University carries historic spirit of innovation into the future
by Jeremy Gerlach
For 150 years, Trinity University has transformed challenge into boundless opportunity. Our resilience, commitment to enterprise, and creative vision have driven us in an unwavering pursuit of excellence. Carried by this momentum, we’ve moved three times through three Texas cities: from a lone building in Tehuacana, to a humble home in Waxahachie, to setting down roots in the heart of San Antonio.
Each move we’ve made has represented a risk—to our enrollment, our faculty, and our curriculum. We’ve had to build new bridges, challenge the status quo, and reinvent ourselves to preserve our mission. But along the way, we’ve done so much more than survive. Our Tigers have seized every chance to redefine the liberal arts for centuries past and present, cultivating a community of lifelong learners driven by a sense of duty to ourselves and to the world. And so, while our campus has moved three times, we’ve also moved the world of academia along with us.
As we look forward to our 150th celebration, we’d first like to share our story. Join us as we relive some of the greatest risks we’ve taken, and let it remind you how there is always opportunity in every challenge.
Challenge: The American Civil War decimates potential enrollment and funding
In 1869, with Texas still reeling from America’s most devastating conflict, a group of Texas Cumberland Presbyterians had a unique vision: following the demise of three smaller Presbyterian colleges left decimated by the Civil War, they would unite to create a new university of the highest order.
These founders, who valued experiential religion and higher education above all else, still needed land and financing, the former of which they received through a 1,100-acre donation from Texas pioneer and politician John Boyd.
Thanks to this donation, Trinity held its first classes inside a single renovated farmhouse in tiny Tehuacana, Texas, a village of just 500. But to remain viable, the school would need to remain flexible.
Opportunity: Unique financing, academic vision, and coed enrollment boost Trinity’s flexibility
From the beginning, Trinity’s faculty were philosophically committed to the idea of coeducation, or admitting both genders. And as the Civil War left a limited supply of adult, male students, this principle also made sense from a practical standpoint. The University also made the timely decision to enroll students from kindergarten through high school. While students of opposite sexes in the late 1800s, were generally not permitted to even talk to each other, Trinity’s innovative spirit extended even to social life: students of all stripes would pass notes through textbooks or to converse in clandestine spots off campus.
Trinity would use its massive land gift as collateral to finance its initial academic and physical expansion. Its founders, according to an 1870 clergy meeting, aspired for the school to one day “fill a space in the South similar to what Princeton and Yale fill in the East.” So, they settled on the term “university”, even though the school did not have multiple colleges. Trinity aspired to one day have programs in engineering, science, medicine, and law, but remained pragmatic, focusing on undergraduate studies.
As the University’s popularity and status grew, but enrollment and funding stagnated,Trinity eventually needed to find a setting with bigger opportunities.
Challenge: Stock market crash, declining enrollment, and faculty attrition
In 1902, Trinity moved to the larger town of Waxahachie; 7,500 strong, and the seat of Ellis County, Texas. Here, the University officially affiliated with the national Presbyterian Church, which opened up a world of new fundraising and networking possibilities. Trinity’s leadership managed to navigate the schisms and internal politics of this denominational shift to secure greater levels of funding.
Just as Trinity’s path ahead seemed smooth, disaster struck with the stock market crash of 1929. Enrollment declined sharply, faculty began considering other career prospects, and trustees began using the endowment just to keep the school doors open day-to-day.
Opportunity: Diverse curriculum and organizations develop, student and faculty life flourishes
At a time when other schools began financially “turtling up,” Trinity instead took on bigger risk: diving headlong into improving facilities, expanding student organizations and even athletics. This gambit paid off, as student and faculty life began to flourish. And as earlier Victorian-era practices of separating students by genders and doctrine diminished, a greater part of the student body commingled, and the idea of a truly collegial “Trinity Spirit” continued to emerge.
Trinity also took steps to create greater diversity in the studies available: Trinity now offered math, astronomy, English, Greek, and Latin, chemistry, physics, biology, geology, history, modern language, Bible study and philosophy, as well as a burgeoning education department for training teachers.
Despite these moves, the Great Depression still dealt Trinity a severe blow in terms of attracting consistent enrollment in Waxahachie. If the school wanted to truly reach its vision of solving the world’s problems—rather than facing a struggle to survive every odd decade—it would need to move to a city on the worldwide stage.
Woodlawn Campus, 1942-1952
Skyline Campus, 1952-present
Challenge: Finding a permanent home, fulfilling original vision of founders
In 1942, Trinity was invited to San Antonio by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. The school merged with the University of San Antonio, a Methodist institution, and initially settled on a 10-acre facility on the city’s West Side. At this “Woodlawn” campus, students were housed in old military barracks and circular quonset huts while school leadership searched for a permanent home. While this wasn’t an ideal situation, it bought time for the University to regain solid financial and academic footing.
Now, Trinity turned its attention to finding a rock solid academic and physical foundation.
Opportunity: Trinity carves a modern niche, restructures to focus on undergraduates
In 1945, Trinity purchased a 107-acre, hilltop location atop an old limestone quarry, just north of downtown. After raising funds, the University hired architect O’Neil Ford to create a sparkling, mid-century modern campus, carved right into the quarry. Where others saw an impossible spot for a college campus, Ford and Trinity’s other luminaries saw only limitless possibilities: a daring architectural vision where human and nature worked in harmony, preserving the natural terrain.
From 1952 to the mid seventies, Trinity would go on to erect more than 40 additional buildings in this spirit, expand its enrollment and operating budget, and improve its faculty. Increasingly more and more professors were hired with terminal degrees in their field. Trinity also began to focus its curricula on broader academic goals, rather than limited course collections.
The 1960s also marked an end to Trinity’s legal ties to the Presbyterian church, as the University entered into a renewable, special covenant with the church instead. Trinity still recognized the significance of its historic religious affiliation, but became a private, independent university in the process.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Trinity’s academic structure would evolve into largely what we see today. The school began shuttering all but five graduate programs and decreased enrollment from about 3,300 to 2,700 in order to focus on undergraduate education. In doing so, Trinity became a truly residential, undergraduate campus. Trinity also completely modernized its curriculum and replaced outdated buildings. By this point, Trinity’s endowment had expanded, strengthening the University’s financial future.
The 1990s saw a renaissance in student life, as student and Greek organizations launched new events and traditions such as Bid Day, Hallympics, and birthday dips in Miller Fountain. And the University would go on to create a new basic curriculum in the 2000s that allowed students greater flexibility. At the turn of the century, Trinity also updated its technological capabilities and invested in digital resources, and continued to rise in national relevance as its selectivity, press rankings, and alumni outcomes grew stronger.
Trinity Turns 150
Challenge: The changing landscape of higher education
It’s no secret that the modern student—and parent—are increasingly demanding higher returns on their college investment. This means affordability, outcomes, and job placements are all top of mind.
And it’s also no secret that millennial, Gen-X, and Gen-Z students want more than a degree and a job: they want a way to change the world around them. And at Trinity, creating outcomes with real-world impact is what we do best.
Opportunity: Trinity redefines liberal arts for the 21st century, takes on real-world problems
In the 2010s, Trinity has implemented a new strategic plan for redefining liberal arts for the 21st century. Now offering 47 majors and 59 minors, the school doesn’t have a “collection of colleges” as originally envisioned in Tehuacana, but has fulfilled its founders’ vision in a different way—Trinity offers a host of unique, cutting-edge programs ranging from entrepreneurship to pre-law and pre-med tracks.
This approach isn’t new for us: it’s a continuation of the same experiential spirit of our Presbyterian predecessors in Tehuacana and Waxahachie. But in San Antonio, we’ve grown strong enough to take on the world’s problems, rather than just our own.
Rather than activism, our Tigers have a history of taking action. In response to the tumultuous social upheaval of the 50’s, ’60s and ’70s, Trinity students, faculty, and leadership weren’t known for holding protests and demonstrations. Instead, they took on problems directly: Faculty and trustees worked to integrate the campus during the Civil Rights movement, while students and staff launched organizations like TUVAC, where Tigers volunteered and donated directly to local nonprofits. That spirit has lasted for the following decades, where Tigers have assisted AIDS victims, helped shelter and clothe the homeless, comforted battered women, and fed the hungry by packing food at the San Antonio Food Bank.
Our powerful network of alumni have become congressmen and mayors, enacting policy change at a local, state, and national level; they’ve served with honor in the military, helping dethrone dictators; they’ve founded companies that revolutionized cloud computing; and they’ve even launched nonprofits that have delivered Christmas presents to more than a million kids over the past 50 years.
Our undergraduate researchers and entrepreneurs are in on the action, too. They are preventing patients with diabetes from losing limbs, gearing up to fight the national opioid crisis, and even helping cure cancer. They’re also taking an increasingly international approach, transforming dairy farming in Africa or helping digitize tax systems in Colombia.
For a school that started as a tiny Tehuacana dream, we’ve cultivated an entire community of lifelong learners. We act with ambition, but also with empathy, driven by a sense of duty to ourselves and to the world.
We are all heirs to a dynamic past and stewards of a promising future. For 150 years, our spirit has proved as durable as the rocks from which our mid-century modern campus is carved, and still remains in motion. So, as we celebrate our history, we’re still looking ahead. Join us, as we accelerate what comes next.
To keep up with Trinity's 150th Anniversary celebration, or share your memories of your time at Trinity, and to see a list of celebrations and events, follow #Trinity150 or visit gotu.us/trinity150.