By Ben Pate ’22, Staff Writer
When touring Davidson College, prospective students often hear a short tidbit about the college’s history: that it is “loosely affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.” However, such a short statement fails to explain the entire story of the Church at Davidson.
The Concord Presbytery founded Davidson in 1837 as a manual labor institute, a college where work serves as a supplement to academic learning. Nearly 200 years later, the college remains affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), one of the two main branches of the Presybyterian church.
Davidson’s bylaws state that “the ownership, management and control of Davidson College are vested in [The Board of] Trustees.” In practice, this means that the trustees have the power to elect the President of the College, as well as approve any action by the President or faculty which “substantially affect[s] the fundamental interests of the College” per Davidson’s Constitution. Essentially, the trustees act as the senate in Davidson’s leadership structure.
Between 30 and 45 members comprise the board. They are elected by the trustees themselves, with the exception of four alumni and five administration members. According to Davidson’s bylaws, “four members are elected by the alumni and five members serve ex officio (the President-elect and President of the National Alumni Association, the Chair and Immediate Past Chair of the Board of Visitors, and the President of the college).”
In the 1960s, the Board required all trustees to identify with the Christian faith. In 2005, the Board voted to open 20 percent of its membership to non-Christian individuals. According to an article published by the Reverend Rob Spach in Religion & Education, “[The decision to open 20 percent of the Board] altered a policy instituted in the 1960s which, in the face of rising secularism and diversity in the United States, had specified that only ‘active members of a Christian church’ could serve as trustees.”
In the wake of their decision, two board members resigned in protest. In the March 24, 2005 edition of The Charlotte Observer, Bill Reeside Jr., a resident of the Town of Davidson, noted that Davidson had “voted to worship diversity ahead of worshipping Jesus Christ,” referencing the college’s decision.
Today, Davidson’s bylaws on board membership remain largely unchanged.
In addition to the religious requirements for trustees, a religious requirement exists for the office of President, stating, “[the Trustees] shall elect only a person who is a loyal and active church member, whose life provides evidence of strong Christian faith and commitment.” The bylaws also require that the President be involved in Davidson College Presbyterian Church (DCPC).
In the wake of Davidson’s 2011 search for their 18th college President, a student group called “Sufficient Support” launched an initiative to remove the Presbyterian affiliation requirement for Davidson’s president. The petition garnered over 700 signatures, and the Board acknowledged the students’ efforts, though ultimately decided not to alter the rule.
A February 10, 2016 Davidsonian article described the response to Sufficient Support as follows: “[Then] 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.’”
Recently, the effects of such policies have come to the forefront of the conversation about Davidson’s future. On June 9th, 2020, Hannah Foltz ‘13 posted a thread on Twitter arguing that the bylaws are inherently discriminatory. In her thread, Foltz cites Pew Research statistics showing that 88 percent of PCUSA members identify as white. Additional Pew data shows that 68 percent of PCUSA’s membership belongs to the Baby Boomer generation or older generations.
Foltz said that, in effect, Davidson’s bylaws “[reduce] opportunity not only for the non-Christian or non-Presbyterian, but also for people who are BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] (and other groups whose membership among Christians/Presbyterians is low).”
Among all Christians nationwide, Pew Research shows that 66 percent are white, 50 percent belong to the Baby Boomer or older cohorts, and 77 percent are third-generation immigrants or higher.
The history of the Reformed tradition, both writ large and at Davidson, is incredibly complex, explained Dr. Doug Ottati, Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice at Davidson.
At Davidson, the Reformed tradition is best understood as “a matter of how some Reformed convictions, [for example], God is the source of all truth, and practices, [for example], an emphasis on education (as the cultivation of gifts) and liberal arts education in particular have both influenced and been developed by the college,” said Dr. Ottati.
Reflecting on the nature of the Reformed tradition at Davidson, Dr. Ottati said that “in many respects, the Reformed tradition at Davidson is both a vibrant legacy and a dynamic, developing forward movement. It is a tradition in the sense that is a developing and continuing trajectory in conviction and action.”
In 2020, as in 2012, the values of the Reformed tradition –– often cited as the college’s reasoning for not abandoning the religious-affiliation bylaws –– play a role in determining if Davidson will make a change.
The Board of Trustees created “The Reformed Tradition Working Group” in October 2016 to examine how the Reformed tradition expresses itself on Davidson’s campus today. The Group’s members included Ann Hayes Browning ’79, Trustee Emerita; the Rev. Lewis Galloway ’73, Trustee; Stephanie Glaser ’92, Associate Vice President for Campus and Community Relations; Dr. John Kuykendall ’59, President Emeritus; Dr. Doug Ottati, Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice; the Rev. Rob Spach ’84, College Chaplain; and Elizabeth Welliver ’16, Chaplain’s Office Fellow.
In their 2017 report on the role of the Reformed tradition at Davidson, the group noted that “until the 1950s, Davidson’s ties to the Presbyterian Church (US) and the Reformed tradition played a defining role… at the College. It set the tone and vision for the curriculum, faculty culture, and the spiritual life of the College community.” Additionally, they found that the tradition continues to underlie the college’s mission and values today.
In an emailed response, Dr. Spach said that “while [these] qualities… are not unique to Davidson, for our college their origins are in the Reformed tradition.” He continued, “The specific combination of qualities reflects how the values and vision of the Reformed tradition may be embodied in an institution of higher education.”
From a theological perspective, Dr. Ottati emphasized the intellectual history and background of the Reformed tradition. Specifically regarding college leadership and its relationship to the Church, Dr. Ottati notes that Reformed tradition “does not have direct requirements for an affiliated educational institution’s leadership to affirm a particular faith,” and, going further, Dr. Ottati says that this tradition also “is not likely to support a requirement that the college president attend a Presbyterian church.”
On the topic of the Reformed tradition guiding Davidson’s mission, Alison Hall Mauzé, Chair of the Board of Trustees, commented via email that “at Davidson, it is the Reformed tradition that has guided our commitment to providing an unsurpassed liberal arts education to students from all backgrounds.”
Regardless of whether or not Davidson changes its policies regarding religious affiliations for the Board and President, Dr. Spach said that Davidson should “encourage among its trustees, faculty, staff, and students an awareness of and appreciation for the insights and wisdom of the particular religious tradition that has shaped and continues to shape the overall ethos, vision, and values of the college.”
While some at Davidson understand the Reformed tradition as central to informing the College’s ethos, others see the need for change.
Prof. Isaac Bailey ‘95, Batten Professor for Communication Studies, framed Davidson’s religious requirements differently. “What kinds of provisions would we have today – if we were able to start from scratch – concerning board membership or presidential requirements or the naming of buildings? Would the religious requirements make the cut? I suspect they wouldn’t, because it would go against the college’s commitment for full inclusivity,” he said.
Professor Bailey added that the idea behind re-evaluating the Board’s religious requirements “isn’t to denigrate traditions that helped make Davidson great. It’s to ensure that tradition won’t prevent us being great in a future that’s still very much evolving.”
Students today continue to weigh in on Davidson’s religious requirements debate. Alexa Green ‘21, Co-President of the Jewish Student Union, feels that Davidson could stay true to its mission while eliminating the requirements.
“I think the school could achieve the same objectives without the same high percentage requirement so students could see their religion reflected in representation on the board,” Green said. “I think that the values Davidson expresses are the basis of many religions, and in Davidson’s case, by charter, it’s the Presbyterian Church.”
Rasikh Hamid ‘22, president of the Muslim Student Association, echoed Green’s interest in religious pluralism. “If I had never been told that Davidson was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, I might be able to go all four years without ever knowing that,” he said.
Hamid emphasized the helpful nature of the Chaplain’s Office in guiding student religious life, adding that “the ethos of Davidson would hold regardless of Davidson being affiliated with the Presbyterian Church […]. That being said, I don’t feel singled out because I’m not Presbyterian.”
Mauzé told The Davidsonian that “The Board has also continually engaged in discussions over how best to express that important relationship in the current context and will continue to engage in those discussions under [her] leadership.”
Looking to the future, Mauzé said that “the Governance and Nominating Committee is currently conducting a review of the bylaws,” though she could not comment on this process because it is still ongoing.