Conference highlights: How might universities cultivate leaders of character?


The interdisciplinary conference focused on the question of what the disciplines of history, literature, philosophy, theology, and the social sciences could contribute to this important conversation of cultivating leaders of character.

While moral formation has historically been one of the university’s central purposes, universities in the modern era have become shy of intentionally shaping the character of their students, even while they do it in practice. But recent scandals and ethical failures in government, politics, banking, business, journalism, and health care invite us to consider whether universities should recover an intentional focus on moral education and, if so, how they should cultivate virtue in an increasingly global, multicultural, and ideologically plural age. These questions were the focus of the Oxford Character Project’s conference on 'Cultivating Virtue in the University'. The conference was organised in partnership with the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life and brought together distinguished scholars and practitioners (from Wake Forest University, University of Oxford, Stanford University, University of Birmingham, Harvard University, University of Worcester and University of Virginia) to explore the role of character development in higher education.

Summary video (5 minutes)

The conference was preceded by a panel discussion, held at Rhodes House and attended by over 100 invited guests including senior academics and leaders. Panellists spoke about the moral purposes and responsibilities of the university, the challenges of cultivating virtue in our contemporary context, and the specific virtues of character that students need to become ethical leaders and citizens.

Speakers included:

Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life

Charles Conn, Warden of Rhodes House and CEO of the Rhodes Trust

Nathan Hatch, President of Wake Forest University

Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History and Warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford

Ngaire Woods, Professor of Global Economic Governance and Dean of Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government.

Panel discussion (80 minutes)