Douglas Hicks, Dean for Oxford College of Emory University, has been on the job for about three months now. He recently talked to the Covington News about his welcome to the community and what he sees as Oxford College’s strengths, opportunities and threats.
The News: How was the move?
Though he started at Oxford College July 15, Hicks and his family arrived in time to celebrate the Fourth of July in their new community. He reports that he and his family were warmly welcomed and feel privileged to be here. Hicks said, “I am so delighted. I have a sense of ‘fit’ between Oxford College and my interests and skills.”
The News: What do you see as the college’s strengths?
“We have a world-class campus and remarkable people,” said Hicks, “This is how a residential liberal arts college should look. Oxford College has a sense of place and excellence tied to the local community. We are well situated to build on our unique strengths.”
For Hicks those strengths include a strong faculty and staff that provide students with individualized attention; 973 smart, engaged and diverse students; distinctive curricular and co-curricular opportunities; and close connection to the academic programs, libraries, advanced research and other learning opportunities and resources available on Emory University’s main campus.
The News: What opportunities do you see for Oxford College?
Oxford College is developing strategic plans. Hicks outlined three priorities that have so far emerged from that process.
One strategic priority is to build on the excellence of the college’s faculty and staff. Hicks sees two needs in this area: One is to increase the total number of professors on campus; and two is to hire a new generation of excellent faculty and staff members to replace those who will be retiring soon.
A second strategic priority is to enhance what Hicks referred to as an already distinctive learning experience for students. Several ideas are being discussed on campus.
One idea is to more seamlessly integrate the first two years that students complete at Oxford College with their final two years on Emory University’s main campus. According to Hicks, “It used to be that students came to Oxford College and after two years went in many directions. Today 100 percent of our students enter with the intent to complete their degree at Emory University.”
Another idea that originated with the Oxford College faculty is to expand the use of “classrooms without borders.” This concept is about enhancing learning by intentionally connecting experiences outside the classroom with what is being studied inside the classroom. Hicks indicated that faculty members and students are already doing this. Many are deeply engaged in different kinds of learning activities outside the classroom, both on-campus and in the community, but there is more that can be done.
Hicks has considerable experience in this area. When at the University of Richmond, he founded and directed the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, which has a mission to promote community-based learning, civic partnerships, and applied research on public issues.
Hicks repeatedly noted that there are tight and historic connections between Oxford College and the City of Oxford. He said, “There is a sense of place woven into the history of the college.” Hicks said that sense of place is a strength that can be used to increase engagement between the campus and the community. To help accomplish that, he said, “I want to be a frontline person in building relationships between the college and local citizens.”
One key to building more engagement between the Oxford College campus and local communities will be the college’s local alumni as well as local leaders. Hicks said it was no accident that he had lunch with Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry and the next day with Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston on his first two days of work in July. He also has been reaching out to alums, speaking at service club meetings, and otherwise introducing himself to the community and region. He said, “We need to do more to engage alums in the life of the college.”
A third strategic priority is to maintain college affordability and increase financial aid. The cost of a college education is something that Hicks says he gives thought to everyday. At Oxford College the cost for tuition, fees, room, and board amounts to about $56,000 per year. Many students receive Federal, state, and/or local financial aid with the total amount of aid dependent on each student’s unique situation. Hicks would like to grow the number of scholarships and other forms of local support for students.
The News: What threats do you see for Oxford College?
Hicks speaks with pride about Oxford College’s successes. Enrollment has not been a problem. The college typically receives 9000 applications for the approximately 500 seats available to new students each year. The student body includes students from 44 different states and 25 countries, though the largest subgroups are from the Atlanta area and from Georgia. “Students receive individual attention,” he said. “They cannot hide here. Ours is a model learning community, with students learning from each other.”
This year, Emory University was ranked among the top 20 universities in the United States by both The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News and World Report. However, Hicks recognizes three threats that concern people in higher education, particularly those at residential, liberal arts institutions like Oxford College. The threats have to do with demographics, disruption and cost.
According to Hicks, demographic data show that the number of people between 18 and 25 years of age is declining nationally. Oxford College’s students are nearly all within this age group. However, Hicks said, enrollment has not been a problem for Oxford College. He believes that because the college resides in a desirable part of the country and does so many things right, the decline in the number of potential students should be less of a problem for Oxford College than for some other institutions.
Students these days have many different options for getting an education. Hicks said traditional residential colleges like Oxford College are experiencing increased competition from online and foreign higher education providers. He refers to this as “disruption.” According to Hicks, many liberal arts colleges are struggling, including some considered to be “top tier.” However, Hicks said, “Oxford College is not afraid to embrace and incorporate online learning in its traditional courses and the residential, in-person, high-touch experience is still desired by students.”
The threat that concerns Hicks the most is the cost of higher education. He called this threat “the leading crisis factor for higher education.”