Co-Editors-in-Chief of the Davidsonian Logan Lewis and Kelly Wilson sat down with President Quillen for a discussion of her first year as President of Davidson College:
Q: What do you believe were the College’s greatest accomplishments in your first year?
A: I think I can approach it in a couple of ways. First, I think I can describe for you my approach to doing the job as somebody coming in new, at a time when the College had already engaged in a pretty significant and deliberate strategic process. I think my primary task for the first year was to listen to as many different Davidson constituencies as possible and to try to get a deep sense of the texture of the place, what people value about Davidson, and where we collectively think we’re headed. And in some sense, given that task, I think a collective accomplishment is the progress we’ve made towards creating a real culture of trust and high aspiration that will allow us together to finalize this vision going forward. I think I have a much more refined sense of the questions we need to answer as a community before we can clearly articulate what Davidson will be like in 10 years, but I think we’re well on the way to doing that.
In terms of specific things, we formed a partnership with KIPP charter schools, which I think will be really important going forward. Initially, we invited KIPP to participate in July Experience as a way of introducing kids, who might not think about Davidson otherwise, to the opportunities that we offer here.
We’re also working hard to create a post-graduate fellowship opportunity for students. I think as we move into the future we need to take more responsibility for moving you guys from the liberal arts environment to impact for good in the world. I think that’s going to become increasingly important if we’re to fulfill our primary purpose of educating for leadership and service. So Dean Shandley and others have been working really hard on a program we’re calling the Impact Fellowship Program, where we will partner with nonprofit organizations, both nationally and internationally, to give students the opportunity to work for a year in that capacity in a leadership role. I think that seemed to be an idea that was emerging, again collectively, among the Davidson community and has a lot of support among students and faculty and parents and alumni, and that’s been very rewarding to think about implementing that next year.
I think we’ve made a commitment to the faculty to support their work and to acknowledge their crucial role here at Davidson in ways that matter to that group. And as a faculty member myself, I have deep respect for how hard they work and how much they care about Davidson and for the ways in which they share their love of learning with students every day. Davidson is really a place where the quest for knowledge structures the curriculum, and that’s really unusual. So we’re lucky to have those faculty members here and trying to find ways where we can get the resources to them that they need to do their best work is really important to me.
Q: What have you learned about Davidson this year that you didn’t know before coming here? What was surprising?
A: I don’t know that there were any big surprises. There are striking things about Davidson’s culture that you can’t really recognize until you’re here. The best way that I can describe that is Davidson is a place that places no premium on pretense, and that is not typical within the Academy. It’s probably not typical anywhere. I feel like Davidson is a place where people really strive to be genuine. There’s this real commitment to living a life that’s consistent with your most deeply held values, and that’s true even though people are really different and they value really different things. I guess if we can find a way to build on that commitment by creating more of a context where people who do disagree are able to talk about those disagreements openly, then we will be a strong community that really does sort of enact the educational, intellectual opportunities that diversity makes possible.
Q: You’re on the verge of completing your first year as a college president and as a parent of a college student. Thinking about those two aspects of your life, which was more challenging/rewarding?
A: Well, they’re both huge jobs. I mean, my daughter Caitlin is a first-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and that was a process that she knew what she wanted in a school and she found it there and she’s now really, really happy. I think it’s great—we’re in a different situation now than when I went to college. I mean, when I went to college we all talked to our parents maybe once every one or two weeks for five minutes on the phone in the hall. And so the ability to stay in touch with my daughter is really important to me and I think that has made that transition much easier. She’s a very independent kid and she loves Chapel Hill. She loves coming back to Davidson, where she has a number of friends, and so I think she’s really happy that this is her new home. I view that as primarily her challenge and her opportunity, the college quest.
In terms of the challenge of being a college president, it’s a very public job, and I’m a person who thinks out loud and who’s not particularly formal or guarded. So I think learning how to be a public person in a small town has been both enlightening—I’ve learned a lot about myself—but also a little bit hard, and I still am learning that a little bit. I need to remind people before I speak that I think out loud. Just because I say something doesn’t mean that I’ve decided it and that I’m often testing ideas out and that I’m often wrong—creating a context where my words are less loaded and where I’m generally comfortable being a public person.
Q: What should underclassmen look forward to next year?
A: We’ve had a number of conversations on campus this year about student culture and the ways in which there’s this collective desire to shape it. I think students who feel very differently about what kind of culture they want all kind of seem to agree that they’re not sure what to do to create the culture they wish to live in. I think there’s a big commitment on the part of the student body to work through some of those issues, and I think out of that process all kinds of good ideas come.
For example, there’s a real push for alternative social spaces. We really are looking at creating a pub or a bar or coffeehouse on campus—places where the line between working and socializing is a little blurrier than it is now in the spaces we have. I think students are looking for ways to join forces and make a big difference on some community. Just thinking about those kinds of things, I think that’s one thing the student body has talked to me a lot about.
We’re continuing to work on expanding our curricular offerings, which students also seek. We want our curriculum to reflect the way knowledge gets produced now and the new fields that are emerging all the time, and so we’re looking for ways to do that. We are working hard to create a campus that reflects our educational aspirations. I think students like the Magdalena Abakanowicz, which actually embeds art into the environment in a very powerful way. I look forward to working with other arts faculty to find more ways of doing that.
I also hope that everybody feels like they can always contact me and talk to me about pretty much whatever they wish. I learn a lot from students, and I can’t learn unless they talk to me. So I’ve been asking all the seniors, ‘What advice do you have for me and what should I know that no one else but you will tell me?’ You know, what do I need to know that people aren’t going to tell me unless you guys do, and so I learn a lot that way.