2021 Oases of Excellence Faculty Conference
October 04, 2021 | Emily Burden Rees
On September 3rd, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Fund for Academic Renewal (FAR) hosted 40 professors and guests for the 2021 Oases of Excellence Faculty Conference in Washington, DC. The event brings together directors from ACTA’s 73 Oases of Excellence, academic programs that are committed to educating students for informed citizenship in a free society and ensuring free inquiry into diverse intellectual viewpoints. Guests from coast-to-coast enjoyed a series of engaging panels and speeches.
ACTA President Michael Poliakoff moderated the first panel, “Building a Campus Profile,” which featured Steven McGuire from Villanova University, Jed Atkins from Duke University, and Jenna Storey from Furman University. The discussion focused on how to build oasis status with university administration, students, media, and donors. Panelists advised directors to make students their top priority and to form ties with donors and administrators by inviting them to well-organized intellectual events. The panelists also emphasized that program directors adopt an attitude of “contagious courage” in the face of opposing administrators or policies.
At lunch, Professor James Stoner, past chair of the political science department from Louisiana State University, delivered a keynote on “The Future of the Liberal Arts.” His intellect and good humor made higher education’s challenges feel surmountable. Dr. Stoner remarked that today’s social justice conversations emphasize the importance of the liberal arts. A liberal education imparts intellectual humility and critical thinking skills, as well as a background in ethics, that equip people to best discuss justice and the common good.
Doug Sprei, director of multimedia & campus partnerships at ACTA, presented on ACTA’s partnership with the grassroots organization Braver Angels to hold civil student debates at colleges across the country to reduce political polarization. Afterward, attendees connected with Mr. Sprei to discuss bringing debates to their programs.
The afternoon panel featured a fundraising workshop by FAR Director Emily Koons Jae and panelists Elizabeth Kaufer Busch of Christopher Newport University and Steven Frankel of Xavier University who themselves lead Oases programs. Many Oases directors bear the brunt of essential fundraising in addition to directing and teaching. The panelists advised directors to honor donor intent and remember that many donors are eager to aid the mission of Oases to teach the liberal arts and promote the free exchange of ideas. Directors need only excite donors about what their programs are doing to achieve these goals.
Jonathan Pidluzny, ACTA’s vice-president of academic affairs, chaired the last panel entitled “Fostering Free Inquiry and Expression in a Challenging Campus Environment.” Allison Stanger of Middlebury College and Danilo Petranovich, director of the Abigail Adams Institute, highlighted the importance of preserving free speech in the classroom. Professor Stanger said professors must cultivate in students “a love of learning and how to think for themselves.” She also shared that courage to express disfavored viewpoints is essential to a robust culture of free inquiry.
During dinner, Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University, gave a speech entitled “The Flame of Intellectual Freedom.” He wove a beautiful tribute to the legacy of the late Donald Kagan into a powerful case for the enduring importance of the classics and the liberal arts. Dr. Strauss exhorted the audience to continue their work to ensure that students across the country have the opportunity to receive a rigorous education grounded in the liberal arts.
ACTA’s partnership with Oases of Excellence programs is an indispensable part of our work to support a renewal of liberal education at America’s colleges and universities. We applaud the commitment of Oases directors in advancing the liberal arts and raising academic standards.