Our History

Wake Forest has a long history of educating leaders of character. When Wake Forest was founded in 1834, it was designed for no more than fifty students “of good character.” Educating character is part of our DNA.

Over the next century, university leaders nurtured our community of character. In 1922, President William Louis Poteat emphasized the moral purposes of a Wake Forest education: “Our deepest need is to be good; after that, to be intelligent. . . What the world needs now is the marriage of goodness and intelligence.”

Almost a century later, President Nathan Hatch is strengthening this marriage by placing character at the center of his vision for the university. In a recent speech to the Board of Trustees, he described the “soul of Wake Forest” as a commitment to both “intellect” and “character,” nurtured by a liberal arts education and a steadfast “community of care.” No other college president in America, especially among top-30 universities, places more emphasis on character as a fundamental purpose of higher education.

Wake Forest’s culture and commitment to character is matched by its capacity to shape it. Thanks to grants from major foundations, Wake Forest has become a leading center for the academic study of character. Faculty in philosophy and psychology—including Drs. William Fleeson, Mike Furr, Eranda Jayawickreme, and Christian Miller—have become some of the world’s leading experts on the study of character, while the School of Business has integrated character throughout its curriculum through the Allegacy Center for Leadership and Character. These efforts, along with many others across the university, have provided the institutional and academic foundation for a university-wide initiative to educate leaders of character.

In 2016, President Hatch recruited Dr. Michael Lamb from the University of Oxford to explore the possibility of creating such an initiative. Lamb, a scholar of ethics and politics who had helped to launch the Oxford Character Project and served as Dean of Leadership, Service, and Character Development for Rhodes Scholars, spent a year meeting with faculty, staff, and alumni to identify shared values and purposes, organizing pilot programming for students, and raising support. What he found was a culture deeply committed to nurturing character and an eagerness to develop leaders in innovative ways that reflect Wake Forest’s abiding commitment to “educating the whole person” and living “for humanity.” This alignment of values, along with widespread interest from across the university and the generosity of several lead supporters, led to the creation of the Program for Leadership and Character in 2017.

For its first two years, the Program was led by Lamb and a recent graduate, who together developed campus partnerships, delivered student programming, designed academic courses, and pursued research on leadership and character. The Program expanded significantly in 2019 with the arrival of three new staff members, including Ann Phelps, who directs the Leadership and Character Scholar Program, and Kenneth Townsend, who has expanded the Program into the Professional Schools. With major grants from the Lilly Endowment, John Templeton Foundation, and Kern Family Foundation, the Program grew even more in 2019-20, increasing its staff from 2 to over 20 within a year. This expansion has enabled the Program to reach even more students at Wake Forest and beyond.


Timeline of Major Highlights:

2016

  • President Nathan Hatch recruits Dr. Michael Lamb to explore the possibility of a new university-wide program focused on leadership and character.

2017

  • After a year of pilot programming, meetings with faculty and staff, and collaborations with a variety of campus partners, along with support from trustees, administrators, and several lead donors, the Program for Leadership and Character is inaugurated.
  • The Program forms a partnership with the Oxford Character Project to co-sponsor its first international conference on “Cultivating Virtue in the University,” held in Oxford in June.

2018

  • The Program initiates its popular “Leadership and Character Discussion Groups” for undergraduates.
  • Call to Conversation, a Wake Forest initiative that engages faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni in meaningful conversations across boundaries of difference, chooses “leadership and character” as one of its primary conversation topics.
  • The Program begins its collaboration with the Department of Engineering to infuse character throughout its four-year curriculum.

2019

  • The Program hosts its second international conference with the Oxford Character Project on “The Arts of Leading: Perspectives from the Humanities and Liberal Arts” at Wake Forest in February.
  • The Program welcomes its first class of 10 Leadership and Character Scholars.
  • The Program extends its reach into the Professional Schools under the leadership of Kenneth Townsend.
  • Wake Forest is featured as one of six case studies in Anne Snyder’s book, The Fabric of Character.
  • The Wake Forest Magazine publishes an award-winning theme issue on leadership and character, featuring the Program and highlighting the work of several Program faculty and staff.
  • The John Templeton Foundation awards a $1.68 million grant to Michael Lamb and Eranda Jayawickreme to lead an international research network that studies how moral exemplars can shape character.
  • The Lilly Endowment awards a $3.4 million grant to the Program to expand its staff, offer new programming, and facilitate new curricular offerings.

2020

  • The Program officially moves into Starling Hall.
  • The Kern Family Foundation awards the Department of Engineering a grant of $500,000 to work with the Program to integrate character into engineering.
  • The Program expands its staff significantly to advance its research and programming.
  • The Program hosts its first set of faculty course development workshops, leading to the design of 16 new courses and 12 new course modules focused on leadership and character.