August 2009
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University of Richmond

The Jepson School was the nation’s first undergraduate school of leadership studies, with the inaugural class graduating in 1994.


Leadership and Liberal Education: University of Richmond’s Jepson School

University of Richmond Associate Professor Crystal Hoyt starts her leadership studies classes with a lesson in myth-debunking 101.  “The students have these images of leadership: it’s masculine, it’s white, it’s top-down,” she says. “If we ask students to draw their conception of leadership, we see a lot of pictures of pyramids.”  One of the first goals at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, an autonomous, degree-granting school within the University of Richmond, is to do away with these myths as quickly as possible. “Broadly defined, leadership is influencing people to achieve goals at many levels,” Hoyt explains.

Now celebrating fifteen years since its first class graduated, the Jepson School is unusual for its focus on leadership studies taught within a liberal education framework. Although a few other institutions are now awarding undergraduate degrees in leadership studies, Jepson was truly ground-breaking in the early 1990s, when a gift from 1964 Richmond graduate Robert Jepson and his wife, Alice, allowed the university to create the school.  Richmond’s current chancellor and former AAC&U board member Richard Morrill helped guide Robert Jepson’s vision into reality. Jepson envisioned a school with a focus on leadership and ethics for undergraduate students, says Sandra Peart, the Jepson School’s dean. “We’re very unusual in the country,” Peart says. “There are lots of leadership majors and minors, but they’re often taught by people who teach leadership on the side. We have dedicated faculty members who work in the school and teach almost exclusively leadership studies. We’re very lucky to not have to find faculty members to get released to teach at our school—we have them here all the time.”

Leadership and Liberal Arts

The Jepson School undergraduate curriculum is focused on liberal education outcomes, rather than more narrowly defined business-management outcomes, Peart explains, because leaders come from and work in all areas of society—not just the business world.  Jepson’s faculty members, too, hail from a wide range of disciplinary fields, including economics, literature, social psychology, religious studies, and political science. “We’ve really worked to carve out our liberal arts focus, to be very interdisciplinary,” she says.

Students apply for admission to the Jepson School in the fall of their sophomore year at Richmond, after taking at least one “gateway” leadership class—either Leadership and the Humanities or Leadership and the Social Sciences.  Between sixty and seventy students are accepted each year, of whom about twenty-five become leadership studies minors, while the rest become majors. The limited admission allows Jepson to keep classes small and interactive, explains Terry Price, associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor of psychology and ethics. “We don’t have the capacity for more students, because the curriculum is very labor-intensive, and we want to maintain a cohort system so students take the core courses together and build community. We couldn’t do that if people could just declare a leadership studies major at any given time.”  

One question the faculty at Jepson often hear from those unfamiliar with leadership studies is, Why teach leadership studies to undergraduates? The answer, Peart says, is that training in leadership studies can prepare all students for successful citizenship. “Our students are people who want to make a difference, and we help them conceptualize leadership as a way to actually make the changes that they, as idealistic young people, want to make in the world.” In addition, Price explains, “big questions” about leadership and ethics are central to any liberal education. “We have the students ask questions like, What does it mean to be human?  What are values? Are morally bad people leaders as well?” he says.

These “big questions” figure prominently into the Jepson curriculum. In addition to fulfilling Richmond’s standard general education requirements, all Jepson students must take a leadership core, which includes leadership ethics, theory, research methods, a justice and civil society course, and a required 240-hour internship. There are three main conceptual areas in the Jepson curriculum, Price says—ethical, historical, and socio-organizational—and students must select their upper-level courses so they take at least one course in each area of the framework.  There’s also an emphasis on interdisciplinarity. Many Jepson courses are cross-listed with departments such as psychology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, allowing students to explore the ways that leadership is relevant across disciplinary boundaries. Jepson’s setup as an autonomous school with its own building encourages faculty to work together on research and teaching, too. “Simple proximity really helps us to be interdisciplinary,” Peart says. “We publish a lot together and coauthor across disciplines.”  

Professor Crystal Hoyt and a student study the stereotypes people often hold about leaders—such as that they’re usually white males.

Associate Professor Crystal Hoyt and a student study the stereotypes people often hold about leaders—such as that they’re usually white males.

Encouraging Collaboration

Because of the Jepson School’s small size, students have many opportunities for close work with faculty members, whether through an independent study course, an honors thesis, or as research assistants for faculty members’ own research. Hoyt regularly works with three to six course-credit students and several other volunteer students in her social psychology lab each semester. Because Hoyt also teaches a required research-methods course, most students in her lab already have gained the basics of experimental research. Recently, Hoyt’s lab has been studying the stereotypes people have about women in leadership roles. “We might bring women into our lab and introduce a stereotype like ‘You know most leaders are men,’ and then have them complete a leadership-related task, and measure how their performance of the task is affected by the stereotype,” she explains. “The students are really the force behind my research. They help design the studies, design the measures, run the stimuli with the subjects—a little of everything.”  

Ethics is also a high-interest area for both Jepson students and professors.  Price’s research focuses on leadership ethics—he recently conducted research with students on the ethics of group leaders, and determined that group leaders who overemphasize the importance of their group’s goals are more likely to behave unethically to reach those goals. Peart worked with a student on a research project involving case studies of the various degrees of ethical behavior exhibited by multinational corporations. Another student applied for and received funding from a nonprofit foundation to conduct a case study on Google. Her results were eventually published in an ethics reader. 

While the Jepson School has some distinct built-in advantages that come with a generous endowment, Peart says any institution can learn from its experience. “If you have faculty who are interested in leadership studies, they can use their disciplinary area, like economics, to develop a broad set of questions on the problems of leadership,” she says. “A leadership minor or major is something almost any school can consider.” Price recommends that schools interested in developing a leadership studies program start by ensuring that history, ethics, and the behavior of organizations are all covered in a set of core courses. Schools can also situate a leadership studies major or minor within existing political science or business programs. But perhaps the most important consideration, Price says, is to make sure faculty members working on a leadership studies program can collaborate. “Crystal [Hoyt] and I started working together simply because our offices are next door, and we got to talking,” he says. “If another school wants to incorporate a leadership studies program, it would be important to at least designate a physical space for faculty to be together and trade ideas.”

 Students who graduate from the Jepson School don’t tend to follow any one path. Many go on to graduate school or law school. About twenty percent join the staffs of nonprofit organizations, and many go on to work in public policy, government, or in the private sector. Each year, at least a few graduates join Teach for America or similar service programs. “Employers like our students because they write and think critically, and they can put it all together and make change and influence other people,” Peart says. Hoyt points out that leadership studies is a perfect standalone degree for those not planning on continuing their education past the BA, because of its focus on teaching students to effect change.  “We’re not training the students for a particular job, but preparing them to be members of a society,” she says.

For more information about the Jepson School at the University of Richmond, visit its Web site.