Oxford College is unique in American higher education. The first two years of Emory University's liberal arts curriculum may be pursued at either Emory College, located on the Druid Hills campus, or at Oxford College, located on Emory's historic original campus, east of Atlanta. This unusual relationship is the result of historical events within the Methodist Church as well as within Georgia's secondary education.
In 1836, following a failed attempt to establish a Manual Labor School in central Newton County, Georgia Methodists sought and received a charter for a new Methodist liberal arts college located on a fourteen-hundred acre tract north of Covington. Named Emory College, in memory of Bishop John Emory, Methodist leaders broke ground in 1838 on "virgin soil, in the midst of wide-spread and luxuriant forest of native oaks," according to Alexander Means, professor of natural science and future college president. Emory College and the newly created village of Oxford grew, side by side, to become an important center for education and benefited from the guidance of extraordinary leaders, including Ignatius Alphonso Few, Alexander Means, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and George Foster Pierce. Throughout the 19th century, Emory College built upon its reputation as a rigorous, liberal arts program of study combined with a campus environment featuring close and caring faculty supervision.
In the early 20th century, a power struggle between the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and Vanderbilt University Board of Trust resulted in the loss of Vanderbilt as a Methodist-controlled institution and, as a result, a fervent desire among Methodist leaders to establish new Methodist institutions of higher education. Bishop Warren Akin Candler (former president of Emory College) and his influential brother, Asa Griggs Candler (of Coca Cola fame), were instrumental in selecting Emory as the undergraduate anchor of this new university and Atlanta as its site. The campus of old Emory College in Oxford, with its deep Methodist history and passionate alumni posed a challenge for the builders of the university. How could the historic Oxford campus be used to further the university's developing mission?
Bishop Candler initially pressed for Emory's undergraduate program to remain at Oxford, with its traditional close faculty oversight and lack of the "evils" of city influences. However, the newly organized Board of Trustees decided to relocated Emory College and all its faculty, equipment and financial resources to the Druid Hills campus in Atlanta as soon as possible. Countering some voices calling for the sale of the Oxford property, Bishop Candler grandly proposed that the Oxford physical plant be reorganized as a residential, college preparatory academy. Candler reasoned that the American south needed a first-class, residential, secondary school, along the model of Andover or Philips Academy in the northeast. With Candler's considerable support and enthusiasm for the project, Emory trustees organized the Emory University Academy at Oxford.
The Academy, established in 1916, enjoyed a promising beginning. Student enrollment tripled in the first three years. Unfortunately, in the early 1920's, the dreaded boll weevil swept through Georgia decimating the cotton crop, depressing the agricultural economy of the state. Also, Georgia began to develop its formerly weak network of tax-supported, public secondary schools throughout rural areas of the state. With little money to spend on the luxury of private secondary education, fewer students enrolled each successive year,
Emory University Academy administrators soon realized that a free standing academy could not be sustained and they campaigned to restore college-level course work at Oxford.
In 1929, Emory included Oxford in its network of lower collegiate divisions, already in place at Valdosta and in Atlanta. Emory Junior College at Oxford and the Emory Academy shared the same campus and resources. Georgia high schools still produced a significant number of students poorly prepared for the rigors of college. The model of combining an academy and a college program was effective because it provided opportunities for many bright Georgians (and other southerners) whose secondary education was inadequate for college admission. In addition to its regular freshman class in the college, Oxford admitted students directly into the Academy who were short of the full complement of college preparatory courses or who were weak in certain subjects. Academy graduates could then continue to the junior college program at Oxford and, if successful, on to the senior collegiate division on the Atlanta campus for the final two years. For more than twenty years, "Emory at Oxford" functioned as both an Academy and as a junior college.Oxford was perennially rich in spirit but poor in financial resources. The beautiful 19th century buildings surrounding the campus green annually slipped deeper into disrepair. Faculty and staff salaries were beneath that of local public school teachers. In spite of, and perhaps because of, its poverty, the Oxford community of faculty, staff and students developed an extraordinary closeness and pride of place. Alumni love to share stories of privations at Oxford along with anecdotes of caring and thoughtful (and strict!) faculty mentors.
Following the welcome infusion of veterans into the university system of colleges in the middle to late 1940's, Oxford experienced a steady decline in Academy enrollment. Oxford and Emory leaders sought to find a way to re-invigorate the Academy and to make it more appealing to prospective students. Influenced by the experimental models of integrating secondary and post-secondary education at the University of Chicago, Emory and Oxford leaders reorganized the Oxford curriculum into the south's first accredited four-year junior college. The"Four-Year Program" combined an accelerated program for the last two years of high school with the first two years of college. Many courses were taught from an inter-disciplinary perspective and faculty members were encouraged to team-teach. Emory president Goodrich C. White (who held a graduate degree from the University of Chicago) and Dean of the Faculty, Ernest C. Colwell (former president of Chicago) joined with several Chicago educated faculty on the Oxford campus to guide this promising and innovativecurricular effort.
The Four-Year program could never recruit enough talented high school juniors to fully populate the lower classes. By the late 1950's, Georgia system of public secondary schools had improved in both quality and quantity and, reluctantly, Oxford's faculty and administrators realized that the long-serving secondary school program could not be revived.
In the early 1960's Oxford evolved once more. Now called "Oxford College of Emory University," Oxford positioned itself as a two-year college featuring excellence in teaching, small classes, and ample faculty-student contact. Oxford was not a "junior college" in the standard way, but a focused two-year program of general education leading purposefully and directly to the final two years of academic specialization (on the Atlanta campus at either the College, Business or Nursing School). In choosing this model, Oxford was reaffirming the strength evident at "old Emory" - academic rigor and strong systems ofsupport coupled with a keen interest in fostering learning both in and out of the formal classroom setting.
Today, Oxford College offers its students distinctive advantages - all of which are a product of its unique historical evolution. Oxford students benefit from a campus environment with a clear mission; it concentrates on the intellectual, social and developmental needs of first and second year students. Oxford faculty are hired and promoted on the quality of their teaching and community service. Classes are intimate, with much discussion and interaction. After classes end, most students are engaged in campus life as participants in the arts, in athletics or leaders in various interest groups. Oxford's student body is rich in cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, making cross-cultural friendships and learning opportunities standard fare. And, as Oxford students complete the two-year course of study and continue to the Atlanta campus, they join a top ranked, internationally respected research university. Students who begin at Oxford typically graduate with two Emory degrees.
Throughout Oxford's (and old Emory's) history, several institutional values are clearly evident. Students from the 1840's, the 1940's or from 2003 have experienced the Oxford campus as a place of academic challenge coupled with genuine interest and support for the individual. Oxford students are involved in their community and quickly develop pride and unity. William Faulkner wrote, "the past is not dead . . . it's not even past." At Oxford College, our institutional history informs our present-day values as well as our aspirations for the future.