April 2, 2007
The birth of the Pierce Institute
David Gowler is Pierce Professor of Religion at Oxford College.
Three years ago, Dean Dana Greene called me into her office at Oxford College to inform me of a surprising development with the Pierce endowment. At that time, the endowment (given by the D. Abbott Turner family) generated enough yearly funds to endow an Emory “distinguished chair” known as the Pierce Professor of Religion, and a lecture program. Because of a change in the endowment, we would start receiving significant additional funds beginning in January 2006.
The usual pattern, of course, is that an idea for a new initiative precedes the search for funding. Here the process was reversed: We had substantial new funds becoming available, but no clear mandate for how to use them. Dean Greene encouraged us to create a college-wide initiative that would have a major impact both within the college and within the community.
Although the idea for the Pierce Institute for Leadership and Community Engagement arose in less than a week, we were deliberate in our planning. We formed a Pierce Steering Committee, which Joe Moon and I co-chaired, that included previous Pierce professor Hoyt Oliver, as well as Ken Anderson, Deanna Dennis, Steve Henderson, Mike McQuaide, Patti Owen-Smith and Judy Shema.
When we began work in January 2004, the committee’s first task was to articulate a vision for what these new funds should accomplish. That part was relatively easy because we all strongly believed in Oxford College as a transformative learning environment. As Oxford’s then-newly crafted vision statement declared, Oxford provides a “transformative learning environment, renowned for leadership, service, achievement and support of its graduates,” a vision that corresponded well with Emory’s vision statement where constituents “work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world.”
Also guiding our task were the parameters of the original Pierce gift, ones that included the “faith in action” commitment to social action, service and leadership development. The committee agreed that a college education should intrinsically involve ethical values and decision making — the dynamic processes by which individuals and groups make significant choices and evaluate their own as well as other ways of life.
Oxford’s participation in the 2004 National Survey of Student Engagement had also illustrated Oxford’s strengths in leadership and community engagement. Of the Oxford students surveyed, an amazing 92 percent participated in community service. Our students also were more than twice as likely to participate in a community-based project as part of an academic course than were students at other NSSE institutions. Overall, Oxford scored in the highest percentile on all NSSE benchmarks and this high level of student and faculty engagement gave us a wonderful foundation on which to build.
The committee aptly concluded that the integration of leadership and community engagement — a more comprehensive view of education — is one of Oxford’s strengths, an essential element of Oxford’s heritage and the central component of the Pierce Institute’s mission.
The committee’s second task was to craft guidelines to help determine what programs should be included within the Pierce Institute. We agreed that “Pierce initiatives” must demonstrably operate within certain rubrics, such as encouraging civic engagement, a concern for justice and social responsibility in ways that connect students’ intellectual, spiritual and leadership capacities. Some already-existing programs were “adopted” by the Pierce Institute, and exciting new initiatives — such as the Bonner Leaders, Pierce Visiting Scholar and Global Connections programs — were funded as well.
This conceptual framework also served to integrate apparently disparate programs. We certainly did not want to impose a monologic view of what constituted a Pierce Institute program. We instead sought to foster the dialogic interaction of diverse voices. Yet we needed to go beyond such heteroglossia to create an environment of polyphonic interaction in which diverse approaches have full and equally valid voices. Just as polyphony in music denotes a combination of two or more independent, melodic parts, we likewise envisioned the various programs within the Pierce Institute as operating independently but still working to support a coherent vision. A single voice sometimes can make a greater impact by interacting with a complex choir of other voices; in a similar way, through these polyphonic dialogues, the impact of individual programs within the Pierce Institute would be greater than the sum of its parts.
Today, the Pierce Institute consists of many programs structured around four “pillars” (an idea suggested by the Ethic Center’s Edward Queen). These programs help to develop thoughtful, committed and socially responsible graduates by promoting the integration of academic study, leadership development and community engagement.
Some notable examples include:
• Bonner Leaders Program: Provides service-based scholarships for approximately 20 students.
• Theory Practice-Service Learning: Provides approximately 20 academic courses per year.
• Ethics and Servant Leadership Summer Internship Program: Sponsors two students per
year in Emory’s EASL program.
• Volunteer Oxford: A student organization that provides Oxford students with service opportunities that enhance learning about themselves and society.
• Experience in Cultivating Excellence in Leaders: A leadership-training program for sophomores.
• Leadership Oxford: Prepares student leaders for their duties in campus organizations.
• Leadership Certificate Program (under consideration): Integrates leadership activities with academic coursework.
• Global Connections: Run by the Oxford Chaplain’s Office, engages students in religious, ethical and social studies in communities around the world.
• Off-campus courses: (e.g., “Social Change in Developing Countries”) Classes offered have a significant ethical component and engagement in communities outside of Oxford.
• Journeys of Reconciliation: An interreligious project promoting relationships between Emory and communities around the world.
Through the Pierce Institute, Emory and the University of Oxford recently signed a faculty exchange agreement. This year’s Pierce Visiting Scholar was Christopher Rowland, Dean Ireland’s Professor for
the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the Queen’s College, Oxford University. He was at Oxford College for four weeks, teaching a class (Art and the Interpretation of the Gospels) and offering public lectures. In return, Oxford’s art historian, Camille Cottrell, lectured at Oxford University this spring.
In addition to these programs, the Pierce Institute also sponsors a number of lectures and other activities for the college and local community.
Three years after that initial meeting with Dean Greene, and under the new leadership of Dean Stephen Bowen, Oxford’s distinctive role within Emory is clearly defined: Oxford is a liberal arts intensive institution that integrates instrumental education — in which learners acquire knowledge or skills — and transformational education — that enables learners to develop in important ways as human beings.
Within this larger vision, the Pierce Institute has helped clarify elements of Oxford’s mission, deepen aspects of our transformative learning environment and provide an administrative center for leadership and community engagement initiatives. As a major component of Oxford’s liberal arts intensive environment, the Pierce Institute also contributes significantly to Emory’s cross-cutting theme of preparing engaged scholars, the important emphasis on scholars as citizens with a responsibility to their communities. The generous gift of the Pierce endowment has made it possible for Oxford College’s contribution to that strategic theme to become even more rich and multitextured.
For more information, visit www.emory.edu/OXFORD/PierceInstitute/.