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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Davis

Alice Spannagal's A Significantly Accurate History of Cumberland University, Part I

(Being a Regular Column by Dr. Alice Spannagal, Professor of Apocryphal Studies and Obscure Utterances and Chair of the University Steering Committee for the Preservation of Cumberland Antiquities (USCftPoCA for short).)

Greetings from the faculty lounge!

I am Dr. Alice Spannagal, professor, writer, and Chair of the University Steering Committee for the Preservation of Cumberland Antiquities (USCftPoCA for short). Allow me to share my deepest gratitude to the Editor of the Cumberland Dispatch for his unsolicited invitation to share with you my humble yet completely substantiated knowledge of our beloved institution’s history. It is my hope that students, faculty, staff, and the occasional wandering trustee will find my narratives inciteful and edifying. For the sake of stylistic rhythm and good taste, I will not bore you with standard in-text citations, references, or footnotes. If such formalities are necessary, please bring all inquiries to the faculty lounge to verify any details with me personally. You will find me in my usual spot.

When considering the fabled history of “The City of Letters Upon the Floodplain,” as Sam Houston once called Cumberland, we must begin with our founding in 1822.

Oh, my goodness gracious, Alice! Don’t you mean 1842? No, dear readers, I certainly don’t. Cumberland University was once Princeton University, founded amongst the fertile dairy farms of Princeton, Kentucky in 1822. Rumors that Andrew Jackson was threatening to run for the White House led world-renowned French theologian and amateur arborist Rev. Francois Cossitt to establish a humble school in hopes to train spiritual shepherds dedicated to protecting the world from Jacksonian debauchery. To avoid confusion at the nation’s post offices, a similar school in New Jersey (which happened to share a similar name but was founded slightly earlier) suggested to Rev. Cossitt that he switch to Cumberland University in honor of Saint Benedict of Cumberland, the Patron Saint of Dairy and Evangelism.

As with everything that comes from the Bluegrass State, Cumberland University wasn’t your normal school of higher learning. It was a labor school where aspiring ministers were required to work eight hours per day on the campus dairy farm, milking, feeding, and shoveling out the various stalls and faculty offices. This form of self-sustainment allowed the school to waive tuition fees, maintained a stable income stream for university administrators, and provided every graduating senior with handsomely pronounced forearms.

Unfortunately, in 1840, Rev. Cossitt was forced to reduce faculty compensation from two chickens per month down to one quarter per month (a breast and possibly a thigh) in order to hire three new Vice Presidents to coordinate student custodial services. As a result, the emaciated faculty appropriated the school’s remaining livestock during the winter of 1840 which motivated administrators to seek out alternative opportunities for revenue. After Rev. Cossitt rejected a proposal to lease the school as a taxidermy storage facility, (a proposal too outlandish even for Kentucky) he turned to a fellow board member of the Presbyterian Farming Educators of the Cumberland Valley Association (PFEotCVA for short), Dr. Robert Looney Caruthers, who then offered to convince the good people of Lebanon, Tennessee, to adopt the fledgling academy starting in the fall semester of 1842, hire its Vice Presidents, and feed their faculty.

For our next stroll through Cumberland history, I will explain the role of the ceremonial mace, how the term “Provost” was adopted in higher education thanks to Cumberland, and the origins of the school’s official athletic chant, “EAT MY PUDDING!”

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