transylvania university

As inauguration approaches, R. Owen Williams reflects on time at Transylvania

Inauguration set for this week

ctruman@herald-leader.comApril 25, 2011 

  • If you go

    Inauguration events for R. Owen Williams, Transylvania president:

    Wednesday, April 27

    7:30 p.m.: Juried Student Exhibition. Morlan Gallery

    8 p.m.: Student Fine Arts Showcase. Carrick Theater

    Thursday, April 28

    3-5 p.m.: Symposium: "The Civil War and Reconstruction in the Border States: History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial." Haggin Auditorium. Presentations by David Blight, professor of American history, Yale University; Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of law and history, Harvard University; and John McCardell, vice chancellor and president, The University of the South. Moderated by Jed Shugerman, assistant professor of law, Harvard.

    8 p.m.: Piano concert by Gregory Partain, Transylvania professor of music. Carrick Theater

    Friday, April 29

    10 a.m.: Presidential installation ceremony. Old Morrison lawn (rain location, Clive M. Beck Center)

    11:30 a.m.: Celebration brunch. Haupt Plaza (rain location, Clive M. Beck Center)

    2:30 p.m.: Screening of Pharaoh's Army, a movie about the Civil War in Kentucky, including discussion with director Robby Henson. Cowgill, Room 102

R. Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker turned historian who took the role of president of Transylvania University last summer, will be inaugurated this week.

In an interview with Herald-Leader reporter Cheryl Truman, he reflected on what he has learned since his arrival in Lexington. He took over for Charles Shearer, who had been Transylvania's president for 27 years.

On being a first-time college president at Transylvania:

"I've learned so much I'm not sure where to begin. It's been a rocket shot like nothing I've encountered in my life. ... And then I've also had the pleasure of getting to move into a new community that has gone through one of the most extraordinary years in its life. ... WEG, Rolex, the Final Four, a winter to beat all winters.

"WEG was incredibly exciting. ... It was the first time I had the opportunity to feel the spirit of My Old Kentucky Home. When that song was sung, I happened to be on that side of the (Kentucky Horse Park) arena that allowed me to look out over this peach-clouded blue sky that was so magnificent it was like a Turner painting (J.M.W. Turner, a 19th century English Romantic landscape painter). ... It was a grand and majestic way to start out our time here."

On Transylvania's proposed new curriculum and the University of Kentucky's claims that its new General Education curriculum puts it into a league with smaller, liberal arts colleges:

"We are still in the throes of a profound reconsideration of the curriculum, and there are now many more people involved. ... By Thanksgiving, we had the skeleton of a new curriculum. The entire faculty now is in the midst of substantial debate.

"The liberal arts is what we do, and we have been doing it for longer than they (UK) have, or a great many institutions in this country.

"We've been committed to certain liberal arts principals that go back ... to the beginning of the 18th century. ... The University of Kentucky does a lot very well, but they're going to have to play catch-up when it comes to the liberal arts."

On the pressures of fund-raising:

"The more hands that are out, the fewer dollars that will land in any of those hands. That's to be expected. But I think that, frankly, there's a distinct possibility we could benefit from large state institutions (such as UK increasing their fund-raising) because people will become sensitized to the challenges confronting higher education at large.

"Whether we'll be competing for the same dollars or not is hard to say. They have their alums, we have our alums."

On Transylvania's goals for the future:

"There are lots of ways we can grow. So which numbers do you want to talk about? We could grow in terms of the size of the faculty, we can grow in terms of the size of the student body, we can grow in terms of the size of the campus, the size of the endowment. ... I expect that we'll grow in all of those.

"For us to achieve our goals, we have to have a 10-year set of objectives over all these fronts. ... so, for example, if you're asking me what the size of the student body will be three, five, 10 years from now, it's hard for me to respond because we can't know what we will be able to do while maintaining our standard. ... We will not compromise the standard.

"We hope very much to be able to grow to something like 1,500 students (from 1,100). ... It's very difficult to grow the size of the student body and increase the standard at the same time. We have a myriad of objectives that we're trying to accomplish. ...

"Where does that number come from? We've just picked it out of the air. But we've picked it out of the air based on what we've observed in other fine liberal arts colleges. ... so we believe that's a good goal for us to have."

"So whether we end up (ranked) number 30 or number 15, a lot of variables will affect that outcome."

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