Severine Stier ‘19 and Dahlia Krutkovich ‘21
In the spring of 1977, Davidson College made national news. As readers skimmed The Washington Post on the morning of April 25th, they came upon what was perhaps their initial encounter with our pious, regional school.The Post detailed neither Davidson’s honor code nor its latest basketball victory, but in an 800-word article entitled “Christian N.C. College Rebuffs Jew,” the paper expounded on the College’s discriminatory hiring practices.
Two months earlier, then-president of the College, Samuel R. Spencer Jr., offered a faculty position to Dr. Ronald Linden, a political scientist who also happened to be Jewish. As the Post article explained, Dr. Linden was a strong candidate for professorship. With a PhD from Princeton and teaching experience at a small liberal arts school, of 130 applicants, Dr. Linden was the only person to receive unanimous approval from the departmental hiring committee. The hiring committee, though, had not considered how Dr. Linden’s religion comported with the policy of “Christian Tenure,” a section in Davidson’s by-laws that directed the president to hire “Christian men and women as members of the faculty, remembering at the same time that the Christian community has always had a place for the reverent seeker who respects the Christian tradition,” and further stipulated that tenured faculty must be able to “conscientiously uphold and seek to increase the College’s effectiveness as a church-related College.” While it was technically possible for Dr. Linden to have joined the faculty under this policy, bureaucratic and cultural reality made it so that no matter how he taught, what he published, or what he contributed to the community he would only be able to receive tenure if he rejected his own religious identity.
Dr. Linden was not aware of Davidson’s Christian Tenure policy until he arrived for his campus visit. Speaking with a group of Davidson students via Skype earlier this month, he explained that even after he first read the College’s By-Laws–alone in his room at the Carnegie Guest House the night before his interview–he couldn’t help but wonder why the College had bothered to bring him in for the final stage of the hiring process. Perhaps, he thought, the policy was a sort of vestigial structure, a testament to the College’s past more so than to its present. During the interview the following day, Dr. Spencer asked Dr. Linden which church he attended. Dr. Linden replied that he was Jewish. According to Dr. Linden, “the temperature in the room dropped 20 degrees.”
Dr. Spencer still offered Dr. Linden the job, but in his letter of offer, expressed hesitancy as to whether Dr. Linden would be willing to teach at a school with a “strong devotion to the Christian tradition.” Six weeks later, Dr. Linden sent a letter to the College accepting the position but cited a strong opposition to the school’s tenure policy, describing religious discrimination as “morally repugnant, socially anachronistic, and scholastically unwise.” He added that during his time at Davidson, he would “strongly support any movement to eliminate such laws and practices [as Christian Tenure].”
After discussing Dr. Linden’s response with College trustee and lawyer Larry Dagenhart, President Spencer rescinded the job offer, claiming that Dr. Linden’s letter of acceptance did not qualify as an agreement to Davidson’s standard terms of employment. Regardless of whether Dr. Linden had legally agreed to the terms or not, as he stated in an interview with The Davidsonian, he felt as though “[his] religion would be an overriding concern” if he were to come to Davidson and he would be unable to advance in his career.
As news of the “Linden Affair” spread, the student body took action to hold the College accountable, organizing a boycott of Spring Convocation, writing letters to alumni and donors, and forcing the administration to form a committee to review criteria surrounding religious tenure. The Linden Affair, as well as the campus’s actions and reactions plastered The Davidsonian from March until May of 1977. with articles reporting on trustee updates that spilled into the following academic year. Faculty, too, pushed to change the Christian tenure requirements. In meetings in March and April of 1977, groups of faculty members, including many from the Department of Religion, proposed removing any religious test for faculty. As Dr. Linden noted during the recent Skype call, “at some point, the story moved on from me. It was now Davidson’s story.” The Linden Affair served as an inflection point, one that forced students to challenge the College and question its commitment to academic and moral integrity.
The administration eventually conceded to student action and behind-the-scenes faculty pressure. In a statement issued in May 1977, the Board of Trustees wrote that, “as an act both of faith and of freedom, [the BoT] hereby declare[s] our intention to remove the religious requirements for tenure from the By-Laws and to instruct the administration and officers of the College in appointing and promoting Faculty members to seek out those best qualified to further the goals of the College as defined in its Statements of Purpose.”
While we must still push Davidson to be a more equitable, empathic version of itself, the College’s move to abolish Christian Tenure, and later, the religious requirement of trustees, has allowed a greater number of people to more fully participate in college life. Looking simply at the history of Jews at the College, Davidson tenured its first Jewish professor, Dr. Ruth Ault, in 1982, five years after the Linden Affair; Davidson’s first Jewish trustee, Carole Weinstein, joined the board in 2011, six years after trustees were no longer mandated to be Presbyterian; and two Jewish alumni, Cintra Pollack ‘99 and Steve Shames ‘96 have joined following her departure. And just last week, Davidson began a search for its first Jewish Studies-specific faculty member, a visiting professor in the Department of History.
As students in the course “The History of Jews and Jewish Identity at Davidson,” we hope to illuminate stories like Dr. Linden’s as well as other untold narratives about Jewish identity at Davidson. This undertaking builds on decades of student work to excavate the stories of marginalized voices, including the recent Revive Project ‘87 movement.
If you would like to hear more about Dr. Linden’s experiences, please join us for a panel discussion on Thursday, March 14 at 4:30 pm in the Lilly Family Gallery in Chambers with Dr. Linden, who will be visiting Davidson for the first time since 1977.