Charlotte Spears ’24 (she/her)
Over the summer, Davidson College President Carol Quillen announced that this academic year would be her last as president of the college. As the process to find a replacement begins, the search committees could make a historic decision. For the first time in the school’s 184 year history, Davidson’s next president will not be required to be a member of the Christian faith.
In January 2020, the college bylaws were updated to no longer require that 75 percent of the board of trustees or the president be Christian. The change was met by mixed reviews. On May 18th an email was sent to thousands of Davidson alumni denouncing the updated bylaws and the process by which the school approved the decision.
The email, co-signed by 11 alums of classes from 1957 to 1985, expressed concern that the school’s “Christian foundation… has clearly been fundamentally altered” and found it “difficult to envision… how the religious component of the Statement of Purpose will be adhered to in the future if the President and potentially up to 75% of the Board were to have no personal Christian affiliation.” The email also addressed how the group of alumni “feel that Davidson has gone in a direction that veers away from the College’s traditional academic focus and wanders into the realm of political and social activism. The fundamental goals of the College appear to be sublimated to other goals, namely the orthodoxy of political correctness.”
Alumni, professors and students immediately reacted to the wide-spread email on social media.
Rev. Katey Zeh ‘05 started a petition asking the college administration to hold the senders of the email “accountable” for their attempt to “hijack the college’s processes, evolution, and progress.” Zeh demanded that the alumni be legally investigated to identify how they obtained the thousands of alumni emails.
“I was pretty furious when I got the email,” Zeh said. “Given that their posture was a Christian supremacist stance, and as someone who’s an ordained Baptist minister, I find that highly offensive to weaponize Christianity in that way.”
Zeh believed that the email was “nefarious” and violated the honor code that Davidson students sign as members of the community.
“I’m someone who supports Constitutional rights and religious freedom,” Zeh said. “Religious freedom is freedom from religion and it’s freedom of religion. But for me, a deeper part of that is understanding the richness of religious pluralism and how being in relationship with people who identify differently across all kinds of parts of our lives actually elucidates my own sacred truth to be in conversation and dialogue with people who hold different religious viewpoints.”
Zeh hopes that the alumni reaction to the bylaw changes can be a learning opportunity for the community.
“What does it mean to be an alumni?” Zeh asked. “Not just to give money or go to events or talk about the school, but to really keep within our values beyond our time at Davidson, and to use our responsibilities and our platforms well and to hold one another accountable beyond the classroom. I really think that that’s what this is about.”
Kenny Xu ‘19 called Zeh’s petition to hold the senders of the email against the bylaw changes accountable a “terrible idea” and started a counter petition.
“Those people literally have names on Davidson’s facilities.” Xu said. One of the signatories on the email, Stephen B. Smith, has the field at Richardson Stadium named after him. “They literally funded thousands of people’s education, and have a record of public service in their country that is unparalleled.”
Xu believed the contents of the email criticizing the by-law changes were valid.
“We should respect the way that Davidson was founded.” Xu said. “The way that the people who decided to create an institution like Davidson did so for a specific reason. Now, many people, [of] different faiths have chosen to come here. And I think that is amazing. That is wonderful. But that is something but you still should always look back at. An institution is more than just the present members that are here currently. It also goes back to its own history and its own founding. And we always need to pay careful respect to that.”
Dr. Rose Stremlau, associate professor of history, disagrees with the idea that the college needs to maintain a strict adherence to the values at the time of the college’s inception. Since 1837, Davidson College has amended and changed its bylaws many times to allow for a more inclusive and diverse community. In 1962, the school integrated, and in 1972, the school made the choice to co-educate.
“We can’t forget that many of the folks who signed that letter never had a female professor or had a professor who wasn’t white, they never had a professor who wasn’t Protestant.” Stremlau said. “And so, I read that letter and my eyebrow went up.”
Stremlau equated the bylaw changes to developments in the way history has been taught at the college. According to Stremlau, “All but one of the Davidson College alumni who wrote the email… attended while Prof. Chalmers Gaston Davidson was faculty in the History Department. In classes, he taught a version of American history that didn’t reflect current understandings in the field by the time he retired.”
Stremlau made the point that her classes, today, contain a “far wider range of perspectives, readings, & viewpoints than any he taught.” Therefore, she challenges the email justification of condemning the “veer[ing] away from the college’s “traditional academic focus.”
In regards to the recent developments made by the college, Stremlau said “Davidson is better for it… Our students are better for it, and they will make a better world because of it.”
“There are really, really, really amazing people who aren’t Presbyterians who would do an amazing job [as President],” Stremlau said in reference to the search for the next president. “If a person embodies everything Davidson is about, why wouldn’t we want to interview them, why wouldn’t we want them to be part of the pool from which we pick?”
Dr. Chris Hawk ‘67 believes the authors of the email “have devoted a lot of their time and talents to support Davidson over the years and they share legitimate concerns about the direction the college is headed.”
“For 10 years in a row we lead the country in terms of percentage of alumni who had made a contribution to the college, and we’re talking about some of the most generous donors to the college who wrote this email, and for them to be concerned enough to write the email will probably play out in other ways and I think it’s just really unfortunate,” Hawk said.
Hawk believed the process was rushed, “vague” and not a “good way to operate.”
Although the email critiqued the process through which the laws were changed, President Carol Quillen stood by the board’s decisions.
“I think the process that the board designed was a good one,” Quillen said. “The adaptive process, the open conversation to the public, [the board] received over 5,000 responses to a survey that held webinars. I think the process the board designed was a sound one, and the board responded to suggestions from others about how the process should be run.”
Quillen also responded to the critique that the process was rushed.
“I would say the [bylaw changes] has been a topic of conversation for as long as I have been at Davidson and decades before that,” Quillen said. “So the topic is not new. The discussion of these bylaw requirements is not new.”
Ten years before the adapted 2021 bylaws, J.D. Merrill ‘13 and Nick McGuire ‘14 launched a campaign to prove that there was sufficient support to change the requirement that the college president had to be a member of the Christian faith.
Merrill and McGuire started a petition that was signed by 703 members of the college, a student referendum that showed 83 percent of students were in favor of the change and a faculty referendum where 87 percent of faculty were in favor of the change. Merrill also noted that 89 percent of students did not identify as Presbyterian, therefore nine out of ten students wouldn’t have been eligible to be president.
McGuire noted that the values the college admires are not exclusive to Christianity.
“I know plenty of Presbyterians who do not live up to those values,” McGuire said. “I know plenty of non-Presbyterians who do live up to those values.”
Merrill believed the old bylaws stood counter to the college’s tradition for inclusivity and honesty.
“We don’t need this jurisdiction in place, because we are Davidson people and we will always have a search committee that represents Davidson, and that body will always put forward a candidate for the presidency that represents who we are and what we stand for,” Merrill said. “Our values are derived from and intertwined with the values of the Presbyterian Church, but not exclusively.
Merrill believes that this bylaw change is “the most recent example of how affirming these values can lead [the college] to evolve to become a better and more just institution.”
“Just like the values that led us to integrate in the 1960s, they led us to co-educate in the 1970s, and have now led us to allow a person of any religious background or none at all, to be our president,” Merrill said. “This is an affirmation of who we are. We continue to look in the mirror, and every time we face a critical question, we become a more just and inclusive institution. And that is something that truly should be celebrated.”