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Connected to Transylvania

In this letter, President Williams shares his thoughts about Transylvania’s history with the readers of Transylvania Treasures, a publication that highlights items in the university’s Special Collections and Moosnick Medical and Science Museum. See this issue and archived issues of Transylvania Treasures here.

Since coming to Transylvania in August as the 25th president of this remarkable institution, it has been my pleasure to learn more about the pioneering history of Kentucky’s oldest college. Because my scholarly work is in American history, I am especially honored to address the readers of Transylvania Treasures, a publication dedicated to telling the story of the university’s significant and historic treasures, both material and human.

Coincidences can be unremarkable, or they can be noteworthy. In the case of my coming to Transylvania, the connections between my scholarly life at Yale University and this institution’s nineteenth-century history seem almost uncanny, as if they foretold my eventual arrival in Lexington.

The first set of coincidences center on my dissertation for the Ph.D. in American history, titled “Unequal Justice Under Law: The Supreme Court and the First Civil Rights Movement, 1857-1883.” The two primary protagonists of my work, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Miller and John Marshall Harlan, are both alumni of Transylvania. Harlan, in fact, is my moral hero and the central figure in my paper.

As if that weren’t unusual enough, in my last position at Yale I held the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship. Clay, the famed emancipationist and minister to Russia in President Lincoln’s administration, is an alumnus of Transylvania and completed his degree at Yale.

So all that time that I was plugging away at my Yale dissertation, there was an undercurrent of Transylvania connections that have now surfaced and become a vital part of my professional life. In a way, it was as if there were a spiritual link between me and Transylvania long before I came to Kentucky.

As a former Wall Street investment banker, I know well how the world places value on material items. There is a value to Transylvania, however, that goes far beyond the price tags we can put on the world around us. That currency lies in the institution’s crucial role in the history of education in America.

The Pioneer in Transylvania is more than a college nickname; it is the emblem of an institution that was the first to bring the lamp of higher education west of the Allegheny Mountains. Transylvania Treasures has the enviable role of paying tribute to that history, and I look forward to supporting its publication and enjoying its contents in the years to come.

R. Owen Williams
Transylvania University

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