Emory Report
October 25, 2004
Volume 57, Number 9


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October 25 , 2004
Making Oxford a better version of itself

BY Michael Terrazas

Faced with the task of researching, deliberating and then producing an environmental assessment of their institution as part of Emory’s strategic planning process, the leadership of Oxford College considered the task at hand and asked one question: How?

“One of the things that came alive to us during this process was that we didn’t have any systematic way of collecting the data,” said Kent Linville, Oxford dean of academic affairs. “That became painfully apparent as we had to rummage around and, in ad hoc ways, figure out how to get the information and press people into service over and above their normal jobs.”

The product of those efforts, however, was more than worthwhile. Preparing the assessment yielded benefits that go beyond the bullet points and conclusions printed throughout the 43-page document; the very process itself drew together individuals who, even on a small campus like Oxford, don’t interact as much as they’d like. It’s also highlighted the need for an institutional research capacity that will allow Oxford to measure—in a way it’s never done before—its impact on students.

“This has generated the best data we’ve ever had,” said Oxford Dean Dana Greene. “And it educates a kind of leadership in the college, particularly among the faculty, to think about broader issues of how we relate not only to the University but to higher education in general. For a place that historically has been so remote and isolated, that kind of leadership is essential.”

“It created a community-wide reflection about where we are and where we ought to go to make Oxford a better version of itself,” Linville said. “Nothing like that has happened at this level of generality since I’ve been here—and I came with the dirt.”

To accomplish its work, the college formed a steering committee co-directed by Linville and Kitty McNeill, director of the Oxford Library, and started by holding an open meeting in January that was attended by about 100 people of all associations with Oxford: faculty, staff, students, Board of Counselors members, emeriti faculty. The event was moderated by an outside facilitator, Martha Talbott, who continued to work with the steering committee throughout its efforts.

Using feedback from the public meeting, the committee drafted a vision statement that echoes many of the themes found in Emory’s overall vision statement but is tailored to Oxford’s particular strengths:

Oxford, attracting people to a place in the heart of Emory; a community, diverse, caring for humanity, nature and one another; driven by inquiry and dedicated to excellence in undergraduate liberal arts education; a college, providing a peerless and transformative learning environment, renowned for the leadership, service, achievement and support of its graduates.

This statement guided the steering committee’s work as it assessed Oxford’s strengths and weaknesses, identifying areas in which the college does particularly well, along with those where it could improve. Not surprisingly, the completed environmental assessment highlights Oxford’s achievement in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The college long has prided itself on the excellence of its teaching, but in recent years Oxford faculty and administrators have capitalized on this strength by focusing a scholarly eye on the classroom.

Other strengths include the diversity of Oxford’s student body; a high level of community and collegiality among students, faculty, staff and administrators; and leadership opportunities for first- and second-year students that, at traditional four-year institutions, are primarily available to upperclassmen.

Most of Oxford’s identified weaknesses are tied to inadequate staffing or funding; library and information technology resources, in particular, need boosts to keep up with changing standards and increased demand. Administrative personnel in many areas are stretched thin, the report says, hindering a range of programs and services.

Along with Emory’s eight other schools, Oxford’s next task is to move beyond the environmental assessment into the process of developing goals, initiatives and annual tactics. College planners also will identify measures and targets, both short- and long-term, to gauge achievement of Oxford’s vision. McNeill said the process for the next phase will look very much like that of the environmental assessment, likely involving a steering committee comprised of the same groups—faculty, staff, students, administrators—who made up the first one.

“All of those people,” McNeill said, “will be key to the success of the implementation of this plan.”

Academic planning as a whole, Greene added, is something Emory’s schools have not done as well as they could (and, perhaps, should) in the past, but the strategic planning process is changing that, creating structures that will be useful long after the plan is completed next June.

“What’s clear to me is how organic this thing is; it arises directly from the mission of Oxford,” Greene said. “Our principal goal is to provide this transformative learning environment, and everything follows from that, so it has a certain power because it is so coherent and organic. What’s paramount is our attempt to document more fully what we’re doing here, so we can become a resource and model for other institutions as they reflect upon their teaching and learning environments.

For more information about Emory’s strategic planning process, visit www.admin.emory.edu/StrategicPlan/.