The College Donor Digest

2023 Oases of Excellence Conference

September 19, 2023 | Emily Burden Rees

On September 8, 23 faculty from across the country met in Durham, North Carolina, for the 2023 Oases of Excellence Conference. ACTA hosted the day’s program in partnership with the Civil Discourse Project at Duke University. 

Campus centers earn ACTA’s designation as an “Oasis of Excellence” by promoting rigorous academic study, a strong liberal arts curriculum, and viewpoint diversity at their college or university center. These faculty-led, donor-supported programs play a vital role in restoring the promise of higher education. The Oases of Excellence network has now grown to almost 90 campus programs (see the full list at   

In his opening remarks, Dr. Jed Atkins, director of the Civil Discourse Project, encouraged attendees to continue their good work to keep the study of the liberal arts alive and to expose students to the full range of intellectual viewpoints despite prevalent pessimism. He said, “Hope is the virtue that is seen clearest precisely in times of difficulty. It relies on agency over passivity to navigate challenging circumstances.” 

This year’s gathering included several longtime ACTA friends, including Siri Terjesen, executive director of the Madden Center for Value Creation at Florida Atlantic University, who moderated a panel on entrepreneurship featuring Bruce Caldwell and Justin Heacock, both recent additions to the network. Dr. Caldwell, who leads the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, remarked, “Constant vigilance is the cost of liberty. . . and the cost of keeping a center going.” 

The conversation was enriched by the perspectives of faculty from a diverse range of institutions, including small private universities and large public schools. Panelists and participants shared their challenges and successes in leading their programs and expressed a shared concern for restoring higher education and upholding the liberal arts. Conference panels included, “Entrepreneurship, Economics, and the Liberal Arts,” “Defending the Liberal Arts,” “Workshop: Foundation Giving,” and “Civics, Citizenship, and Civil Discourse.”  

George Lucas, former president of the International Society for Military Ethics and professor emeritus of ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy, delivered the keynote address. A philosopher and military technology expert, Dr. Lucas explored the implications of artificial intelligence, particularly large language models (LLMs), for the liberal arts. It is easier for students to rely on LLMs like ChatGPT to cheat on exams or essays than pursue a rigorous course of study. Liberal arts proponents need to rethink how to advocate for the enduring value of a strong liberal arts education; it is not simply the acquisition of skills, but the pursuit of being human. AI risks making the liberal arts appear permanently irrelevant when its rise really means that understanding human nature is more important than ever. 

Christine Basil, associate professor in the Belmont Abbey Honors College said the conference provided “very valuable time to look up from the everyday work and to get a feel for the bigger picture of higher ed and the obstacles to the good as well as the very real successes it contains.”  

ACTA’s Fund for Academic Renewal is privileged to partner with faculty leaders who care deeply about their students’ academic success and well-being and who are committed to introducing the best of the liberal arts to the entire campus community. Although the challenges facing American higher education today are great, the dedication and creativity of our Oases of Excellence professors are reasons to be hopeful for the future. 

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The Fund for Academic Renewal is a program of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions to FAR are fully tax-deductible to the maximum extent provided by law.