Back to where it began for Oxford’s dean

OXFORD, Ga. — Douglas Hicks says the “timing and experiences just aligned” for him to return to his alma mater as president of Davidson College after six years leading Oxford College.

“I never really thought it would be possible,” he said.

Hicks, 54, was named president of the North Carolina college April 29. He is set to begin work leading the 185-year-old private college west of Charlotte on Aug. 1.

He has served as dean of Oxford College of Emory University since 2016 and will continue to serve as Oxford’s dean through July.

He is returning to Davidson where he earned his undergraduate degree in economics and played on its baseball team.

Hicks later earned a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University and master’s and doctorate degrees in religion from Harvard University.

The future Davidson president also taught leadership studies and religion, beginning at the University of Richmond where he later served as founding director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

He later moved to Colgate University to serve as provost and dean of the faculty, the university’s chief academic officer, before accepting the role of dean at Oxford in 2016.

There are “really strong parallels” between Emory and Davidson, Hicks said.

One is both being liberal arts-based colleges on fully residential campuses, he said.

“The academic piece and the residential piece are parallel to the great things that are happening at Oxford,” he said.

Both were founded one year apart in the 19th century by religious denominations — Emory by Methodists and Davidson by Presbyterians.

Emory and Davidson also have focused on coming to terms with their origins in the pre-Civil War South by memorializing those enslaved Americans who helped build the colleges’ campuses.

“The (Davidson) campus itself has a real sense of place,” he said.

Hicks taught a first-year seminar class and lectured on leadership education and religion at Oxford, and will be a tenured professor at Davidson once he gets there, he said.

However, his time as president of the 1,900-student Davidson College will be spent leading the school into the future and finding ways to better equip its students for future endeavors.

“I’ll be focused on meeting people and helping advance Davidson first, but I do hope to get into the classroom at some point,” he said.

He said he is glad Davidson is committed to hosting top NCAA Division I athletics, such as its men’s basketball team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament this year and boasts such past stars as future NBA Hall of Famer Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

Hicks said he felt “good for what we accomplished” at Oxford.

When Hicks arrived in 2016, the college leadership approved a strategic plan calling for academic excellence, leadership education and enhancing the value of a liberal arts education.

“We’ve accomplished all of the elements of that strategic plan,” he said.

He also led the college as Oxford’s endowment nearly doubled since 2016 despite part of the time being spent under COVID restrictions that prompted Emory leaders to close the university. Oxford has already surpassed $70 million raised toward an $80 million 2036 Campaign goal.

An endowment is the amount of money a college receives in donations which it then has available for a range of uses — from scholarships to upgrading facilities and hiring top professors.

Programs Hicks either led or helped lead include the creation of a new general-education curriculum, including Discovery Seminars, experiential learning and a Milestone Project for every student. The college also increased the number of advanced classes and added new areas of study.

Since Hicks’ arrival, applications to Oxford more than doubled to over 20,000 in 2022 which allowed the college to attract a more diverse and academically proficient student body, Emory officials said recently.

It also added a new dining hall and student center and renovated the historic Phi Gamma, Pierce and Humanities buildings.

Oxford College operates on the original campus of Emory University, which moved its main campus to western DeKalb County near Atlanta in the early 20th century.

It kept its Oxford location as a campus for first- and second-year students before they continue to work toward bachelor’s degrees through Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Goizueta Business School or Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.

Hicks said he worked toward Oxford strengthening ties with Emory’s main campus and creating a smoother transition for students in such areas as the Mellon Humanities Pathways Program.

He said he sees the Newton County campus evolving toward new programs to help its students prepare for 21st century life and be “more a part of Emory” that “future leaders will determine.”

However, he said he did not “see near-term shifts” away from being a campus only for first- and second-year students.

“I do believe an undergraduate education in the first and second years will always be core to what we do here,” he said.

“We’re exploring ways that the Oxford campus could be more of a place where Emory University employees from, say, these five counties, could plug into the Emory network and be ‘on campus’ and continue their hybrid work.”

He also does not believe Oxford will ever break away from an affiliation with Emory.

“I can’t imagine a future for Oxford that it isn’t a part of Emory,” Hicks said.

Since he came to Oxford, Hicks said he has worked to be involved in the community. He was an active leader in the Arts Association of Newton for six years and a member of the Newton Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

Hicks was also named to a committee that will help advise state leaders in determining workforce needs at the planned $5 billion Rivian electric vehicle plant near Social Circle.

The Oxford dean also was the first to secure the name of a Black community leader on an Emory University academic building when Johnson Hall was dedicated in October 2021 to the memory of the late Newton County Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr..

He agreed Johnson was his “most important mentor” in the community after Hicks’ arrival in 2016. Johnson was an Oxford and Emory alumnus who died of COVID-related complications in mid-2020.

He said Johnson’s wife, Michelle, “was kind enough” to call and congratulate him after he was announced as Davidson’s new president.

“I miss Horace every day,” Hicks said.

He said the last conversation he had with Johnson included a request the late judge be the college’s 2020 commencement speaker — which he never got to do.

“He was such a wise friend.”

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