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
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
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
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.