Centre College, the little Presbyterian liberal arts school in pastoral Danville, rakes in the accolades annually. Its alumni ranks have been storied since its founding in 1819 with Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor, chairing its board.
One grad was a professional and political mentor to Abraham Lincoln, advising the state’s most famous son to study law and loaning him the books when he was still a lanky young man seeking direction in life. Another became the youngest vice president in U.S. history. Two served on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The epic 1921 Praying Colonels team took down the then-titans of college football, Harvard, 6-0 in what the AP in 1950 deemed the greatest sports upset of the half century. It hosted the 2000 U.S. vice presidential debate, very much the smallest school and town to ever do so.
Centre students continue to excel academically. The past 10 years have yielded two Rhodes scholars, seven Goldwater and 29 Fulbright winners. Centre has Kentucky’s only private college Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
Beyond the stellar academics, students earning Centre degrees typically emerge from the campus culture imbued with an activist urge to get involved and make a contribution to the world. Certainly their impact on the life of the commonwealth is larger than that of most 1,215-student colleges. A “Centre mafia” – an affectionate term – can be found in leadership roles in business and civic life.
And former students remain dedicated to their alma mater. For the past 25 years, Centre has had the highest rate of alumni donations in the United States. While most colleges and universities get contributions from fewer than 10 percent of their alums in a given year, Centre alumni twice set the standing national record: 74.5 percent.
Clearly this little school operating in Kentucky’s rolling heartland manages to maintain an academic culture at a level few others ever attain.
Centre President John Roush today cites the quality of the faculty and the care with which they are integrated into the college’s activist culture of high expectations as a key best practice.
“We value scholarship. We honor scholarship,” Roush said, “but to be a successful faculty member here you must be an outstanding teacher.”
Hiram Ely III, an attorney with the Greenebaum Doll McDonald law firm in Louisville and president of Centre’s alumni board, recalls a professor so enthused with his subject matter – philosophy – that he’d literally bounce off the floor into the air during lectures.
“Every class I had at Centre had an outstanding professor,” Ely said. “I can’t think of a single exception.”
It made an impact also that when Ely arrived on campus for the first time in fall of 1969, the dean of students greeted him by name although they’d never met.
The dean had done his homework with the facebook for incoming students. “He knew a lot about me, not just my name.”
A strong connection between faculty and students is a key element of the Centre campus culture. Class sizes are small, averaging 18 to 19, so that each student can be actively engaged. At Centre, though, the link extends beyond the classroom. Professors are known to call to check on a sick student, to attend games and performances unrelated to their classes, to have students come to their homes for dinner.
“They didn’t just do their job,” Ely said. “They took it to a completely different level.”
Told about Ely’s bouncing professor anecdote, Chase Warner, current student body president, said, “One of my teachers does the same thing. They are so excited. They put a lot of enthusiasm into teaching.”
Warner shared his own anecdote from a classroom experience he said happened earlier in the day when he was interviewed. A student in biology class had mentioned having a sick fish, and their professor used that as a teaching opportunity. The class is now culturing a sample from the fish’s tank in hope of identifying the origin of its illness.
The active engagement practiced by faculty becomes instilled into students, Warner said. “You incorporate that into how you do presentations.”
Students engage, too, with service projects that involve charitable or public service. And then perhaps the most influential components of Centre’s engagement-with-the-world package is its study abroad program. Eighty-five percent of students participate, some more than once, immersing themselves in another country for a semester. It’s rated one of the five best such programs in the United States.
Warner, of Lexington, spent the fall of 2007 in Strasbourg, France, with a group of fellow students. A Centre history professor taught two courses, while French citizens taught courses on the European Union and the Council of Europe government, French culture and French language.
Warner declared a French major and graduates this semester. He also has lots of science coursework and has been accepted conditionally into the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy School for the fall of 2012. First he will go to New Zealand on a Rotary Ambassador scholarship.
Centre College’s small size means lots of interpersonal interaction and connection, Warner said. “You thrive on that. You look for that,” he said, and “you develop people skills.”
Ely said he continues to feel the impact Centre had on him pretty much daily. When he encounters other Centre grads, which happens regularly in Louisville because the greater Jefferson County area sends the most students to Danville, he assumes that he will be working with someone who is intelligent, has intellectual curiosity, is interested in public service and has “a desire to make a difference in a positive way.”
Roush cites the culture Centre cultivates and nurtures as a key best practice that creates the school’s success. He teaches one course a year himself, Rainmaking: The Study of and Preparation for Leadership.
“John is a coach and a motivator, and he knows how to bring the best out of people,” said Mike Norris, director of communications at Centre for the past 30 years. Roush was a three-time academic All-American football player when he attended Ohio University.
Roush’s enthusiasm for Centre is readily evident. Sitting and discussing what makes it a special place, his foot involuntarily stamps the floor as he makes a point.
He does not make a habit of touting the various lists that flatter the college.
Braggadocio is not Centre’s style, plus Roush sees little real significance in individual lists and rankings. What he does admit to enjoying is the impression and conclusion one can’t avoid when entity after entity deems the school to be one of the top post-secondary operations in the country.
“I have been critical of these rankings forever,” Roush said. “That said, when you start to appear on all of them, as Centre does, it sends a signal that Centre College has become one of those very special places for undergraduates in America.” He adds quickly though, “That’s not a new phenomenon.”
Norris is less reluctant to inform those who inquire how Centre ranks. He’s compiled a Rankings Roundup of the praise. From just the past few years, it includes:
• Forbes magazine: No. 13 among all U.S. colleges and universities in 2008; No. 14 in 2009; Best Educational Institution in the South in 2010.
• U.S. New & World Report: No. 46 among top 50 liberal arts colleges in the United States; No. 11 in the nation for Best Liberal Arts Colleges for Undergraduate Teaching; and No. 7 for percentage of students studying abroad.
• Consumer Digest: No. 1 value in the nation among private liberal arts colleges.
• Kiplinger’s Personal Finance: No. 29 among all U.S. private liberal arts colleges on Best Value list.
• Princeton Review: Named an “outstanding undergraduate educational opportunity” for 2010.
Over the years Centre has educated 11 governors, 13 U.S. senators, 43 U.S. representatives and 10 moderators of the General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church. It produced the late, beloved voice of the Kentucky Wildcats, Cawood Ledford.
“The faculty who work here see themselves as mentors not just teachers,” Roush said. “What we do here in terms of our undergraduate teaching is best practice. … What we do with our Study Abroad program is off the charts. … Visual and performing arts is best practice.”
Another best practice, said Roush: “We know how to raise money.”
Ely said strong alumni loyalty to Centre is tied directly to the experience they enjoyed as students. “I am amazed … at the impact the school still has on my life,” said Ely, who is back on campus several times a year.
The ability to raise money has allowed Centre to engage in an $85 million construction campaign in recent years. Since 2005, Crounse Hall, the main academic building and home of the campus library, has been expanded and renovated; a new Campus Center and residence hall have been constructed; the Norton Center for the Arts has been renovated; so has the Sutcliffe Hall athletics and fitness center; and a 40,000-s.f. addition to the Young Hall science building is nearing completion. Pearl Hall, a LEED Gold-certified residence hall, opened last year.
Roush said he did not expect to preside over a construction campaign, but the alumni board got excited and kept raising money once it got started a few years ago.
The school has what its president refers to as a “Mighty Mouse” attitude of taking on challenges out of proportion to its size – and succeeding.
Reflecting on the college’s performance, he said, “I believe in luck, but I also believe luck favors the well prepared.”
Oh yes, about those references at the top of the article:
John Todd Stuart, Class of 1826, was a major influence on President Lincoln, steered him to the law and into politics and was a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln.
John Breckinridge, Class of 1838, was elected vice president in 1856, became secretary of war of the Confederacy and a later vigorous opponent of the Ku Klux Klan.
John Marshall Harlan, Class of 1850, while associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court for 34 years, cast the lone dissenting vote in Plessy v. Ferguson 1896. The text of his dissent became the basis for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Frederick Moore Vinson, Class of 1909, Law 1911, was 13th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court 1946-53. He held several positions in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and helped found the International Monetary Fund.
The 1921 football team was led by All-American Bo McMillan.