Bowen leaves lasting impact at Oxford College

By Cathy Wooten | Emory Report | May 27, 2016

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From academic innovation to new and renovated campus facilities, retiring Dean Stephen Bowen has led Emory's Oxford College through more than a decade of growth and change.

On a marker just outside Oxford’s Candler Hall are the words that have stood as an Emory touchstone since they were spoken by Atticus Haygood in 1880: “Let us stand by what is good and make it better if we can.”

For the 11 years he has been at the helm of Oxford College, Dean Stephen Bowen has lived up to Haygood’s challenge. Bowen retires at the end of May, leaving behind a legacy in which the bar has been raised in every aspect of the college. 

“I can sum up his work in one word: stewardship," says Emory University Provost Claire Sterk. "He has been a steward of the people, the facilities and the character of Oxford. Steve sees every challenge as an opportunity. You can look around the campus and see with your eyes what he has done, but he has also built a strong curriculum and developed external relationships. He is excited for the world to know what Oxford stands for.”

Joe Moon, dean for Campus Life and historian of Oxford College, recalls that from Bowen’s first days as dean it was clear that he understood Oxford. Moon compares his leadership as Oxford dean to the craftsmanship of the pieces that Bowen has created through his avocation as a woodworker.

“Though it may be dramatic, even messy, in the first stages, slowly and methodically the bowl emerges and adjustments are made; he never loses sight of the vision of what the bowl should be," Moon says.

Improvements to campus facilities

That vision is most dramatically evident in Oxford’s physical space. Since Bowen assumed the deanship in 2005, the campus has undergone some $120 million in improvements to its facilities.

This includes six major construction projects:

  • Residence halls: Fleming (2014), Elizer (2008) and Murdy (2008)
  • Oxford College Library (2013)
  • Oxford Science Building (2016)
  • Oxford Dining Hall (under construction, completion late 2016)

Also accomplished were several major improvement/redevelopment projects, including:

  • Restoration of Language Hall
  • Exterior refurbishment of Seney Hall
  • Exterior and structural refurbishment of Williams Hall (Old Gym)
  • Interior-space renovation in Hopkins Hall
  • Structural refurbishment of Phi Gamma Hall
  • Conversion of the quad to a pedestrians-only zone, featuring brick walkways and improved, aesthetic outdoor lighting

Hugh Tarbutton 84Ox, immediate past chair of the Oxford Board of Counselors, says that Bowen’s tenure has been transformational. 

"But it is about more than just the improvements to the campus," Tarbutton says. "He has brought an unassuming, calm and reasonable leadership style to his role. He has the ability to attack problems, build consensus and leave things better than he found them.”

Academic reputation and innovation

Under Bowen’s leadership, Oxford’s academic profile has steadily risen. Applications for admission to Oxford have increased to seven times the number in 2005, resulting in an increase in enrollment from 680 in 2005 to 936 in 2015.

Over that same period, students’ level of preparation for college-level study improved dramatically, with average freshman SAT score up from 1194 in 2005 to 1336 in 2015. The number of full-time-equivalent faculty increased from 47 to 76.

The past 11 years have also seen academic innovation at Oxford, a testament to its emphasis on teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning. The Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) was established in 2007 to support faculty development, teaching initiatives and the enhancement of the Oxford learning experience.

The CAE in turn has helped to advance Oxford’s reputation for teaching and learning through its annual Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts, now in its tenth year and attended by faculty from across the country.

Oxford adopted its distinctive Ways of Inquiry curriculum, active-learning courses in which students learn the fundamentals of a particular discipline, while also learning to understand and question the ways in which knowledge is pursued.

Athletics, health education, fitness and credit-bearing courses on recreation and physical education were consolidated into the Center for Healthful Living (CHL).  Through its wide range of physical engagement and education, the CHL promotes lifelong health through helping students to understand the multiple dimensions of fitness and wellness.

Preservation and creative land use

In addition to the restoration and renovation of Phi Gamma (built in 1851), Williams (1907), Seney (1881), Hopkins (1885), and Language (1874) halls, the President’s Home, the oldest structure owned by Emory University, was spared from being torn down or re-purposed. Built by Emory founder and first president Ignatius Few in 1837, the house has been the traditional residence of Oxford deans since 1919.

When Bowen came to Oxford in 2005, the structure was in need of extensive repair, and the university offered to build a new, more modern residence. Bowen’s wife, Nancy, urged instead that the University restore the President’s Home and preserve a significant piece of Emory’s history. The result is a warm and gracious home where events have been regularly scheduled to ensure that every member of the college community has the opportunity to visit.

Bowen’s vision in using existing assets wisely is also evident in the Oxford College Organic Farm. Located on 11 acres adjacent to the campus, the farm was donated to Oxford in 2011. There are many things a college can do with a windfall of land, but it was Bowen’s idea to turn it into an organic farm, a place dedicated to the practice of sustainability and where students could learn something about how food is produced and gain real-world experience beyond the classroom. 

The farm is an important asset in the local community, providing fresh, local produce through its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Hundreds of students have experienced the farm through its incorporation into curricula across several disciplines.

Strengthened ties to local community

During Bowen’s years at Oxford College, ties to the city of Oxford were strengthened, with the two entities working together on many fronts. Meetings to discuss shared concerns became a regular part of the schedule for both Bowen and Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry.

“The city of Oxford and all of Newton County have benefited greatly from Steve’s leadership," Roseberry says. "Shortly after his arrival, Steve made it clear that he considered the college to be part of the larger community. He and I shared the belief that cooperation and collaboration were essential if the community was to benefit fully from the efforts of both.

"The validity of that belief is reflected in the decade of growth and modernization that has occurred on the campus and in the city.”

Farewell to Oxford

In his remarks at an April farewell reception attended by hundreds of members of the faculty, staff, alumni and community, Bowen called his appointment to Oxford ”the most gratifying job of my career.”  

And despite the progress under his leadership, Bowen still wants even more for Oxford.

“I often hear it said that ‘Oxford is in a good place,’ and of course I agree," he says. "But Oxford has not yet fulfilled its potential or realized its mission. Progress over the last decade has strengthened the college and removed many constraints.

"The challenge for the future will be to build on that strength and seize the opportunities inherent in a small college that enrolls only freshmen and sophomores, embedded in a leading R1 university…

"My advice is to be ambitious, take some risks and build a purposefully structured educational program that pursues the goals of liberal education head on and with minimal compromise," Bowen says. "In the world of higher education, that is Oxford’s singular promise.”

Oxford’s future progress will stand on the tall shoulders of the accomplishments Bowen leaves behind. Asked to assess that legacy, Moon says, “Quite frankly, in Dean Bowen’s tenure we have witnessed more dramatic, positive changes than in any similar period in Oxford’s history.”

The Bowens leave at the end of May for a new home in Michigan, but, he says, “I have formed some of my most important friendships here in Oxford. Those will ensure I am well connected in the future.”

Editor's note: Douglas A. Hicks has been appointed as the next dean of Oxford College. Hicks will assume his new role on July 15. He comes to Emory from Colgate University, where he has served as provost and dean of the faculty and currently is senior adviser for academic initiatives and professor of religion.