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Providing the Catalyst for Change

By Daney Daniel Kepple

Some members of the inaugural Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music: Chris Ebersole ’04, Teresa Clower ’04, Lindsey Seifert Hammond ’04, Meg Chambers Campbell ’04 and Logan Stevens ’04

Venture capitalists and philanthropists have two characteristics in common: Both are interested in return on investment and both do careful research. There the similarities end. While the former are willing to take large risks in hopes of a higher return, the latter like to place their money on sure, or at least safe, bets.

In 2001, when the Robert and Ruby Priddy Charitable Trust went shopping for opportunities to enhance the quality of liberal arts education in the South and Southwest, they painstakingly selected 18 outstanding institutions and asked their presidents for their thoughts on the major challenges facing liberal arts colleges in the next decade. Then they whittled the list down to six and asked them for proposals. Rhodes made the cut, and the timing could not have been better.

“We had the St. Jude Summer Plus program up and running but had exhausted its initial funding,” recalls Robert Strandburg, associate dean of academic affairs for curriculum. “We had Bonner Scholars who needed summer service opportunities. And History professor Tim Huebner had a fantastic idea for providing students with stipends for doing research on Memphis and the Mid- South during the summer. What we didn’t have was money.”

The initial question was: How to tie together three such disparate programs into one proposal? The answer quickly emerged: All the programs allowed students to utilize their classroom knowledge in practical applications in Memphis. It was the perfect answer to the student engagement imperative of the Rhodes Vision, “To enhance student opportunities for learning in Memphis.”

“It was exciting to watch the campus come together to bring these three distinct programs into sync,” Strandburg says. “It was fun to watch it jell,” he adds, referring to the continuation of the St. Jude Summer Plus program and the emergence of the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies and the Summer Service Fellows (see sidebar on page 14).

In summer 2007, Francesca Davis ’08 served as project manager for the Crossroads to Freedom Summer Program, Rhodes’ digital archive of the Memphis-area civil rights movement Apparently the Priddys agreed. They awarded almost $6 million to fund the three fellowship programs. Three years later they requested a proposal from the same group of colleges to foster leadership in the arts. Rhodes proposed the CODA program (the Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts) and received a similar amount of funding.

Today many alumni, parents, trustees and foundations have funded fellowship opportunities for students and they, along with the original four programs, are the cornerstone of the fellowships initiative that distinguishes Rhodes’ approach to experiential education from every other college. As Strandburg phrases it, “The Priddy grant was the catalyst.”

You, too, can provide a catalyst. Another Rhodes benefactor, the late Mertie Buckman, was fond of saying, “Everyone can be a philanthropist. You don’t have to give a million dollars to make a difference.” Perhaps not everyone who loves this college can have the impact of a Priddy or a Buckman, but Mrs. Buckman was correct. Every dollar makes a difference. Please do your part.