Holding your own with a former U.S. president who is a little unsure of how you've handled an important event would be rather daunting for anyone, especially someone as young as 25. For Erik Oliver, intern coordinator at The Carter Center, that experience caused some tension initially, but the intimidation was bearable.
Assistant to Carter Center Director of Programs and Emory Vice Provost for International Affairs Marion Creekmore, Associate Director of Programs and Carter Historian Steven Hochman, and Education Coordinator Joyce Jones, Oliver said he learned volumes about exhibiting grace under pressure during his first significant exchange with President Jimmy Carter.
Shortly after he joined The Carter Center staff two years ago, Oliver was in charge of the logistics for a retreat for The Atlanta Project Advisory Board, an event that was to include about 40 people. The Carters arrived about 10 minutes early to discover that half the seats were empty. Knowing that Oliver was new to his job, Carter discreetly advised him of the psychological embarrassment that can result from that many empty seats.
Although he was initially unsettled, Oliver rose to the occasion. "Instead of being abashed," Oliver said, "I was actually feeling a little indignant, because the people who had confirmed weren't there. I said to President Carter, `Sir, I had confirmations for more than 40 people. I don't know where they are, but I'd be happy to take out some seats and close the circle.' He said no, that's okay. Ten minutes into the meeting, every seat was full. They were all late."
Further into the meeting, when the participants had dispersed into break-out sessions, Carter sat down near Oliver and simply said, "Well, you were right." Oliver took that opportunity to tell Carter that because he didn't really remember his presidency that well (Oliver was 5 when Carter was elected), Oliver thought of him more as a citizen-activist than a former president. "It made me feel much more comfortable in speaking with him openly," he said.
The lessons learned from that experience will serve Oliver well during his tenure as president-elect, and later president, of the Employee Council. He was named president-elect in February, and his one-year term begins April 1. He will serve as president for a year beginning April of next year. Oliver, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in history from Emory in just four years, sees nothing particularly unusual in a 25-year-old leading the University's most prominent staff advocacy group.
"Maybe my generation is a lot more forward," he said. "I don't want to say disrespectful, because I think we are certainly respectful to our elders. It's just a different way of approaching people. If you have an opinion, you voice it. You use tact when you're dealing with someone who has a great deal more experience than you do. You recognize that they've got the years and they most likely know better than you. You defer to that. But it doesn't stop you from expressing an opinion."
Growing up at Emory has also helped Oliver feel a lot more at ease than others his age might feel in a similar position. He grew up just a block from the Oxford College campus where his father, Hoyt P. Oliver, has served as Pierce Professor of Religion for 30 years. "I've grown up in an academic community, talking to professors at Oxford as my parents' friends," Oliver said. "[Former] President [James T.] Laney is a good family friend, and I've always felt comfortable talking with him and other people in the administration. Perhaps it's because I feel so comfortable at Emory that I feel so comfortable talking to the people here."
Joy Burnette of Emory Hospital, who will begin her term as Council president April 1, believes Oliver's background at Oxford, Emory and The Carter Center gives him an understanding of the diversity of people at Emory, an understanding that will be crucial in a leadership role on the Council. "I also think it's important from time to time that we have a leader who is not necessarily from the main campus," Burnette said. "The Council members had a year to get to know Erik and get a sense of his style and approach, and they elected him. The Council is already a group of leaders in their own right, so the leaders have chosen a leader."
In addition to being one of the youngest (if not the youngest) president-elect in the Employee Council's 26-year history and the first male to fill the post since 1984-85, Oliver also is the first Council representative from The Carter Center and only the second president-elect from any Emory location off the main campus. He wants to focus much of his efforts as president-elect and president on making off-campus staff feel more a part of the Emory community.
"I think the onus is on the University, because it is the bigger body, to make sure its branches feel like they're part of it," Oliver said. "Many people at those branches feel that the main campus is removed from them and has its own agenda. Emory must assure those groups that they fit in."
Oliver doesn't see himself as a leader in the sense of someone who directs people to do things, but in the sense of a spokesperson and consensus builder. "I don't have much experience with how a University is run. I hope the people with experience will rise to the occasion and speak out. I'm glad I have a year as president-elect before becoming president."