The Blackburn Institute is named in honor of Dr. John L. Blackburn. A nationally renowned leader in higher education, Dr. Blackburn served as dean of students at The University of Alabama and was instrumental in the University’s peaceful integration. In 1994, The University of Alabama’s Division of Student Affairs formed the Institute to foster Dr. Blackburn’s belief that people link strategic actions through the generations for progressive and ethical change.
The origins of the Blackburn Institute begin with a 1993 phone call from UA Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Kathleen Cramer to Dr. John L. Blackburn. In an inquiry concerning how the University could pay appropriate tribute to Dr. Blackburn’s years of distinguished service at The University of Alabama, Dr. Blackburn asserted that he was not comfortable with having a room in the student center named in his honor or erecting a reminder to the institution’s integration years in the early 1960s. After thinking on the issue for several days, Dr. Blackburn phoned Dr. Cramer and asserted that he wanted to see the University create an organization that would cultivate the future ethical leaders for Alabama and the nation. Dr. Blackburn’s belief that people link strategic actions though the generations for progressive and ethical change established the vision for the Blackburn Institute. Officially formed in 1995 by The University of Alabama’s Division of Student Affairs, the Blackburn Institute has established itself as one of most unique and dynamic leadership development organizations at any institution of higher education in the country. In 2012, there were 475 Blackburn fellows living in 34 states and eight foreign countries attempting to live by the ideals of the Institute on a daily basis. Highlights from the Institute’s history are listed below and demonstrate how the Institute has grown and flourished thanks to the support of an active advisory board and the work of a remarkable group of student fellows.
Research provided by Kimberly Goins (2004-2005 fellow), Brittney Ingalls (2004-2005 fellow), and Ava Leone (2003-2004 fellow)
In 1995, the Institute’s first event, the inaugural winter symposium, was held during February at Twin Pines with a group of UA student leaders selected by the administration. The major voices at the symposium were Jim Rogers, Johnny Johns, Cleo Thomas, and Bill Blount. Topics of discussion at the first event were Global Economic Issues and their impact on Alabama; Government and Public Service: Contemporary Politics; Servant Leadership and Responsible Citizenship; An Interactive Look at the Future: Strategies for Campus and the State, and Future Blackburn Institutes.
In 1996, the symposium was held once more in Twin Pines. This year, the symposium had the specific theme of Who Matters the Most in Alabama’s Politics. . Also in 1996, Mr. D. Ray Pate made a major contribution of $50,000 to the Institute to begin the process of building an endowment to insure the sustainability of Institute programming. In 1997, for the third consecutive year, the symposium was held at Twin Pines and this year’s topic was NATO and the view from Eastern Europe. 1997, also saw the formation of the Frank A. Nix Lecture on ethical leadership with endowed funds over $50,000 being raised from advisory board members.
In 1998, the winter symposium was held at Guntersville State Park, and Larry Lankford served as the first Frank A. Nix Lecturer. The symposium’s theme was How Decisions are made in the State of Alabama.
In 1999, a symposium dedicated to constitutional reform took place in Tuscaloosa and the Frank A. Nix Lecturer was Mr. Bill Baxley. The Institute became more active in issues affecting the state of Alabama by taking part in a Tuscaloosa rally for Constitutional Reform.
In 2000, the symposium was held in Montgomery and was coordinated by Blackburn fellow Josh Hayes. The Institute held a new member lunch at the University Club. Student fellows attended a Legislative Agenda breakfast for the first time. The Frank Nix Lecturer was Lowell Barron, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
By 2001, Institute activities began to expand with additional donations from advisory board members permitting new programs. The symposium returned to Twin Pines and student fellows attended the Legislative Agenda breakfast as well as the fall D. Ray Pate dinner. But new and exciting events were added to the curriculum. Student fellows met with the Governor for lunch in Montgomery and students traveled to Selma, Alabama as part of the first Burt Jones Travel Experience.
In 2002, Mr. Jim Wilson began funding the Winter Symposium at the Wynfrey Hotel and the Frank Nix Lecturer was Mr. Mike Slive, SEC Commissioner. The Tom and Carol Patterson Foundation funded the Burt Jones Travel Experiences, so students could travel to rural and urban area of Alabama to meet with community leaders. Throughout 2002, student fellows participated in numerous opportunities to learn more about Alabama. Fellows went on travel experiences to Marion, Birmingham, and Montgomery where they were present for the inauguration of Gov. Bob Riley. In addition, fellows voiced their concerns at a state-wide Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform conference in Birmingham and an ACCR meeting in Mobile. The Institute moved student selections to spring, allowing for a spring term New Member Reception on campus. Following the fall D. Ray Pate Dinner, students began having monthly discourses in the homes of faculty members. Dr. Norm and Mrs. Karen Baldwin hosted the first fall discourse for student fellows. Students began having special on-campus lunches with state leaders like Mr. David Ellwanger.
By 2003, the Student Fellows were experiencing a full year of travel and meetings with community and state leaders. In addition to the spring reception, fall discourse dinners were held in the home of University faculty members, special lunches occurred with Burt Jones and Donald Stewart, fellows attended ACCR Conferences, and the Winter Symposium was held in Birmingham with Representative Artur Davis serving as the as Frank A. Nix Lecturer. Student fellows also began hosting deliberative discussions for all students on campus; topics included Gambling – Is It Right for Alabama and another one on Racial and Ethnic Tensions. Fellows traveled to Sumter County, Mobile, and Montgomery to meet with David Bronner and Lucy Baxley. The Institute hosted a lively discussion with two Cuban scholars during the Cuban Scholars Week on campus.
In 2004, student fellows attended the D. Ray Pate Dinner which was held at Botanical Gardens in Birmingham. New fellows participated in Fall Discourses in the home of Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Margaret King, while second year fellows were invited to the home of President Robert E. Witt. Student Fellows traveled to Demopolis and Huntsville for the Burt Jones Travel Experiences. In addition to advisory board members, alumni Blackburn Fellows for the first time ever joined current students on each trip. Fellows also attended rallies and conferences, conducted deliberative discussions about Money & Politics, and hosted a campus-wide conference with the Southern Growth Policies Board on Rural Community Development.
In 2005, the Institute was able to expand the scope of the Frank A. Nix Lecture thanks to continued donations from the advisory board. The 2005 Nix Lecture brought Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to campus for a public lecture. Focusing on the theme of Entrepreneurs and Creative Partnerships for Progressive Solutions, fellows traveled to Greensboro, the Shoals area of Alabama, and Montgomery to meet with state leaders.
In 2006, the Institute was able to bring former NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe and 2004 presidential candidate General Wesley K. Clark (Ret.) to campus for the Frank A. Nix Lecture on ethical leadership. This year’s theme focused on Embracing Change and Fostering Collaborative Community with discourse dinners, leadership lunches, and travel experiences permitting students to learn about the basics of change so they could become the change agents envisioned by Dr. Blackburn. Burt Jones Travel Experiences took student fellows, alumni fellows, and advisory board members to Huntsville and Alexander City. For the first time, fellows were invited to participate in the training orientation for all of Alabama’s legislators. The first new member retreat was also held this year.
2007 saw the creation of the Gloria and John L. Blackburn Academic Symposium thanks to the generosity of Donald and LuLu Stewart. The 2007-2009 D. Ray Pate Dinners were held at Vulcan Park in Birmingham. Burt Jones Travel Experiences took the Institute to Anniston, Moundville, and Wilcox County. Students also had the opportunity to travel to Montgomery as part of the Protective Life Government Experience. The 2008 Nix lecturer was President F. W. de Klerk, the last State President of apartheid-era South Africa, and a man credited with bringing that terrible chapter to a close.
The Healthcare Challenge in Alabama and Beyond was the focus of the 2010 Symposium held at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham. The annual D. Ray Pate Dinner was held at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Students and fellows attended Travel Experiences that took them from Greensboro to Madison to Oneonta and Blount County where they learned about everything from aquaculture to the significance of the BRAC to north Alabama.
After a year at Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort, Symposium moved to the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel in 2012 and featured keynote speaker Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, M. D. Students and fellows were invited on Travel Experiences to Birmingham where they met with financial leaders, Fayette where they learned about rural life and governance, and the Shoals region where they toured FAME Recording Studios, Alabama Chanin, and the University of North Alabama. The D. Ray Pate Dinner was held for the second time at B&A Warehouse in revitalized downtown Birmingham.
In 2015, students traveled to the Wiregrass region of the state for the Burt Jones Rural Community Experience, visiting communities to learn about topics including education and rural healthcare. Civic leaders hosted the group in Troy, Dothan, Enterprise, and Elba, just to name a few locations. The year also featured Alabamian and equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter as the keynote speaker for the Annual Symposium.
2017 kicked off with record attendance at the Annual Symposium featuring Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. Travel experiences to Montgomery and east central Alabama (Lincoln, Talladega, Hobson City, and Anniston) brought students, Fellows, and Advisory Board members together for several days of meals, sessions with local leaders, and intergenerational networking.
2019 marks a historic milestone for the Blackburn Institute. Charged by the Advisory Board in 2015 to grow the size of the student class, the 2019 cohort boasts 50 students joining a complement of 48 returning students. The year also caps off a 2-year fundraising initiative, the Blackburn Legacy Endowment Campaign, to double the endowed resources of the Institute to $2.1M. We are thrilled to be celebrating 25 years of turning Dr. John L. Blackburn’s dream of developing ethical leaders into reality, and we are excited for the future of this unique leadership development and civic engagement organization.