January 27, 2003

An uncommon place


Dana Greene, '71G, is dean and CEO of Oxford College.

If memory is venerable, then at Emory the weightiest of the schools is Oxford College, what some refer to as “Old Emory.” But for many in the University community, Oxford College is unknown. When I announce I am from there, some squint their eyes and scan their minds for the most remote recollection of the place.

Certainly, Oxford is geographically distant, 38 miles from the main campus, but it also is not easily classified. What kind of institution brings in students seeking a four-year degree yet awards only an associate’s degree?

Oxford is neither a community nor a junior college, but the first two years of an Emory education. This institutional uniqueness is burdensome; none of the ordinary college descriptors apply. But for those who know it, it is a mythic place with a powerful grip on the imagination. For outsiders, the Oxfordian rhetoric is perplexing, confusing. As one wag allowed: “Dealing with Oxford is like trying to get your arms around clouds; you think you’ve got them, then they’re gone.”

As dean and CEO, it is my business to turn the mythic quality and these “clouds” into language one can comprehend. Having been here for three years now, I understand this requirement more clearly, but I know that, more than most institutions, Oxford is very difficult to capture. Daniel Webster’s apt description of Dartmouth applies: “It is a small college … but there are those who love it.” Indeed there is a formidable love of Oxford among alumni and contemporaries, and it is my job to drill down and find out why this is so.

To start at the top is to ask why Oxford continues to even exist, despite a history of travail and bad luck. As most know, Oxford is the “home” campus of the University, the place where Emory was founded in 1836. Its stately trees, antebellum buildings, cemeteries and street names remind one of a past which was almost exclusively rural, Georgian and Methodist. In its history and physical location, Oxford recalls for the University from whence it came and the values attached to that beginning. Today, Oxford keeps alive the University’s Methodist heritage (along with its cousin, the Candler School of Theology) and its Georgia roots.

Today more than half of Oxford’s students are from Georgia, and another fourth are from the South. But the “Old South” of Oxford has now been transmogrified into a very “New South.” Last year 40 percent of Oxford first-year enrollees were students of color, more than any other school of the University. Gender uniformity is gone, and religiously, this home of Methodism has a very solid representation of Muslims and Hindus.

Oxford is a reminder of the common root of all Emory’s schools, one planted in rural Georgia more than a century-and-a-half ago. Its ancient namesake (the English university town of John Wesley that we call “the other Oxford”) helps the University link to the medieval universities from which it derived.

But the pragmatic reality is that Oxford supports the University by an infusion of well-trained and lively “continuees” who make their way to the Atlanta campus in their junior year. Because of Oxford, the University expands its panoply of undergraduate options, adding the AA to the BA, BBA and BSN degrees. No other private university can make this claim or offer such flexibility.

In the past, Oxford could always claim uniqueness as a place where teaching was primary—that small classes, a totally residential environment and a faculty dedicated to teaching were what distinguished it from other institutions. The proof for this claim has always been the “product” of successful students at the main campus. Of Oxford’s graduates, 85–90 percent enroll in Emory, and once there only 1 percent leave for academic reasons.

But teaching is now “in” everywhere. The efforts of Emory expressed in Choices and Responsibility are paralleled by universities throughout the country. One cannot but rejoice in this renewal of interest in the central purpose of undergraduate education—to teach and to learn—but because of it Oxford has been challenged to become a better version of what it has been all along.

Building on Oxford’s long and abiding interest in pedagogy, many Oxford faculty have begun to pursue the scholarship of teaching, an effort to systematically reflect on teaching within the disciplines. In so doing they are forwarding the college’s historic mission and aligning it with the University’s mission of research and scholarship. Our first-ever academic conference, “Cross-Disciplinary Inquiries into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” held in November 2002, is evidence of both our institutional commitment and our progress in this endeavor.

But these “reasons for being” and new directions do not fully explain the devotion of alumni and friends that is real and palpable. My job is to describe the “mythic” Oxford and give specificity to “the clouds,” not only to the University but to prospective students. Their legitimate question is, why Oxford? Why should a student come here rather than to some other small college or even to what we affectionately call “the daughter campus,” Emory College?

While our lower tuition clearly appeals, there are other reasons, too. At Oxford, both in and out of the classroom, first- and second-year students have opportunities available to them that only juniors and seniors have access to at other institutions. If you want a head start in exploring the trove of undergraduate treasures, come to Oxford; first- and second-year students run the place, claiming all roles as leaders. And in the classroom they have the coveted spots in theory/practice classes, study travel courses, student research, writing and performance opportunities.

Closely allied with their teachers, Oxford students become protégés of their faculty. Oxford is a place of engagement in the first two years; literally, everybody counts, and we count on everybody. This engagement from the very beginning provides a unique context for the mythic experience of the place.

“Clouds” again? I think not. There are reasons this powerful, affirming experience is possible here. Oxford is small, approximately 600 students, and almost exclusively residential. It has been and still is relatively remote, set apart, geographically nestled in a little village from whence it derives its name. Its space is coherent—everything connects to the central college green with its old trees and verdant grass. Its buildings are constructed on a human scale, facilitating interaction and conversation among people.

This physical context is the container for what is called the Oxford community. Once homogeneous, this community is now extraordinarily diverse. It is there in this welter of diversity that students “find” themselves. But they do their finding in community, and that makes all the difference. Students discover who they are in the first two years of college through mentors and peers who know and care about them and who reflect back to them the persons that they are. They discover themselves in the company of others.

The values of the community—the love of learning, trust of others, appreciation for the individual—are slowly inculcated. They are not so much “taught” as “caught”; one gets them through contagion. It is this sense of belonging to a fallible but diverse, interesting, caring community which begins to teach its members what it is to be human, and the responsibilities each of us has to nurture our fragile connections.

Indeed, Oxford is mythic in the imagination of its graduates. The soon-to-be-published history of the college, An Uncom-mon Place: Oxford College of Emory University, by Joe Moon, associate dean of Campus Life, illustrates how this community developed from 1914 to 2000—years of hardship, serendipity and grit. It is a story which ennobles, deepens and adds texture to the University’s history, one which continues to enrich it, even now.






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