recognized for athletic achievements.

Transylvania won the first recorded football game in the state of Kentucky by defeating the Centre Praying Colonels of Centre College 1334–0.[46] Its 1903 team claimed a southern championship.


The campus, home to several Transylvania choirs and instrumental ensembles, also hosts several exhibitions in its Morlan Gallery that change by season. The gallery focuses on work produced in the past decade from worldwide viewpoints. Transylvania was honored with an international Gold Award for Transylvania Treasures, its publication dedicated to showcasing the rare and valuable items in Transylvania University's special collections and medical and science museum, and now is considered a treasure in its own right, concluding a prestigious national competition sponsored by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.[47] Transylvania's theatre department produces two to three stage productions every year. The Lucille C. Little Theater provides a performance space for theatre performances by students and professionals on campus.[48]

Fraternities and sororities

Transylvania has Greek life on campus, with four fraternities and four sororities and 53% of the students as members of Greek organizations.[49] In its 2016 edition of "The Best 380 Colleges", the Princeton Review named Transylvania number 4 on its list of colleges with "Lots of Greek Life".[50] In 2010, the school was named number 1 in percentage of Greek students on campus.



Notable people

Amongst Transylvania's prominent alumni are two U.S. vice presidents, John C. Breckinridge and Richard Mentor Johnson, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices, John Marshall Harlan and Samuel Freeman Miller.[51]

Notable alumni

Notable faculty

  • Robert Penn Warren set part of his novel All the King's Men at Transylvania University.
  • Robert Lowell referred to the university in his sonnet "The Graduate (Elizabeth)." The poem states gleefully that "Transylvania's Greek Revival Chapel is one of the best Greek Revival things in the South."
  • A 2004 robbery at Transylvania University's special collections library was the subject of the true-crime drama film American Animals, released in 2018.[58]
  • Transylvania is home to the Judy Gaines Young Book Award, given annually to honor an excellent work of fiction or poetry written in the Appalachian region in the prior two to three years.

See also



  1. As of June 30, 2018. "U.S. and Canadian Institutions Listed by Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Endowment Market Value and Change in Endowment Market Value from FY 2017 to FY 2018" (PDF). National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  2. As of fall 2016. "Student headcount by level: All independent institutions (2006-16)" (PDF). Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Commonwealth of Kentucky. Retrieved March 4, 2018.
  3. NAICU – Member Directory Archived November 9, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  5. John, Jr. Wright, ed. Transylvania: Tutor to the West (2nd ed. 1980)
  6. "Transylvania University's Name". Transylvania University. Archived from the original on February 10, 2011. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  7. Wright, Jr., John D. (2006). Transylvania: Tutor to the West. The University Press of Kentucky.
  8. "Transylvania and the Christian Church" (PDF). Transylvania University. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 20, 2011. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  9. Church affiliation was Presbyterian, according to the school's online history summary, accessed December 11, 2016.
  10. "Old Morrison, Administrative Building". Transylvania University. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  11. "The Early History of Transylvania University: An Archetype of Restoration Movement Institutions of Higher Education" (PDF). James M Owston. 1998. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  12. Private Bacon College was organized in Georgetown, KY, in 1836, with its first classes held in 1837. The school moved to Harrodsburg, KY in 1839, then closed briefly in 1850 while seeking backers. A past president of the college operated a preparatory high school under the Bacon name between 1850–55+, as noted in this history of the baptist "Restoration Movement", accessed December 11, 2016. The college was re-established as Kentucky University in 1858, in Harrodsburg, but due to student enlistment by 1860 the Civil war again forced it to close. At the end of the war the school was moved to Lexington, where, in 1865 it merged with Transylvania University.
  13. Thelin, John R. (May 3, 2004). A History of American Higher Education. The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 47. ISBN 9780801878558.
  14. "Survival of the Fittest? The Rebranding of West Virginia Higher Education" (PDF). James M Owston. 2007. Retrieved January 9, 2010.
  15. "Transylvania University – a liberal arts college in Central Kentucky".
  16. "Transylvania University – a liberal arts college in Central Kentucky".
  17. Boewe, Charles "Who's Buried in Rafinesque's Tomb?" The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol 111, No. 2 (April 1987) pg 220
  18. "Transylvania University Alumni plaza project".
  20. "Transylvania University – a liberal arts college in Central Kentucky".
  21. "Transylvania University – a liberal arts college in Central Kentucky".
  22. "Cowgill Center".
  23. "Brown Science Center".
  24. J. Douglas Gay Jr./Frances Carrick Thomas Library Special Collections. Retrieved October 29, 2010
  25. "Four Plead Guilty in Transylvania University Theft". American Library Association. April 22, 2005. Retrieved August 27, 2018. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  26. "Transylvania University: Transylvania opens Academic Center for Excellence to help students succeed".
  27. "Transylvania University – a liberal arts college in Central Kentucky".
  28. "Transylvania University: Transylvania University enters new era with groundbreaking".
  29. "Transylvania to open two new residence halls this week".
  30. "Transylvania University – a liberal arts college in Central Kentucky".
  31. "Living on Campus – Transylvania University".
  32. "Re-visioning The core of campus life :: Transylvania University Campus Center".
  33. "America's Top Colleges 2019". Forbes. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
  34. "U.S. College Rankings 2020". Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education. Retrieved September 26, 2019.
  35. "Best Colleges 2020: National Liberal Arts Colleges Rankings". U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved September 8, 2019.
  36. "2019 Liberal Arts Rankings". Washington Monthly. Retrieved September 8, 2019.
  37. "Academic Majors, Minors, and Preprofessional Studies". Transylvania University. January 16, 2015.
  38. "Quick Facts". Transylvania University. January 16, 2015.
  39. Self-designed Majors and Minors. Archived March 14, 2016, at the Wayback Machine University publication. Retrieved August 26, 2012.
  40. "Peace Corps Prep Program". March 21, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  41. "Peace Corps Prep Partner Schools". Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  42. "Barefootin' it for Rafinesque, Transylvania University Magazine, Fall 2005" (PDF). Transylvania University. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  43. "Transylvania University – a liberal arts college in Central Kentucky".
  44. Shellenbarger, Sue, "Where Is the Love? Students Eschew Campus Romance", The Wall Street Journal January 31, 2008. Retrieved on February 21, 2017.
  45. Transylvania University Athletics. Retrieved August 26, 2012.
  46. "Trivia". Transylvania University. Retrieved June 9, 2015.
  47. "Arch Story". Transylvania News & Events. Retrieved June 6, 2009.
  48. "Lucille C. Little Theater".
  49. "Transylvania University - Campus Engagement".
  50. "Lots of Greek Life". The Princeton Review. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  51. Transylvania University History. Archived May 17, 2011, at the Wayback Machine Retrieved August 26, 2012.
  52. Tucker, Spencer C. (2012). The Encyclopedia Of the War Of 1812: A Political, Social, and Military. ABC-CLIO. p. 717. Retrieved July 17, 2014.
  53. "Governor's Information: Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin". Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. Retrieved May 3, 2007.
  54. "Thomas James Churchill(1881–1883)". Old State House Museum. Archived from the original on June 7, 2012. Retrieved August 14, 2012.
  55. "Trivia". Transylvania University. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
  56. Bevins, Ann (1973). "Abram-Buford – James K. Duke House". National Park Service. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
  57. "Henry Clay and Transylvania University". Transylvania University. Retrieved June 9, 2015.
  58. Lee, Chris (June 1, 2018). "The Real-life Heist Caper Behind American Animals". Vulture. New York Media. Retrieved February 5, 2019.

Further reading

  • Cousins, James P. Horace Holley: Transylvania University and the Making of Liberal Education in the Early American Republic (U Press of Kentucky, 2016). 297 pp
  • McGlothlin, William J. "Rev. Horace Holley: Transylvania's Unitarian President, 1818–1827," Filson Club History Quarterly (1977) 51#3 pp 234–248
  • Peter, Robert. The history of the medical department of Transylvania University (1905) online.
  • Peter, Robert, and Johanna Peter. Transylvania University: Its Origin, Rise, Decline, and Fall (1896) online
  • Sonne, Niels Henry. Liberal Kentucky, 1780–1828 (University of Kentucky Press, 1968)
  • Wright, John, Jr., ed. Transylvania: Tutor to the West (2nd ed. 1980)
  • Zerfas, L. G. "Medical Education in Indiana As Influenced by Early Indiana Graduates in Medicine from Transylvania University" Indiana Magazine of History (1934) 30#2 pp 139–48
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