Trinity University History | Trinity University

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Trinity University History

Founded in 1869, Trinity University has resided on four campuses in three different locations. For over 150 years, Trinity has turned challenges into opportunities to promote quality education.

The history of Trinity University is rooted in the vision of a few hardy Texas pioneers who believed in the transforming power of higher education. Despite an unfavorable economic environment and unstable political conditions, they aspired to establish "a University of the highest order" shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War.

Trinity's name reflects its Christian origins and the three regional Cumberland Presbyterian governing bodies that supported its institutional organization. Over the past 150 years, Trinity has occupied three different Texas settings: Tehuacana (1869-1902), Waxahachie (1902-1942), and San Antonio (1942-present), including the Woodlawn campus, which Trinity occupied from 1942 to 1952.

Few institutions of higher learning in the United States today can match Trinity's mobility or its ability to turn challenges into opportunities.

A Tale of Three Cities

Trinity Historian Doug Brackenridge follows the history of Trinity through three Texas cities.

Tehuacana: Foundational Challenges (1869-1902)

Trinity commenced classes on September 23, 1869 funded by contributions valued at $30,000 consisting primarily of underdeveloped land and a few houses. The Limestone County village offered a quality that appealed to 19th century educators - isolation. Six miles from the nearest railroad station, Tehuacana was accessible only by horse drawn carriages.

On the first day of classes, five faculty members greeted seven students, but by the end of the school year about 100 students were in attendance. Co-educational from the outset, Trinity students were a lively group who studied hard and still found time for entertainment and relaxation. Student life featured literary societies for discussion and debate, and intercollegiate athletics.

Guided by progressive educators:

  • Trinity expanded its classroom facilities,
  • doubled the number of faculty,
  • developed a comprehensive curriculum that included professional and graduate degrees,
  • and instituted an innovative faculty study leave program.

Despite recognition as a "Class A University" in Texas, sacrificial efforts by trustees, faculty, and staff were not sufficient to overcome a chronic lack of financial resources. By the end of the century, enrollment had dramatically declined. The only options were to close or to relocate.

Waxahachie: Relocation and Renewal (1902-1942)

Seeking access to greater financial and cultural resources, Trinity moved 75 miles to Waxahachie, a railroad hub and cotton-farming community. About the same time, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church reunited with the larger Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., a move that brought considerable educational and financial benefits to the University.

Trinity Waxahachie Facts:

  • Faculty strengthened - Denominational contacts enabled Trinity to secure credentialed college and university graduates who brought diversity and expertise to the growing faculty.
  • Curriculum broadened - Keeping abreast of education trends, Trinity faculty in the 1920s established new departments such as education, sociology, psychology, and religion, and enrollment reach a peak of about 800.
  • Reputation enhanced - During the same time period, the National Council on Education included Trinity with only four other Texas institutions on its list of accredited colleges.
  • Trinity accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (SACS) in 1925.
  • Boasting an attractive campus with increasing financial support, Trinity's future looked bright.

But the Stock Market Crash of 1929 plunged the country into a prolonged period of economic depression and dealt a crushing blow to the University's progress. Enrollment declined sharply, indebtedness and faculty attrition mounted, forcing trustees to utilize endowment funds to maintain daily operations. Consequently, the Southern Association placed Trinity on probation in 1936, an act that jeopardized the institution's future. Once again, Trinity faced the question of survival. After a proposed merger with Austin College in Sherman, Texas failed to materialize, Trinity turned once more to relocation as a solution to its problems.

San Antonio: A Defining Moment (1942 - present)

The Woodlawn Campus (1942-1952)

On December 8, 1941, as the country entered into World War II, Trinity accepted an invitation from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to establish a strong Protestant institution of higher learning in the Alamo city. San Antonio business leaders promised financial support and facilitated a merger of Trinity and the University of San Antonio, a small Methodist institution, to provide temporary campus facilities.

For a decade the Woodlawn campus, on the city's near West side, was home to Trinity as the combined Waxahachie-San Antonio University faculties merged their distinct traditions into a new entity. Lacking adequate facilities, the University functioned by using military barracks and Quonset huts to house students and to provide library and classroom space. Despite these problems, the Woodlawn campus bought Trinity precious time to become established in the San Antonio community.

Trinity Woodlawn campus Facts:

  • Trinity increased its enrollment,
  • Stabilized its financial situation,
  • Re-acquired its accreditation,
  • Initiated a graduate program,
  • Began to raise funds raised to construct new campus on the city's north side.

By 1950 enrollment reached 2,000 and was composed largely of returning veterans and other San Antonio area residents.

The Skyline Campus (1952-1979)

Trinity had one more moving day before settling in its present location. On May 13, 1952, students, faculty, and community volunteers, including professional movers, transferred University property to the present site, a 107-acre hill top location with a commanding view of downtown San Antonio (Trinity acquired 10 acres adjacent to the south of campus to develop the recreational areas in the mid 1980's). On moving day the new campus consisted of a dormitory housing 60 residents, a classroom building that lacked a heating system, a barren library, an uncompleted student union, and a woman's dormitory under construction.

During these years, the leadership of President James W. Laurie and Academic Dean Bruce M. Thomas brought enthusiasm, energy, and vision to the new campus, resulting in what would later be called "The miracle of Trinity Hill."

  • A stunning campus emerged from the brush and cactus-covered rock quarry, winning national architectural awards for its creative and aesthetic use of space.
  • By 1970, 42 new buildings had been erected, including the distinctive tower and chapel that quickly became campus landmarks.
  • During the same period, the annual budget reached $10.5 million, and the endowment increased from less than a million to $42-million, a luxury that Trinity had not previously enjoyed.

But the changes were not just in bricks and dollars. By the 1960s a new breed of faculty was emerging, most of whom had terminal degrees in their field and brought diverse perspectives to the academic routine. From what had historically been open enrollment, Trinity began to impose higher entrance standards. New curricula, formulated in terms of academic goals, rather than specific courses, brought innovation and excitement to the educational process. Reflecting these changes, in 1972 Trinity was granted a Phi Beta Kappa Chapter.

In 1969, at the initiation of the Presbyterian Church, Trinity entered into a covenant agreement with the regional synod that affirmed historical connections, but transformed Trinity into a private, independent University with a self-perpetuating board of trustees.

Rise to National Prominence (1980 to present)

Despite its amazing progress, Trinity was still an institution in transition. Known regionally for its academic excellence and attractive campus, Trinity lacked national recognition as a premier undergraduate university. Under the leadership of Ronald K. Calgaard, Trinity's longest serving president (1979-1999), the vision of the University's founders attained fulfillment. During the Calgaard years Trinity made significant advancements in a number of areas:

  • The endowment grew from $80 million in 1979 to $540 million in 1999,
  • The average SAT score of incoming students rose from 1080 to 1275,
  • The percentage of minority students increased from approximately 9% to over 20%.

At the same time, Calgaard fostered a spirit of campus community by instituting a three-year residence hall requirement and expanding campus facilities for academic and recreational activities. Most Trinity students consider close relationships with their professors to be one of the highlights of their Trinity experience.

Today Trinity University is a place of beauty, characterized by rigorous academics, distinguished faculty, superior facilities, and some of the most modern and impressive resources in the country. U.S. News and World Report has ranked Trinity #1 in the West among colleges offering undergraduate and master's degrees for over two decades.