In the wake of Davidson’s 2011 presidential search, the Davidson community asked the Board of Trustees to reexamine Article IV Section I of Davidson’s bylaws, which requires all presidents of the college be “a person who is a loyal and active church member…expressed by affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and [have] active participation in … Davidson College Presbyterian Church.” Many felt that the bylaw was outdated and set conditions that undermined Davidson’s commitment to diversity.
In response to these requests, the board created The Trustee Committee on Church-Relatedness asking them to examine the context of the College’s relationship to the Presbyterian Church and the meaning that Davidson draws from that relationship. The committee held a series of conversations in January 2012, which ultimately resulted in a reaffirmation of Davidson’s commitment to the Presbyterian tradition and the conclusion that there was not “sufficient support” for any change in Article IV.
Upon receiving the announcement, many on campus voiced dissatisfaction with the committee’s decision. A student-led group calling themselves “Sufficient Support” created a digital petition that garnered 705 signatures in favor of removing the requirement that all college presidents be Presbyterian. As J.D. Merrill ‘13, one of the leaders of the movement put it, the campaign wanted to “align our bylaws to reflect the worth, potential and capacity for outstanding leadership in all members of our community.” The alumni response to the announcement echoed Merrill’s: “The Board of the Alumni Association believes that every alumnus/a of Davidson College and every other candidate should be eligible to be considered for the position of president of the college without regard to religious affiliation.” In April 2013, the faculty of Davidson passed a resolution that spoke to something similar: “The faculty of Davidson College expresses its disappointment with the Board of Trustees’ decision to continue to exclude people from full participation in the life of the college because of religious affiliation.”
Yet, even amid protests, the board remained firm in their position, stating that their decision not to alter the bylaw was informed by “a rigorous, thorough and thoughtful process, one that engaged a wide range of the Davidson family.”
In written response to both the faculty’s resolution and the statement from the Board of Alumni, former chair of the Board, Mackey McDonald ’68, wrote, “The Board of Trustees welcomes feedback from the Davidson community and appreciates the thoughtful and respectful process that both the faculty and the Alumni Association Board followed to create them.” In a later interview, McDonald said, “Values can come from many places. For Davidson, they came from our founders, who were in the Presbyterian Church, and we want to make sure we don’t do anything to change those values.”
While McDonald didn’t do much to define these values, in an interview I conducted with the current chair of the board, John Chidsey ‘83, on the matter, he explained to me that “the Reformed Tradition of the Presbyterian Church is a huge part of how Davidson is what it is today.” The Reformed Tradition is one–more so than many other Christian traditions– that embraces pluralism and the free pursuit of truth even if it conflicts with the teachings of the church. Chidsey also said that “you look a lot at what is going on on college campuses today and you see that it’s almost like you have thought police and speech police. And it’s not really a great place to try to convince people of your view.” In keeping Presbyterianism in Article IV, the board believes that it is continuing a unique religious tradition that makes room for the type of diverse discussions that Davidson hopes to foster. Indeed, as the Rev. Rob Spach ‘84, College Chaplain, explained to me, the Reformed Tradition is one that values pluralism and an ethos of acceptance. He told me that the Reformed Tradition fosters the values what Davidson cherishes most, mainly, academic excellence, unfettered intellectual inquiry, and a cherished honor code that creates a community of integrity and trust.
In an email exchange I had with Merrill, he explained to me that the Sufficient Support campaign was not, as the board suggested, about changing the ethos of Davidson. “Removing the religious requirement [in Article IV] does not mean we will never have another Presbyterian president or that we will lose our values. To the contrary, as long as the [presidential] selection committee represents [Davidson’s increasingly diverse] community, the President they select will represent the values of the school, values which are indelibly intertwined with the values of the Presbyterian Church, but not exclusively so,” he said. Merrill’s point here is that Presbyterian values at Davidson are dyed-in-the-wool, and any Davidson alum can uphold the institution’s values even if they are Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, etc. Merrill also noted that were Article IV Sect. I removed, “the pool of applicants would be more diverse in the next Presidential selection process, [sic] and not just in terms of faith.”
Merrill’s last assertion speaks to something more problematic than merely the exclusion of non-Presbyterians. It speaks to a demographic reality in Presbyterianism that isn’t often acknowledged. It speaks to the fact that every president at Davidson has been white.
In a 2014 study on global diversity conducted by the PEW Foundation, researchers ranked the racial/ethnic diversity of the most prominent Christian denominations in the United States using the Herfindahl-Hirschman index to score each denomination from 0 (least diverse) to 10 (most diverse). Among many findings, the statistics revealed that the demographics of most Christian denominations don’t accurately reflect the racial/ethnic diversity seen in the United States. Further, the analysis ranked the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PC(USA)), the tradition to which Davidson College belongs, as rather low on the index– at 2.8.
The reasons behind PC(USA)’s whiteness are complex but are unquestionably a function of a history of racial exclusion within the church. Davidson College Presbyterian Church and the Synods in the South sided with southern slaveholders during the Civil War, reorganizing themselves as Presbyterian Church of the Confederates States of America in 1861. And it was only in 1983 that the southern faction, now called Presbyterian Church in the United States, reunited with the northern United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America to form the PC(USA). What comes out of this history is a Presbyterian Church that is mostly white.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of the racial breakdown of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United States.
I provide this brief, incomplete history mainly to argue that by requiring all presidents to be Presbyterian and to affiliate with DCPC, Davidson becomes subject to the PC(USA)’s white legacy, which narrows the potential diversity of its applicant pool. Even while the PC(USA) today believes it is an institution that values inclusiveness and diversity, the church’s history and PEW’s demographic data tell a different story. And, unless Davidson takes corrective measures to account for the relative lack of diversity within the Presbyterian Church (it currently doesn’t), any future search for president of Davidson College will inherently favor white people.
Davidson has yet to formally acknowledge this bias or to take corrective action against it. The presidential election process begins with a presidential search committee that hires a headhunting firm (most recently Presidio Executive Search) to select a pool of candidates eligible and qualified for the presidency as constituted by both Article IV and a prospectus produced by the board. The committee then parses through the available candidates, interviews the most promising, and recommends their favorite candidate to the board. In most every case, the board has voted in favor of the committee’s suggestion. I’ve spent some time reading through archived emails, presidential-search committee documents, the prospectuses of the past, and correspondences between the board and Presidio; and, a commitment to diversity is rarely — or never — mentioned. This may be because of the roughly 47 board members today, I could find only two that didn’t identify as white. I contacted Presidio Executive Search to inquire on their commitment to diversity. They did not respond.
The administration did note, however, that the bylaw allows for more diversity than most think. Because “affiliation” and “active participation,” have no true legal definition, some argued that it can therefore be wielded in a way that allows more than just white Presbyterians to be eligible for president. Yet, up to this point, the board has interpreted “affiliation” and “active member” to mean someone who is Presbyterian (or, in the very least, Christian and willing to convert), and I can only assume that the board will continue to interpret as such. Were the board actually wielding “affiliation” in a way that encompassed a group of people beyond just Presbyterians, Article IV Section I would lose its value and should, therefore, be amended.
Davidson’s Presbyterian values have an important role in creating an ethos of unfettered pursuit for knowledge, but the way that Davidson currently tries to instill the Presbyterian tradition through Article IV Section I paradoxically sets conditions that undermine the school’s capacity to embody the values of the Reformed tradition.
Davidson has made great strides over the past few decades to create a diverse culture of inclusion, but there is still work to be done. Creating a more inclusive Presbyterian-values-oriented campus takes both time and consistent participation from all levels of Davidson— especially the board.
John-Michael Murphy `16 is an Environmental Humanities major from New Orleans, Louisiana. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org