"The Great Accident": How Oxford and UVU Forged Its Long-Term Research Partnership


Partners Since 2015

Utah Valley University, through its Center for Constitutional Studies (CCS), maintains a research and development partnership with Pembroke College, University of Oxford, based in Oxford, England.

In September 2022, Cole visited UVU during its annual Constitution Day commemoration, sponsored by CCS, and he recalled at the conference luncheon the genesis of the collaboration between Oxford and UVU.

"The Great Accident"

“We have to remember that a lot of history is accident,” said Cole, pictured at left, unfolding the story for his audience. “So here is The Great Accident.”

Cole explained that in 2011 Cole he what he called “the biggest risk of my professional career” in wanting to use computers to look at American constitutional law. “It raised an awful lot of eyebrows,” he admitted.

The effort evolved into the Quill Project, where Cole and his team at Oxford began to identify, analyze, organize, digitize, and transcribe documents connected with the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The effort evolved into what is now known as the Quill Project.

Around that same time, the Center for Constitutional Studies had been established at Utah Valley University during President Matthew Holland’s administration. The purpose of the Center was to further constitutional research and understanding by and for UVU students, serve as a resource for K–12 teachers in Utah, and be a nonpartisan source of information to the public on constitutional issues.

With the Quill Project well underway, in the early 2010s a friend of Cole’s visited him at Oxford. The gentleman happened to be an old college chum of Matthew Holland. Since the Center for Constitutional Studies had recently been launched at UVU, “there was a great sense of energy and excitement about what this Center might do,” Cole said.

A working agreement was arranged, and since 2015 UVU students and faculty members have worked with Cole and his team at Oxford to build on the archival work on the federal constitution convention by researching and documenting state-constitution conventions of a handful of individual states in the U.S.

What intrigued Cole about this chance connection with UVU for the Quill Project was UVU’s “ethos of campus jobs and engaged learning, which is pretty unique, actually,” he said.

“UVU has a very flexible and modern sense of what the undergraduate experience should be like,” he continued. “That enabled us to say, ‘Let’s work with students over a long period of time and do genuinely useful work together.’”

Summering at Oxford

That “useful work,” in addition to the Quill Project, includes CCS sending UVU students to a study-abroad experience at Oxford each year since 2020. Attendees take courses entitled Foundations of American Constitutionalism or Civic Thought and Leadership. Students and faculty who attended the Summer 2022 edition of the Oxford–UVU experience recalled their experiences:

Grace Yeager, of Tyler, Texas, a Wood research assistant at the Center for Constitutional Studies, attended the course in American constitutionalism.

“I have an interest in history and government, and the study abroad allowed me to learn about both,” said Yeager. “It expanded my knowledge of American history, was a completely different experience from being in a classroom at UVU, and it will help me be a better teacher in my future profession.”

UVU provost Wayne Vaught, whose academic background is in biomedical ethics and philosophy, was a visiting professor teaching civic discourse, where the class explored issues on reproductive rights and specifically the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, the most-discussed decision from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 docket.

“At Oxford, our UVU students get a perspective and world view that is different from their own,” said Vaught. “A lot is packed into the two weeks there, and they come home with academic and cultural experiences without having to learn a new language, which they can share with their peers back on campus.” 

Also in summer 2022 a duo of Quill Project researchers based at UVU presented at the History and Legacy of the Reconstruction Amendments conference sponsored by the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford. 

The two, Kiana McAllister and Erica Croft, under Cole’s watchful eye had undertaken a research project to capture, digitize, and study the documents surrounding the creation and ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Encore at UVU

McAllister and Croft later reported their findings at Constitution Day 2022, reprising their Oxford debut. Cole introduced them at UVU and prefaced their research on these Reconstruction amendments, which abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection under the law, and extended the right of citizens to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

“Anything good that has been done in the detailed archival work, selection, and transcription of the material, that is the product of the hard work of these two students from UVU,” Cole said in his introduction.

McAllister, of Pleasant Grove, graduated with a degree in Political Science from UVU. She attended the study-abroad program at Oxford and has been a researcher on the Federalism Index Project and is currently working on the Quill Project.

Croft, of Ogden, is also a UVU graduate in Political Science with a minor in Constitutional Studies. She worked on the Quill Project and contributed to the 1895 Utah State Convention Project.

McAllister walked the audience through the process of researching and visualizing the drafting and ratifying of the three amendments. As an example, she showed the first draft of the 15th Amendment and traced it from early versions to the final wording.

“We brought together various sources and put them all in one place,” said McAllister. “There was complexity, and we had to be selective with the material. We engaged with thousands of pages and a lot of difficult content. The blatant racism in them was shocking, but it was also illuminating and helped us to be better people and better historians.”

“This Reconstruction was a success,” Croft added. “It gave us the abolition of slavery, the creation and establishment of the rights of national citizenship, and raised the color bar from the right to vote. Building these amendments was an extraordinary project.”

The Next Chapter

The way ahead for the Oxford–UVU partnership, as Cole sees it, rests on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which demonstrate how this mix of jurists will likely influence significantly the way American rights and liberties are thought about for the next 30 years.

Implied in the thinking of the court’s majority is that “[these justices] want people to pay more attention to the history of the federal and state constitutional texts,” Cole said. “In other words, the work that UVU students have been doing is of legal and political significance.”

Going forward, Cole envisions two strands to actively pursue. “The first,” he said, “is to look at all 50 most recent state constitutional conventions—the ones that have written the currently governing constitutional law of the different states of the Union.”

This idea has spawned the 50 in 10 Project, which involves an orchestrated effort to complete all 50 state-constitution projects in a 10-year period.

“We are seven constitutions of the way there,” said Cole, as Quill Project researchers are working on or have finished documenting the founding documents of Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Idaho, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming—the last four being done by UVU students at the Center for Constitutional Studies.

The second strand, Cole said, is to look at the founding-era constitutional texts. He used a comparison to give context to this labor.

“There is a project that just came to an end at Oxford called the Medieval Latin Dictionary project, and it was started a hundred years ago,” observed Cole. “That is the scale of this task.”

Answering the Call

Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s call for examining state constitutions, Cole explained a prevailing attitude of legal experts is to say, “I have looked and there is no information on how state constitutions were written; therefore, we lawyers must project what we think the founders of different states intended to mean.”

“But there is material,” Cole countered. “It’s sitting in archives, and it’s going to need people to go and find it. This is the necessary work that the students have done here. It’s genuinely worthwhile—not just for them personally, but on a national scale as well.

“For me, the great joy of this project has been the collaboration,” said Cole. “So one of these ‘great accidents’ was that the Center for Constitutional Studies existed at an institution where campus employment and engaged learning were so much a part of the culture. UVU has an outward-looking collaborative attitude, and that enabled us to experiment with a lot of unique opportunities.”

“And the crown jewel of that collaboration will always be UVU,” he concluded. “I’m really glad this cooperation endures; the future looks incredibly bright. We’ve come through our proof-of-concept stage now—to put it in the language of startups—and I think it’s time we scale a bit.”