Kenneth Carter (87Ox, 89C), the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College, assumed the position of interim dean of Oxford on Aug. 1, following former Dean Douglas Hicks’ resignation on April 29 to become president of Davidson College (N.C.). Carter is taking on this role amid a wave of University leadership changes.  

In an interview with The Emory Wheel, Carter spoke about Oxford’s future and how he is approaching his time as dean. Responses have been edited by the Wheel for length and clarity.

Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology Kenneth E. Carter was named the interim dean of Oxford College. Photo courtesy of Emory University

Emory Wheel: Emory seems to be looking toward the future. Lately, the Wheel has noticed a lot of investment and development. There’s the 2O36 fundraiser, the renovated halls and the switch to Bon Appétit dining in 2015. How do you envision Oxford in 10 years? 

Kenneth Carter: It’s interesting to me because, having been a student here at Oxford back in the ‘80s, the kinds of things that Oxford is doing now are exactly the kinds of things that I knew we were doing when I was a student and that I hope we’ll be doing in the future. This includes investing in the student experience and making sure students are getting the things they need. So, a lot of those renovations and infrastructure things that we’ve been doing are to help out with the student experience. My hope is that in the next 10 years, we are going to continue to invest money in those kinds of things as well, whether it’s scholarships or residence halls or renovating existing buildings. To me, it’s all about making sure the students get that educational experience that they really need. 

EW: These past two years have created unprecedented challenges for both Emory and the world. In what ways will you ensure student health and quality of life as a dean? 

KC: These last two years have been really tough for everyone. Everyone has lost something and it’s been stressful for a lot of people. For me, coming in as interim dean, I recognize that, but I also want to make sure that we spend some time making sure that we get what we need out of this year. I’ve been talking about four things that I want to do during this year that’s going to help students, faculty and staff. Number one, doing all those things that we know are essential to do — delivering the educational experience and making sure the student experience is really strong and good. The second is combating burnout. Students feel burnt out. Faculty and staff feel burnt out because we all doubled down and did the things that we needed to do during the worst times of the pandemic. We want to make sure to do something that is going to combat that burnout as well. One of the things that some people do to combat burnout is to isolate themselves because they feel like, “I don’t want to stress myself out, so I’m going to stay in my room more.” But we also know that one of the not-so-secret sauces of Oxford is our community. So I’m trying to do what I call reigniting our community. Our community has always been here, but we created a schedule to keep people off campus during the pandemic. Now we need to do some things to not just make people be on campus, but make people want to be on campus and to interact with each other. So trying to find ways to reignite the community in order to combat that burnout is going to really help us to get not only back where we were and even further on. So a lot of the things I’ve been doing help focus on those four main things. 

EW: There have been student protests about course registration due to high enrollment in popular classes with limited spots. What is your plan regarding high demand courses?

KC: We are trying to do a better job at understanding which of those courses are high demand courses so that we make it easy for students to be able to progress through their time at Oxford. I said we are doing four things but I only mentioned three. The fourth thing that I forgot to mention goes along with this, which is called stocktaking, which is making sure we understand what we need in order to deliver that experience that we want to be able to deliver. So making sure we have a better understanding of which courses fill quickly and whether or not there may need to be some more demand in those courses. We have advertisements up for three new faculty positions this year, so we’re making some long-term planning for growing our faculty. We want to make sure we grow it in the right way to coordinate with the programs that students want, but also with programs that I think are essential to a small liberal arts college as well. 

EW: If you had all the power in the world, is there a specific thing you would change about Oxford? 

KC: It’s actually more for me about what I wouldn’t change about Oxford. The thing about Oxford that makes it really special is that faculty members don’t come to Oxford because they have a huge research project and they don’t want to deal with students. They come to Oxford because they love working with students, and so what I wouldn’t change is that community… that sort of squarely focuses on students’ experience. I hope the students feel that because to me, there’s no other place you can get that faculty who are doing research but want to include students with them. Those are the things that, if I had a magic wand and a bunch of money,  I wouldn’t change anything. That would degrade the student experience because to me, it’s about being a student here, knowing my faculty members, being able to still connect with them decades later, having friends that I had lunch with and the people I knew while I was at Oxford. 

EW: How do you view the relationship between the Oxford and the Atlanta campus? Do you plan on creating any programs to help bridge the potential disconnections between the campuses?

KC: One of the things I’m doing is meeting a lot with Dean Freeman. I meet with her at least once every other week. We sit down and we coordinate things to make sure that things are working well between Emory College and Oxford College, but also with the other deans. We have meetings to make sure that those connections are going along well. We can identify some structures that can help out with that connection, so we focus on that during our meetings and make sure that we are in constant communication about how we can make things better. 

EW: How does being a first-generation college graduate impact the way you see what a college should offer for its undergraduate student body?

KC: I am a first-generation college student. Neither of my parents went to college. I was the first person to come to college in my whole family. What I found when I came to Oxford was a really challenging environment, but an environment that was really supportive, a really supportive community. To me, having that supportive environment is what’s important and special about a place like Oxford where you can get to know your faculty. We tell people the largest class is 28 students. You want that kind of student-faculty connection, and you get it here at Oxford. I think that impacts what I’d like to see. For example, you have these courses where we have a long waitlist. One way that we could get rid of that was to have a class of 300 people. But you don’t want that at a place like Oxford. You don’t come to Oxford because you walk into a class with like 500 students. I have a friend who teaches a psychology class that has 500 students. Trying to imagine an intro to psych class with 500 people, you wouldn’t get that as an Oxford experience. The question is how you deliver that when our introductory psych classes are 28 people. We have to sort of balance those things out. 

EW: You graduated from Oxford and Emory, served as the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology and have a plethora of accomplishments such as a doctorate in clinical psychology. In what ways have your accomplishments prepared you for this role?

KC: If you had asked an 18-year-old me what I would be doing decades later, I probably wouldn’t have said that I would be the interim dean of the college that I was entering for the first time. So, I know that my experiences have prepared me for this, but my old self wouldn’t have imagined that this was my future. I will say to other people, if you’re 18 years old and you’re in college and you’re imagining what your life is going to be like in the future, it may be even more amazing than you imagined. That’s a piece of it. The other piece is having experienced this place as a student. I know the kind of things that students struggle with at small liberal arts colleges. I know the things that can be tough for you as a first-generation college student coming to Oxford. I can also see Oxford from the viewpoint of faculty. I know the things that faculty struggle with. I know what it’s like to be a new faculty member. Now as interim dean, I feel like I have empathy for what the students are experiencing. I have empathy for what the faculty and staff are experiencing. My goal is to make sure to sort of see the world through their eyes, and I think that’s what’s helped prepare me for this. 

EW: What advice, if any, did Hicks give you for this role?

KC: We had several meetings during the transition period. I think the best advice that I got from him was being able to get to know the… staff and faculty and make sure that I continue to interact with them every day. One of the challenges that I had for the first month was the challenge of belonging and helping people feel like they belong. One of my goals was to eat in the dining hall at least once a week, and that helped me connect with students, faculty and staff. So, I’m going to continue to do that during the year. 

EW: What’s it like being on Oxford’s campus, now serving as interim dean, after also attending two undergraduate years on this same campus?

KC: Oh, gosh! Oxford is a place that continues to surprise and delight me in ways that I can’t always predict. You know, it’s like you would think that after having been a student here for two years, having been a faculty member here for a while, I would know every nook and cranny of this school. I know exactly how it works, but every day is different, and every day is sort of a surprise and it’s pretty amazing. 

EW: What are some of the most significant ways Oxford has changed since your time as a student?

KC: Number one’s the class sizes. They are slightly larger than when I was a student. At that time, there were 550 students. Now, Oxford is twice the size it was when I was an undergraduate here. The food is also much, much, much, much better than it was when I was a student. And yes, eating here most days I can say that’s true for sure. The facilities are better. But to me, the thing that makes Oxford a special place is still the same, which is that community, and it hasn’t changed at all. 

EW: In first-year convocation, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing Dooley and his crew. Henry Elder (23Ox), the speaker at the candlelight procession, exclaimed sonorously, “Open Dooley’s Tavern!” Are we going to see a grand reopening anytime soon? 

KC: Hmmm … Dooley’s Tavern … Dooley’s Tavern … I’ll say to you …  stay tuned, stay tuned.