Emory Report
May 9, 2005
Volume 57, Number 30


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May 9, 2005
Choosing Oxford

Dana Greene has served as dean and CEO of Oxford College since 1999.

I remember exactly where and when I chose Emory. It was 1967, and I was sitting on a train in Munich, Germany, en route from the Middle East. I knew nothing of Emory or Atlanta, had no friends or relatives below the Mason-Dixon line, and had never visited the South. But the description of Emory’s graduate program in the interdisciplinary Institute of the Liberal Arts was compelling; I had applied and was accepted. The decision now was whether or not to enroll; I made that decision in Munich, sitting on the train. It would shape my future.

After heading home to New Jersey, I packed up my two suitcases and set off for Atlanta on a Greyhound bus. Five years later I left the University with a newly minted Ph.D. (and my new husband, a law school alumnus). We headed to Washington in our old green jalopy, determined to make our future at “the center of the world.” We stayed 28 years, both in the same positions, but richer by four daughters.

In 1999, free from major responsibilities, the opportunity to return to Emory presented itself; I was elated when I was chosen as dean and CEO of Oxford College. I had a great sense of gratitude for my Emory education, and although I had never been to Oxford, the chance to lead a small liberal arts college steeped in history and surrounded by natural beauty was a dream come true. The fact that Oxford attracted an extraordinarily diverse student population only deepened my commitment.

On a hot day in July, my husband Richard and I moved into the 1837 president’s house, bewildered by the many nooks and crannies of our new home. I experienced immediately the competence and dedication of faculty and staff, and the fidelity of emeriti and the Board of Counselors; I rejoiced in Oxford’s longstanding ethical and religious allegiances.

The last six years have been provocative, demanding, thrilling; I will miss Oxford and its very special ethos when I leave in June. During these years I have had lots of time to think about questions of institutional change, how it occurs, and why and how it endures. As a historian this has given me particular pleasure.

When I arrived at the college, it was immediately evident that it was ready to “take off.” All the pieces were in place for Oxford to reinvent itself while preserving the heart of this unusual institution. Although isolation and poverty had shaped Oxford’s identity in both positive and negative ways, what was needed was to embrace that past and to confidently and realistically find new ways to express its links and contributions to the University. A conscious redefinition, a repositioning vis-à-vis its past and future, was called for.

I realized this would be no minor task, not least because it could potentially imperil Oxford’s very heart—its commitment to holistic education carried out through interaction and engagement. Above all, Oxford had to be its own best self, and it had to determine what it was and could be in the future. There have been extraordinary achievements made in the last six years because the institution was ready to make them and committed to preserving, as the much-quoted aphorism of Atticus Haygood attests, what is good and making it better.

All institutional change comes at a cost, and part of that cost is at least temporary dislocation. But stasis comes with a greater cost, one that over the long haul is universally negative. As with all life, organizations must change, reshape, and rediscover themselves. Oxford has done just that, and in so doing its future has been secured.

Although in recent years higher education has been roundly criticized from many quarters, it nonetheless remains one of the most well-regarded institutions in America. The public believes that knowledge is power; it is our work to nuance that understanding to ensure that knowledge is more than information—that it leads to wisdom. In our frenzied, market-driven world, to continue to insist that the discovery of knowledge, its synthesis and its careful dissemination are important and can change lives and better the world, is in fact to be counter-cultural in the best sense. This is the work of Oxford, the place, as our vision statement claims, which is “at the heart of Emory.”

What is before Oxford is a double expectation: to provide an education in the early and crucial years of undergraduate study, and in so doing to be a unique asset to the research university we call Emory. In its own way, Oxford must live into the University’s vision to be an “inquiry-driven,” “ethically engaged” and “diverse” community. Oxford must become its very best self. Janus-faced, we look both to the past and to the future.

The recent recommitment of the Board of Trustees to Oxford’s mission, the vigorous support of the University administration, the opportunity for new leadership at Oxford, and a new strategic plan are both invitation and imperative: Oxford will be of Emory in new and dramatic ways. This will demand that the college’s personnel—faculty and staff—and its structure and processes be marshaled to serve the new self-understanding. The work of the last six years—the expansion of a faculty of teacher/scholars, a marked improvement of the physical plant, a stronger relationship with the surrounding Newton County community, a revision of organization and processes, and an augmenting of financial resources—has coalesced to make this moment possible.

Although we cannot auger the future, all the planets appear to be aligned; we are about to see something new being born here at Oxford. This new reality is the work of generations who continued to believe in this little place, its mission and its possibility. It has been a great honor to assist at the birth of this new creation. It was beyond my imagination that the outcome of my choosing Emory would mean I might play a role in this achievement.

These last six years have confirmed for me the insight of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard that the problem with life is that it must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards. I now understand my decision made on that train in Munich. Likewise, in years to come, Oxford College will understand its daring in becoming something new.

This essay first appeared in Oxford Outlook and is reprinted with permission.