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D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership, Emory University

The D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership (EASL) promotes servant leadership and ethically engaged practice. Amidst declining civic involvement and growing cynicism toward public institutions, universities must take seriously their role in cultivating and forming tomorrow’s leaders. Inherent in this work is the need to develop in those future leaders the required intellectual rigor, ethical awareness, and concern for the common good.

Overview of Program

The Servant Leader Summer Internship Program is, on its surface, a fairly straightforward and simple program. Twenty-five to thirty Emory University students—undergraduate, graduate, and professional—are selected from an application pool of around 250 to work in Atlanta-area nonprofits, governmental agencies, and socially responsible businesses. They work roughly full-time for eight to ten weeks. For eight of those weeks they have four hours of class weekly. Students spend the first 90 minutes or so of the class divided into small groups, roughly grouped around industry—health and human services, the environment, and arts and culture. During this time, they debrief their week, engage in reflection on successes and challenges, and, with the aid of a facilitator, begin to articulate and grasp the lessons to be learned from their weekly experiences.

Program initiatives and Activities

DSC_0031-201x300.jpgThe placement sites vary widely. They include large national and even multi-national organizations such as CARE, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, the Centers for Disease Control, the Anti-Defamation League, and small community-based farms. There are cultural organizations like the Atlanta Opera. Also included are other organizations such as Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PADV) and the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) that work with some of the most vulnerable populations. AHRC presents particular challenges serving primarily drug users and prostitutes through its needle exchange program. It also provides food, showers, and condoms as it strives to reduce the transmission of disease and build relationships that eventually lead to treatment.

During their working time, students submit weekly time logs detailing the nature of the work they are doing and their reflections on their work and the socio-political realities that give rise to their organization, as well as on their interactions with supervisors, colleagues, and clients (maintaining of course appropriate levels of confidentiality). Students also have to complete five other written assignments ranging from a questionnaire that requires them to develop fairly deep knowledge of their organization and its make-up to, for their final assignment, writing a 2000 word newspaper/magazine style article reflecting on their experiences.

Finally, the students receive a $4000 stipend for their work. The class carries no credit, so there is no tuition. That the program be stipend is something to which I am committed. It is an issue of equity. As internships become increasingly central to students’ career possibilities, students whose family’s financial situations preclude them from taking unpaid internships (not to mention paying an organization $5000 to $15,000 to get them placed in an internship) are doubly disadvantaged. Overall I remain committed to providing a stipend that enables students to live during the summer and, possibly, save some money for the school year. It is only fair and just.

Character Development

An outline of the structure, however, says nothing about the program’s goals and methods. Preeminently the Servant Leader Summer Internship Program at the Emory University Center for Ethics is grounded on a particular model of education. It is built on a view of education that focuses on the formation of the individual and emphasizes the role that responsibility plays in one’s life, as a human being, as a professional, and as a citizen. It is, as immodest as this may sound, a school for a human life. It confronts the students directly with the following question, what kind of person ought you to be?

Education as formation is not about training; it is about the shaping and developing of a human being. It involves teaching, mentoring, and expectations. It states that there are some ways of being in the world that are preferable to, better than, higher than other ways of being in the world. It first of all has a doctrine of human being that is not merely instrumental, but that is normative. It pushes against the cultural norms that structure human value around money. It proclaims that a person’s worth is not co-extensive with how much money she or he has or gets. A person’s value to the world is in how she comports herself, it is in what she does and how she does it. It rests in her interactions with others, particularly those who cannot provide her with any benefits.

The Servant Leader Summer Internship Program (like all the EASL programs) is about building character. It strives to shape individuals who have the courage to recognize that most of human life involves acting out of imperfect information with imperfect options and the courage to re-evaluate their commitments in the light of new knowledge and to change appropriately. It is about shaping and forming ethical individuals who are committed to doing the right thing, who have the tools to effect it, and also have the epistemic humility to acknowledge that their judgments could be flawed.

To build character means that we have to help students to begin to construct their lives and do so in the context of their professional lives. It starts with the assumption that human beings are projects in process and that they can exercise agency in that process. To exercise this agency, however, requires both an awareness of and reflection upon what one does and why. Additionally, one can learn a great deal through one’s observation and reflection on others’ behaviors and practices. Other people are sources of moral education; they are texts of moral literature, if we simply observe and reflect on them.

This is why so much of the programming focuses on reflection. On pushing, probing, and questioning. When a student critiques or questions a colleague’s or supervisor’s actions, the first question to ask them is why? What was wrong? Why do you disagree? These questions are followed by others. What would you do (or say) differently? And how? Life is about doing, about action, once cannot merely identify the “right” action one must also learn how to do or to effect “the right thing.” (Some of which involves knowing when not to do something.)

The space for reflection, however, must be bigger than what can occur in 90 minutes of discussion in the small groups. One must, therefore, have patience as students struggle with the challenges of work and professional life. One cannot be there to “save” the students from every difficulty and challenge. (Although one of the values of the program is the support and security it provides the students and the awareness that if a situation were to become challenging, threatening, or dangerous, we can extricate the student immediately.) For most of the students that will not be their reality. They will not have someone to save them from every difficulty, hardship, or challenge. We use the process not to save the student but to bring the student to a deeper realization of the situation and what can or should be done.

To do this students are first confronted with determining whether the situation they face is a real problem or is it just one of those things inherent within life and work. It may simply be the first time that students must confront the fact that the world was not created for their convenience.

If a real “problem,” students are guided through it, usually indirectly, by being encouraged to ask such questions as, is this problem temporally bound? Is the source of the problem a project or the colleagues on the project, all of which will disappear when the project ends in a week or so? If so, how can one mitigate or manage the problem until time makes it disappear?

If not temporally bound, then other questions must be examined. Pre-eminently students have to be guided to identifying what the problem really is. In order to address an issue, they have to know what they are addressing. Is it personalities, inadequate supervision, lack of clarity, insufficient resources? Once the source is identified, then the student can begin to formulate responses.

Throughout this process students are learning skills and practices that will serve them throughout their entire lives. When done in the context of the question, what kind of person ought you to be, it sets the students in a permanent quest to construct a valuable and meaningful human life.

The Future

The prime goal for the future is to grow the program in ways that do not eliminate its distinctiveness and the sources of its strength. This program fundamentally is about formation. It is not merely about teaching or training, although it includes both of those. Formation inherently is about connection, awareness, and responsiveness. It cannot be done wholesale. My concern is the following: can we grow the program to 70 or 80 participants without losing what is valuable about it? The demand is there. The need is there. I hope that the funding is out there, somewhere. I am convinced that there is value in touching more students. I simply agonize over whether we can do it well.

Ethics and Servant Leadership Forum


The Ethics and Servant Leadership (EASL) Forum is a weekly, interdisciplinary forum focused on service, community building, and leadership and character development. The Forum brings together 15 undergraduate and graduate students, selected through an application process, in a year-long collaborative learning experience that includes retreats, skill-building sessions, outside speakers, and student-developed projects.

Mariangela Mihai, a graduate of Emory and former participant in the EASL Forum and Summer Internship programs, describes herself is as a “daughter of a political refugee, scholar, human rights activist, and artist.” She is studying anthropology at Cornell, where she puts her leadership skills to work in worthwhile projects and organizations.

Rachel Rosenberg, a Harvard Law School graduate, talks about her work in juvenile justice and the courses and activities at Emory which profoundly shaped her worldview and activism as an undergrad. Her goal, by means of her individual advocacy, is to help to bring about a systemic change that “forces authority figures to consider [her] clients’ humanity and the structural deprivation they’ve faced.”

Khatdija Meghjani, a feminist and activist, was born in Hyderabad, India, and plans to attend law school following her degree at Emory to pursue a career on  the international stage relating to human rights. The EASL Forum helped her to design her own leadership model and create a moral compass based on her principles and experience

Hannah Coleman applied to the EASL program because she was interested in knowing how participating in community development and outreach could help a student learn what it truly means to be an ethical leader. She talks about her passion for nonprofit work, especially in the field of civil and human rights.

Contact Information

Edward L. Queen, Ph.D., J.D.
Director, Ethics and Servant Leadership Program
Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies
1531 Dickey Dr. First Floor
Atlanta, GA  30322