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New Blood at Old Transylvania U. : Kentucky Institution Reverses Decline With Merit Plan

Charles Hillinger's America

August 30, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. — As fall is about to begin, large signs near the downtown area of this city--known for its sprawling, white-fenced horse farms--proclaim:

"Welcome to Transylvania."

It isn't a joke. And it has nothing to do with horses.

The signs refer to Transylvania University, one of the nation's oldest colleges and said to be one of the most prestigious small schools of higher learning in America.

"The name does attract attention. People seldom forget us," admitted Rick Bubenhofer, 38, special assistant to the school's president. Locals have been known to call it Old Dracula U.

It was Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, who signed the legislation creating Transylvania University in 1780. Kentucky was then part of Virginia, and this part of it was called Transylvania--Latin for "across the woods"--also, of course, the name of a historic region in Romania.

In the late 1700s, this was the nation's new Western frontier, and Daniel Boone, chief scout for the Transylvania Land Co., surveyed the land for what was to be the first college in the West.

A plaque on the campus proudly notes that alumni here include Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; Stephen Austin, first governor of Texas; two U.S. vice presidents, Richard M. Johnson and John C. Breckinridge; five U.S. Supreme Court justices; 50 U.S. senators; 101 U.S. representatives, including three House speakers; 36 governors and 34 U.S. ambassadors.

Pretty good for a small liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1,040, the largest in its history.

"Transylvania really has an outstanding reputation," said senior Gwen Williamson, 21, of Lexington, "but people often laugh when they hear the school's name. They ask if Dracula is enrolled or if we have any vampires in class."

Pam Green, 20, a senior from Paris, Ky., said one time while she was working in the administration office a letter was received from someone inquiring: "Do you have information on when to howl at the moon?"

The university was 117 years old when Bram Stoker's masterpiece "Dracula," was published in 1897. And when Bela Lugosi starred in the 1931 horror film about Dracula, the vampire from Transylvania, the school had existed more than a century and a half. It was after the Lugosi film that people started calling the Lexington school Old Dracula U.

"Like hundreds of small colleges across the nation, we were going broke in the early 1980s," recalled William T. Young, 69, Lexington businessman, philanthropist and the school's chairman of the board. "Costs were soaring. Our enrollment was declining; we were down to 650 students. If the trend had continued we could have gone belly-up."

It was Young's idea five years ago to launch a merit scholarship program, which turned everything around. Today, Transylvania University has 40% of all the National Merit Scholars in Kentucky.

"Some colleges take rejects. We decided to go after the best students we could find to benefit Transylvania, to benefit Kentucky," Young explained.

To achieve that goal the school annually awards 25 full four-year Thomas Jefferson scholarships (tuition, room and board) worth more than $40,000 each to outstanding students. "We have 100 scholars in place, 25 in each class, 10% of the entire student body. The scholarships are based strictly on merit. Half the recipients are from low-income families," Young said.

"We use lavish scholarships" he added, "to lure the best students. . . . Our enrollment has soared from 650 to 1,040 primarily because of the scholarships. Good students attract other good students."

In his office seated under a large painting of Henry Clay, Charles Shearer, 44, 24th president of the 207-year-old school, commented:

"Every year about 300 apply for the scholarships. We select 65 finalists. They are invited to come to Transylvania for two days of interviews by a committee. Of the 300 that apply, 30% to 40% who do not receive the scholarships enroll.

"The scholarships have really added a new dimension in terms of student quality. These bright young people . . . challenge themselves, other students, their professors. It has made a tremendous impact."

Shearer said he knows of no other school of comparable size that has 10% of its student body on full four-year tuition-room-board scholarships.

He noted that the National Science Foundation has named Transylvania as having one of the top computer-science programs on the small college level in the United States.

The school has closed enrollment and turned away a number of prospective students this semester to maintain its traditional 13-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.

Shearer strolls through each dormitory at least once a month making himself available to every student for personal consultation on any matter.

It was Henry Clay, one of the most influential leaders in America before the Civil War, who supervised construction of Old Morrison, Transylvania University's 1834 Greek Revival-style administration building.

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