History of Student Activism Against Religiously Exclusive Trustee Provision

Bar graph of Davidson college student's religious affiliations. Less than ten percent of students reported as Presbyterian and over fifteen percent said they are atheist. Approximately twenty percent of students did not report any affiliation.
Infographic by Hope Anderson ’22. Data courtesy College Chaplain’s Office

Andrea Liu ’23 (she/her)

In January 2021, a few days into the spring semester, Davidson College announced that the Board of Trustees had approved revisions to the bylaws that govern eligibility for the College’s presidency and Trustee positions. In a published statement, the College expressed: “The revised bylaws open the office of president to candidates of any faith who will assume responsibility for affirming, upholding and achieving the Statement of Purpose [and] expand the number of seats on the Board of Trustees that do not include a personal religious requirement.” 

This decision, though formalized by the Board of Trustees, would not have been possible without student activists, both current students and alumni. 

Before amending the bylaws, the Board held an open comment period, during which students, faculty, and staff were able to voice their opinions about the bylaws. In the fall, Dahlia Krutkovich ‘21 and Josh Lodish ‘22 worked together with other students on campus to organize the movement amongst current students by sending emails as well as hosting and speaking on panels. 

Krutkovich detailed her motivation for joining the movement: “My self-education with regard to Davidson’s religious history started [when] I was involved in a project [beginning] in my sophomore spring that looked at the history of Jews and Jewishness at Davidson. In the archive project, talking to a lot of our interviewees, and digging into the archives of the College itself, it became clear that our larger story was not just about Jews, but rather about the evolution of the college’s religious history.” 

As a student actively involved in Jewish life at Davidson, Krutkovich felt that “the bylaws demonstrated a commitment [to heritage] on the part of Davidson that didn’t necessarily need to be demonstrated [through] the bylaws and this exclusionary [religious requirement] principle.” 

Lodish is also involved with Jewish life on campus, having served as the co-President of the Jewish Student Union since his freshman year. Lodish was shocked to discover the religious requirement for the President and Board of the College in the bylaws: “I was just kind of almost appalled. I thought Davidson was like a welcoming and inclusive place, but they have these rules that prohibit a great deal of people from achieving any semblance of leadership, power, or responsibility on campus. Not just the President, but it’s also the rules requiring [the Board] to be Christian and a certain percentage Presbyterian.” 

Upon realizing the inherently discriminatory nature of the religious requirement, Lodish took action where he could. While on a committee that discussed campus community and religious life, Lodish pushed for a focus on changing the bylaws and spoke with the President of the Board and two other members to discuss the bylaws. 

When the Trustees sent out an email to Davidson students in October 2020 inviting members of the community to share their views on the bylaws requiring candidates to have a specific religious identity or affiliation, Krutkovich thought, “We need to get current students involved, because there’s no way they’re going to change the bylaws if current students aren’t tapped in.” Lodish and Krutkovich were connected with JD Merrill ‘13, Nick McGuire ‘14, and Hannah Foltz ‘13 through a professor. 

Merril became aware of the religious requirement for the President in 2011 when she served as one of the students on the Presidential Search Committee that resulted in the hiring of current President Carol Quillen. 

Following President Quillen’s hire in 2011, Merrill recalled, “the Board of Trustees began a review of the bylaws that required religious affiliation, [through] community forums [along with] student, parent, and faculty input.” During the open comment period, few students voiced their opposition to the bylaw. Merrill continued: “I remember thinking, ‘this is such an archaic and outdated idea, there’s no way that it will be maintained.’ The Trustee review process concluded that ‘sufficient support’ did not exist for changing that requirement.” 

Merrill and a couple of his friends, McGuire included, disagreed with the Board’s assessment, having spoken to many students about it. Along with McGuire, Merrill started a campaign called Sufficient Support in 2013. Their goal was to demonstrate that community support did in fact exist for changing the bylaw. With a tagline of “Amend the bylaw, affirm our tradition,” Merrill emphasized that he and McGuire believed that “the bylaw stood in contrast to Davidson values of inclusivity. By amending the bylaw, we weren’t changing Davidson: we were affirming who Davidson claims to be, which is an inclusive, welcoming community of people from all backgrounds and religious affiliations.”

From being a student on the Presidential Search Committee, Merrill learned that “so long as the search committee consists of a representative group of Davidson people, the President will always represent Davidson. We should trust our search committee to select the leader who represents [the school and community’s] values. And that person may not always be a Presbyterian, but they will always represent the values that our historical association with the Presbyterian Church led us to.”

Sufficient Support led to a petition expressing opposition to the bylaws being signed by 703 members of the Davidson community. Merrill recalled an SGA and faculty referendum where 83% of students and 87% of faculty voting, respectively, were in favor of changing the bylaw. Merrill and Mcguire also found that in 2011, 89.1% of students did not identify as Presbyterian, which meant that 9 out of 10 students on campus would not be eligible to serve as the president of the college they attended based on their religious beliefs. 

However, Sufficient Support’s efforts came after the open comment period that the Trustees held, and no changes were made. The students involved gained perspective and helped Krutkovich and Lodish host an event discussing the history of activism that engaged with religious life at Davidson last fall, questioning exactly what these bylaws do for students. Krutkovich reflected that ”Ultimately, the argument was [that] we can have a robust religious life at Davidson without it articulated this way in the bylaws.” Lodish and Krutkovich updated Sufficient Support’s website and provided students with an email template in which members of the Davidson community could voice their thoughts about the religious requirement for Board members and the President. 

Students like Lodish and Krutkovich led activism on campus, while Foltz restarted the conversation about the bylaws last summer on social media before launching an alumni letter-writing campaign. 

Krutkovich believed that “it was finally time; there was a lot of institutional support behind changing these bylaws, and people [were] really interested in some sort of institutional change that could tangibly say Davidson had structurally changed.” 

Lodish explained his hope that the bylaw amendment “will make it so that the school is just like a little bit more welcoming” to students of all backgrounds, no matter their religion. He emphasized that “there were a lot of people that participated in this. And a lot of people I don’t even know, because this is a movement that [has] had many iterations throughout history, and so there were a lot of different groups of student activists throughout history, that kind of pushed for this change,” including Sufficient Support. 

Foltz stated, “I was proud of the school and its leadership for their openness to debate this time around. The forums and write-in opportunities gave the community time to make and share an informed opinion on the matter. I think that was reflected in the Board’s ultimate decision to change the bylaws.” 

In acknowledging this step forward, however, Foltz drew attention to the current requirement that at least 25% of Board members be Presbyterian. She explained that while respecting the decision, she hopes it can be revisited in the future, especially because while being religiously exclusionary, Foltz emphasized that “it is also racially exclusionary. The Presbyterian Church’s demographics are what they are: predominantly white (88%). Essentially, by holding 25% of seats for Presbyterians, we are still holding 25% of seats for a group whose demographics do not represent those of the nation, let alone the globe.” 

With that, Foltz still is proud of the Board’s final decision: “I have confidence that in coming years, Davidson will discover ways to maintain Presbyterian values without mandated Board seats.”

Upon hearing the Board’s decision earlier this year, Merrill expressed his pride: “I was really proud of the student leaders who really led the effort this go around. This affirmation of our tradition is just the latest example of an institution that has a complicated and challenging history, striving to get better and become more inclusive. And I really think [it’s] honorable that we are committed to becoming better every time we look in the mirror. And this is just the latest example in that story.”