Jim Peterman’s Vision for a Better World

For over two decades, the philosophy professor and (now former) director of the Office of Civic Engagement has been at the center of efforts to push Sewanee’s academic and co-curricular offerings out of the ivory tower and into the community, where they can make a real difference.

Jim Peterman has not retired, he is quick to point out. He is taking a sabbatical, which “is not a vacation,” he adds.  What he says only occasionally and in fairly private settings is that the sabbatical (a period of reflection and study that prepares professors to refresh their teaching and research) had been a long time coming. On the normal rotation, he would have taken a sabbatical about seven years ago, but in addition to teaching, Peterman, a professor of philosophy at Sewanee, also spent those years working hard as an educational entrepreneur, building a program of academic civic engagement that would go on to gain national recognition from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Public Interest Technology University Network. 

“The Office of Civic Engagement has been all-consuming, and I have not really had the opportunity for several years to step back and take perspective,” he says. “Once you start a program, you just have to do it. So, I’ve been really busy, and I am now in a period of discernment.”

Today, he rests. But not for long.

One could argue that civic engagement is baked into the mission of the University of the South—to educate students to “be prepared to search for truth, seek justice, preserve liberty under law, and serve God and humanity.” Peterman and others argued just that point when proposing the formation of the Office of Civic Engagement in 2012. While a healthy group of faculty, staff, and students have been pressing the importance of civic engagement for over two decades, Peterman has always been at the center of those efforts. 

The Arc of a Career

In the late 1990s, the Philosophy Department at Sewanee began to think about how it could make its offerings stronger and developed two new areas of focus: environmental ethics and medical ethics. In the expansion of the department’s offerings, Peterman did not get his first choice. “I really wanted to teach environmental ethics, but instead that went to Jim Peters,” who now is, not coincidentally, the coordinator of Sewanee’s environmental arts and humanities program. 

As professor of medical ethics, Peterman was tapped for membership on the hospital ethics committee at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, and that led him to develop a community-engaged project at the hospital, involving students in a medical ethics course. The class worked in Sewanee with groups that were involved in a Five Wishes program, which provides a setting for people at the end of life, their families, and their caretakers to negotiate that difficult period.

“Many people were suspicious of education that had a practical application, so we wanted to center liberal education in our community engaged courses. That situation is much different now. The faculty as a whole more broadly understands the importance of this work, and Jim’s drive and understanding of the importance of engagement is a big reason why.”
Richard O'Connor

The class attended several events, embedding themselves in this micro-community as a way of learning medical ethics where it counts. “Often in higher education, you are taken out of the day-to-day world and put in this special world where universal learning can take place,” Peterman says. “The idea of the course was that you can’t just sit in an ivory tower; you have to connect what you’re reading with people’s lived experiences.”

At that time in Sewanee, conversations about the scope of the liberal arts and how it relates to life off the Domain were common in a variety of disciplines. “We had a lot of conversations with people like Richard O’Connor in anthropology and Charlie Brockett in politics, and we really shifted the ground in the way we think broadly about higher education,” Peterman says. “In fact, those conversations are still happening and, I think, will continue to happen even more.” 

Since the late 1990s, formal community-engaged education at Sewanee has continuously evolved. In the early 2000s, Peterman, O’Connor, Deborah McGrath in biology, Pradip Malde in art, Mae Wallace in anthropology and education, and people like Betsy Sandlin in Spanish, and others began creating courses with a community-engagement focus, and a healthy, if somewhat disconnected, “CE” catalog was created. The group named itself the Center for Liberal Education and Community Engagement, or CLECE for short, meeting regularly to manage activities connected to grants from the Lilly Endowment and the Jessie Ball duPont Fund that supported the development of community engagement. Soon enough the CLECE acronym was shortened to CEL (or Community Engaged Learning), and Peterman, who did much of the convening work, started waggishly referring to the group’s members as “CELmates.” 

At the time, not everyone at Sewanee was interested in service learning, which was a pedagogical method gaining broad acceptance in higher education that is related but not identical to community engagement.

"We named ourselves CLECE quite deliberately, and put the words ‘liberal education’ first,” says Richard O’Connor. “Many people were suspicious of education that had a practical application, so we wanted to center liberal education in our community engaged courses. That situation is much different now. The faculty as a whole more broadly understands the importance of this work, and Jim’s drive and understanding of the importance of engagement is a big reason why. What Jim and his colleagues have done with OCE is huge. Huge."

A Union of Community Engagement 

By the 2010s, it was clear that the loose association of CELmates would need some better organization, and at the suggestion of Vice-Chancellor John McCardell, the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) was created, pulling together several strands of activity into one umbrella organization for community connectedness. That consolidation pulled in the Chapel Outreach Program and its director, Dixon Myers; the Canale service internship and its director, Robin Hille Michaels; and the course-based perspective of CEL. 

Buoyed by seed funding from a family in Louisville, Kentucky, Peterman was named the inaugural director of the newly created Office of Civic Engagement and began steering the work of the office, connecting with the South Cumberland Community Fund to work collaboratively on community development and grants, including launching an AmeriCorps VISTA program, bringing in the Bonner Foundation to partner with the Canale internship program, connecting with the Public Interest Technology University Network, (through which funds for Sewanee DataLab became available), and launching a Dialogue Across Difference program, with the help of Cassie Meyer and Lydia Reinig. He also did yeoman’s work in getting national recognition for Sewanee through a certification process of civic engagement with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The work was paying off with national support and national recognition.  

“More and more, I have come to think that we all have the responsibility to make changes to make a difference in the lives of others. It is something we all have to face up to even if our opportunities and abilities are limited. This is a constant worry for me.”
Jim Peterman

One consequential move Peterman made was making a connection with the AmeriCorps VISTA program officers in Tennessee, creating a model VISTA program looking at rural issues. After connecting with the VISTA administrators, Peterman won the first grant to create the South Cumberland Plateau VISTA Program. VISTA volunteers have been incredibly productive agents of community development, creating new nonprofit organizations that address access to credit, inmate reentry, and English language learning. VISTAs also helped many organizations across the South Cumberland Plateau build their capacity to address community needs.

“What is behind all that effort is the idea that academic work and academic resources should be in the service of making a difference,” Peterman says. “For example, it is academically serious for a researcher or a class to figure out the best way for a local free clinic to encourage their clients to adopt healthy practices. Or what if we wanted to develop an effective transportation system for the Plateau? Why not make available stipends for faculty to do the kind of analysis that would make that a reality? That would be academically important as well as important to the region.”

Peterman’s Abiding Questions

While Peterman might have chosen environmental ethics rather than medical ethics, he was already primed to delve seriously into community engagement. “When I was a freshman at Kenyon, we all read Plato’s Republic,” he says. “It was a common text, and you could talk to anyone at Kenyon about it. So, I have always been moved by that idea in the Republic of the philosopher king—actually a cohort of philosopher kings—people who are prepared for and in a position to have a positive impact on the world and make changes. That idea had a big impact on me and has stayed with me for a lifetime. The philosophical question is how can I, as an academic, have a positive impact on the world?”

As Peterman dug into his career teaching philosophy at Sewanee, he became increasingly worried that he was not having a positive impact in the world outside the classroom. “When you teach philosophy, you are teaching arguments, and one thing you teach is that all arguments have problems,” he says. “That meant a lot to some students who were reflective, but it didn’t change things. More and more, I have come to think that we all have the responsibility to make changes to make a difference in the lives of others. It is something we all have to face up to even if our opportunities and abilities are limited. This is a constant worry for me.”

State of the Union

Although Peterman has not retired, he has given up the driver’s seat to Amy Patterson, professor of politics, the new OCE director. Patterson, who has a long history of community and civic engagement at two colleges and on two continents, has solid ideas for engaging more faculty and staff into the work of OCE. At the same time, Peterman has left behind an office of energetic and dedicated staff and a program that has distinctive attributes, and he is quick to praise others for this work. “The OCE staff is oriented toward real results,” he says. “This is not work that you do from nine to five. It’s a calling, but they find that kind of challenge compelling and they embrace it. They are committed to the work because they love the work.”

That work has yielded a program with a set of discrete yet interrelated activities. To the original union of outreach, Canale service internships, and community engaged learning that Peterman inherited, the office has added a compelling partnership with South Cumberland Community Fund, a Dialogue across Difference program, and a certificate in leadership and global citizenship program that ties it all together.  

Peterman believes that the partnership with the Community Fund is critically important for community engagement, and the Office of Civic Engagement and the South Cumberland Community Fund are somewhat like fraternal twins, born about the same time and engendered by the same impulses to connect learning to creating good in the world. 

“We have a relationship with the South Cumberland Community Fund that is, if not unique, darn near it,” Peterman says. “If the Fund did not exist, the University would need to create it. And the reverse is true. Both of our organizations do our work better because of our mutually supportive activities.” 

An example of the partnership between OCE and the Fund was the “Make Lasting Connections” symposium and grant in 2022. The Fund had created a $50,000 grant round for collaborative projects. Recognizing that collaboration is not easy, Peterman, along with Katie Goforth, who holds shared position with OCE and the Fund; Marguerite Lloyd, a member of the University's Board of Regents and chair of the Fund’s board; and the executive director of the Fund worked together to create a symposium to inspire and educate partners on the value and processes of collaboration. Peterman made critically important suggestions for speakers, and the symposium was applauded by attendees. The end result was the awarding of two grants: one to establish a new free medical clinic in Tracy City, and one to form a Housing Hub, a collaboration between Mountain T.O.P. and Housing Sewanee.

The most ambitious mutually supportive activity, for which Peterman was directly responsible, was launching the South Cumberland Plateau AmeriCorps VISTA program, which has helped build the capacity of a score of nonprofits on the Plateau to do their community work better. VISTAs have also launched brand new nonprofits, such as Betterfi, an organization helping people escape predatory loans and establish credit; Arts Inside, which uses art therapy to prepare inmates for successful reentry after incarceration; and ZEAL, which provides language education for English language learners in nearby Manchester.

“The relationship between the Fund and the University and the parallels with the development of the Office of Civic Engagement would be hard to overstate,” says Bonnie McCardell, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Fund. “Jim’s willingness to approach this work with openness and collaboratively, was a game-changer. Without this partnership, both entities would have been less successful and, I would wager, would have had far less impact.”

“The OCE staff is oriented toward real results. This is not work that you do from nine to five. It’s a calling, but they find that kind of challenge compelling and they embrace it. They are committed to the work because they love the work.”
Jim Peterman

The certificate program combines coursework with practical experiences through internships, and a capstone project in which a student works as a consultant with a community organization on a project that is important to them. Through the certificate, Sewanee is essentially creating a cohort of philosopher kings. “No matter what a student’s major is or career aspirations are, the certificate gives them a framework for thinking about how they want to use their education, and it really models what an educated person should be,” Peterman says. 

Students earning certificates design consultancy projects in partnership with organizations in the neighborhood and around the world. Zach Shunnarah, C’23, just completed a project working with the Community Fund that established some directions the community could take to design an effective public transportation system.

The Dialogue across Difference program, launched through a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, is providing education to students, faculty, and staff on a rhetorical strategy that builds understanding where there are areas of disagreement. Peterman considers this work an imperative for a liberal arts college. “I think we used to be in a place where disagreements were respected and, no matter a person’s point of view, rivals were charitable with each other,” he says. “We seem to have lost the ability to achieve successful compromises. Even at a college like Sewanee, we tend to teach what is wrong with others’ positions.” 

Cassie Meyer and now Lydia Reinig have conducted hundreds of workshops to build dialogue into community life. While their efforts have supported strategic planning and values discussions on a campus-wide basis, they have also worked with individual student groups to build understanding in specific difficult situations.

What’s Next. Or, a Sabbatical is Not a Vacation

As the days on Peterman’s sabbatical start to add up, he is quieter than usual, but he is still busy. “I’m not sure how long discernment will take, but I want to get moving on something,” he says.  “I think lack of access to medical care is a morally disturbing situation, and I want to work on that. The latest situation that concerns me is the homeless encampment in my neighborhood of St. Elmo [in Chattanooga]. It’s not OK that people are homeless, and I think I need to be putting energy into changing that.”

One of his last acts as OCE director was to make a connection with an organization called Clear Impact, which has a training program to teach a tool called Results Based Accountability (RBA). Peterman and seven others from OCE and the Community Fund are gaining certification in RBA, and this cohort will be fanning out in the community in the coming months to work with community partners on “turning the curve” on the obstacles that stand in the way of hope and prosperity in the community.

Peterman rests. But not for long. While he will no longer be involved in the day-to-day operation of the Office of Civic Engagement, he will continue to be connected to the society of community-philosophers and reflective agents of change he has helped to build.