A dozen years before Kentucky became a state, students gathered at the newly chartered Transylvania Seminary to pursue studies in religion, arts and sciences, law, and medicine. As the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains, Transylvania established a reputation as a place for high-quality education on the western frontier, training those who would go on to be U.S. vice presidents and senators, governors, and ambassadors.
Now, more than 230 years later, Lexington’s Transylvania University continues to gather accolades as one of the best four-year colleges in the country. It’s also a school that remains steadfast in its commitment to liberal arts education at a time when many universities emphasize preparing students for a specific job in today’s market.
“I look at liberal arts education as not just about workforce development or developing workforce skills,” says Transylvania President Seamus Carey. “I think liberal arts education has always done that, but liberal arts education is also about building a life.”
Carey appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the value of liberal arts studies and his leadership of Transylvania as the school’s 26th president.
Although Transylvania is a private college, it doesn’t just cater to the children of wealthy families. Carey says a fifth of the school’s nearly 1,000 students are eligible for needs-based federal financial aid, and almost all students at Transylvania receive some kind of assistance.
Still, Transylvania loses many prospective students to its cross-town competitor, the University of Kentucky, according to Carey.
“If you’re an in-state, Kentucky student, [UK] is a great value,” he says. “However I think we are as well, for different reasons.”
Carey says 70 percent of Transylvania students graduate in four years, so they’re not accruing additional debt by taking five or six years to complete a degree. He says the average graduate leaves Transylvania with about $22,000 in debt. Only 2 percent of his graduates will default on those loans, says Carey, compared to the national average of 11 percent. For graduates in Kentucky, he says the default rate is 15 percent.
“What that tells us is that our students are not only getting out of Transylvania and getting jobs, they’re getting good jobs and they’re able to pay back their loans,” he says.
Carey attributes that post-graduation success to the work his faculty does with students, and to a mentoring program that pairs school alumni in Lexington with young students just getting started at Transylvania. Those mentors help the students explore career opportunities and networking options in their chosen field of study.
“I want our students to pursue things they’re interested in because if they do that, they’re going to be better at it,” Carey says. “They’re going to be better students, they’re going to get better grades, they’re going to open up things that they might not even have imagined of when they came to college.”
The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
Success in today’s workforce doesn’t come only from a science or technical degree, according to Carey. He still firmly believes in the benefits of a liberal arts education.
“The idea that liberal arts colleges are not a good value is sometimes, I think, taken too far,” says Carey. “It is expensive in a lot of instances, but you’re getting a different sort of education.”
Liberal arts training, says Carey, gives students the tools to make better decisions in a multitude of life situations. He contends the current trend to encourage younger and younger children towards a specific workforce opportunity can smother creative thinking in students and harm the social fabric of the nation.
“The exposure I want to give is to what’s inside a person,” says Carey. “That exposure comes through the imagination that’s in dialogue with literature and poetry and science… To me that’s where the American creativity and the American spirit has always come from.”
In fact, Carey says that what he views as a current lack of respectful civic discourse has been caused in part from a devaluation of higher education. He says education shouldn’t be a partisan issue, even though some politicians and pundits try to make it into one.
“It’s hard to have a successful, flourishing democracy without an informed citizenry,” Carey says.
A Beacon for Civility
Carey himself is a prime example of how life-changing a liberal arts education can be. The son of Irish immigrants, Carey grew up playing basketball on the streets of the Bronx.
“That was a fun, competitive time,” he recalls. “There were no referees, there were no parents, and there were no arguments… If you fouled somebody, you gave them the ball.”
A first-generation college student, Carey was on track to become a New York City firefighter. But near the end of his undergraduate studies at Vassar College, where he majored in economics, he realized his true passion was philosophy. He got his master’s degree and Ph.D. and then served as a philosophy professor for nine years at Manhattan College, before becoming a dean at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. A leadership-training program connected him with Transylvania, and Carey was hired as president in 2014.
“It was a little nerve-wracking coming from New York to a small city,” he says, “but I’ve really fallen in love with a lot of the people here and certainly our school. I love our school.”
As Carey moves into his fifth year in Lexington, he wants to continue to build diversity on campus. About 20 percent of students are persons of color, and he says there’s still work to do in diversifying the faculty and staff. Carey has also shepherded several construction and renovation projects on campus to make dorms and academic buildings places that foster interactions among students and with faculty.
One avenue Transylvania won’t pursue, according to Carey, is to offer courses and degrees online. He says those programs only become economically viable when they are offered on a large scale.
“We’re just not situated to do that,” says Carey. “The value of our education is in the face-to-face, personal relationship and the dialogue between the faculty and the student… So we want to be really good at what we do and control the costs as best we can, and I think we’ve been doing a reasonably good job at doing that.”
This academic year, Transylvania launched a campus-wide civility initiative. The school has hosted a range of speakers, workshops, and cultural activities around the theme of civility. The effort will culminate in late March with a speech by best-selling author Salman Rushdie.
Carey says he wants Transylvania to be a “beacon of light” around the idea of civility. He says public discourse these days too often focuses on somebody being right, instead of being open to understanding and learning about the views of someone else.
“And in order to learn, you have to have an element of humility because you have to acknowledge that you don’t know yet what you have to set out to learn,” he says.
“If a society is going to evolve and get better, learning has to take place,” says Carey. “I think college campuses are models of that and so we try to demonstrate that on a regular basis.”