WSW: Establishing Higher Education And The American West

Jan 4, 2017

Transylvania University campus in 2012
Credit TUPictures, Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Western Michigan University History Professor James Cousins says he wanted to write about the history of higher education and the creation of the American west. He found the story of Horace Holley and Transylvania University featured both. 

Holley came from Boston to Lexington, Kentucky to lead Transylvania University in 1818. He would have many successes, but left amid controversy in 1827. Cousins book is called Horace Holley: Transylvania University and the Making of Liberal Education in the Early American Republic. 


At the time Holley took over Transylvania University, Cousins says America was moving out west and looking for new opportunities. Towns like Lexington saw their future in education. He says Horace Holley is credited with bringing a new sense of education to the west. Cousins says “This is a unique time in the history of education.” He says historians have told the story about higher education through institutional stories. But Cousins says biography allows for telling the story in all of its nuances. 

"This is a unique time in the history of education."

Coming to Lexington

Holley graduated from Yale, and briefly tried law, but eventually became a popular minister in Boston. He was twice asked to consider becoming president of Transylvania University, but turned them down.

After the state made changes to the school’s governing board, Holley was offered the job again. He made the trip in 1818 to Lexington to visit the campus. Cousins says along the way Holley visited several schools to learn more about higher education. On his way to Lexington, Holley concluded that a school with a department of medicine separate itself from other colleges. As the school’s president, Holley rebuilt Transylvania’s medical school. 

Portrait of Horace Holley from the Wilson Family Photographic Collection at the University of Kentucky
Credit University of Kentucky, Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Problems at Transylvania

Cousins says the regional differences of the time proved to be trouble for Holley. He says the locals had trouble adjusting to Horace Holley and his wife. Cousins says the Holleys were never really at home in Lexington.

The idea of an elite education clashed with the building populism of the time. Cousins says “Higher education in Horace’s mind was by elites for elites.” But public funding for the university was cut and led to Holley’s resignation in 1827.

Cousins says despite Holley’s accomplishments he didn’t understand how to manage a university. Holley was always seeking more money from the state, and spent lavishly on faculty. Cousins says while Transylvania University attracted some excellent faculty, once they arrived on campus, Holley didn’t know what to do with them.  

"Higher education in Horace's mind was by elites for elites."


After resigning from Transylvania University, Holley headed to New Orleans he was offered the chance to build the University of New Orleans from the ground up. But Holley died of yellow fever before he got the chance. Cousins says Transylvania University and Lexington suffered a period of decline after Holley left and the school’s state funding was cut. Cousins says the medical school moved to Louisville. Transylvania University is now a private school with enrollment of just over 1,000. Lexington is also the home of the University of Kentucky, Cousins’ alma mater.

Images of Transylvania University and Horace Holley from Wikimedia Commons