Higher Education and the Legacy of Pericles

In the fifth century BCE, under the leadership of Pericles, Athens established the historic prototype of a democratic society. By recognizing that every citizen, regardless of economic or social status, had both a duty to serve and the potential to lead, Pericles and his fellow Athenians established what became the foundation of modern democracy. The legacy of Pericles is the core precept of America's founding philosophy and has been historically connected to higher education in the United States. Its mission has embraced the preparation of students for active participation in an expanding, pluralistic society in which citizenship, social responsibility, and community are inseparable.

Eugene M. Lang and the Legacy of Pericles

In 1999, Eugene M. Lang, a retired entrepreneur well-known for his philanthropic ventures in education, was asked to write an essay for Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, on the continuing relevance of the traditional mission of liberal arts colleges. In his essay, Lang addressed a national concern: the growing political cynicism and civic disengagement of young people. He was aware that many colleges and universities have responded to this concern with student-driven community service programs. He felt, however, that most of these programs have been peripheral to curricula, with little lasting impact on the civic attitudes of students. In effect, Pericles' legacy to higher education was eroding, threatening the ultimate viability of American democracy.

Project Pericles: 'Reclaiming the Legacy of Pericles'

Lang believed that colleges and universities, by reason of their historic mission and uniquely respected position in society, can and should assume a central responsibility for revitalizing Pericles' vision, 'reclaiming the legacy of Pericles.' In 1999, he organized a distinguished Planning Committee that named the nascent organization 'Project Pericles.' Over the next two years, Committee deliberations and discussions with hundreds of educators and civic leaders helped Lang refine Project Pericles' mission and the basic Policies that provide a framework within which colleges and universities can commit to educating students for civic and social responsibilities.

The Organization of Project Pericles

By the end of 2000, Lang and the Planning Committee had decided upon a suitable operating structure and start-up agenda for Project Pericles as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation. The Planning Committee, chaired by Lang, formally became its Board of Directors. A National Board of Advisors was established, comprised of more than thirty distinguished community, educational, and political leaders. Finally, ten diverse colleges and universities were invited to become the membership nucleus, the 'pilot Pericleans' of Project Pericles. Their presidents and chairpersons accepted an invitation to a meeting in New York on January 17, 2001. After much discussion, each institution undertook a commitment to the objectives and Policies of Project Pericles. The ten presidents formed the Presidents' Council to cooperate actively in policymaking and management.

Project Pericles Takes Root

Project Pericles was originally located in the office of the Eugene M. Lang Foundation. From 2001 to 2003, basic operational procedures were put in place, communication established, and working materials prepared. Lang and his staff organized service and support relationships with and among Pericleans. Meanwhile, the Board of each Periclean adopted a resolution of institutional commitment to the objectives and Policies of Project Pericles, and each created a dedicated Board committee to oversee Program implementation. Ad hoc committees and sub-committees were set up by Project Pericles to share experiences and address problems. In August 2003, office and management responsibilities of Project Pericles were transferred from the Lang Foundation to an independent office. In November 2005, Jan R. Liss became the second Executive Director, succeeding Dr. Karen E. Holt.

These start-up years were highlighted by the first national conference of Project Pericles on April 3-4, 2003. The ten pilot Pericleans convened in New York, with a total of 146 delegates representing every constituency - presidents, provosts, deans, faculty, staff, trustees, students, and alumni. It was the first such ecumenical conference of higher education in history. The attendees overwhelmingly judged the conference to be a great success, reflecting their warmly shared esprit, pride, and satisfaction in their Periclean commitments.