By Dahlia Krutkovich ‘21 (she/her)
When I received the October 9th email that announced the Board of Trustees were once again reconsidering the religious requirements that govern the highest levels of leadership at the college, I remembered this passage from the Reformed Tradition Working Group’s report, which examined Davidson’s relationship to the Presbyterian Church:
Another challenge grows out of our broader cultural climate. Because the loudest Christian voices in our society are often exclusionary and even hostile toward other religious traditions and non-religious worldviews, Davidson’s faith heritage is easily misunderstood, especially when coupled with Davidson’s geographic location. Some prospective students and their families cross Davidson off of their list because they assume the College will be close-minded and religiously discriminatory. In light of the broader climate, how can the College publicly affirm that its inclusive, humane, social-justice oriented vision is rooted in its Presbyterian heritage and identity?
It’s a good question for a school like Davidson, which has been tied to the Presbyterian Church since the school’s founding. It is especially pertinent when reading the bylaws currently under scrutiny, which state: “the Governance and Nominating Committee shall insure that at least 80% of all elected Trustees are active members of a Christian church” and “[The trustees shall elect to the Presidency] only a person who is a loyal and active church member, whose life provides evidence of strong Christian faith and commitment. Such faith and commitment will be appropriately expressed by affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and active participation in the life of Davidson College Presbyterian Church.”
How do you communicate that you are an inclusive, humane, and socially conscious institution when, in fact, you actively and almost exclusively seek leadership from an increasingly narrow pool of people? Nearly 90 percent of Presbyterians affiliated with PCUSA are white, nine percent are immigrants, and two-thirds are over the age of 50. Both our country’s and school’s populations are far more diverse. As Josh Lodish pointed out in his recent op-ed, under the current bylaws, a majority of the student body is not eligible for the presidency, and the Board will never truly reflect the composition of the school.
This is not the first time the school’s religious bylaws have run up against questions of “inclusion.” As I’ve written before, Davidson has a long history of holding onto religious requirements long after students and faculty have demanded they be retired. A quick dip into the archives reminds us that on-campus Vespers were mandatory for all students until 1966, and all faculty were once required to take an oath of faith to the Church. The Christian Oath was abolished in 1964—after ten years of debate and protest—only to be superseded by the policy of Christian Tenure, which required the college only hire professors of Christian faith or “reverent seekers.” Christian Tenure was repealed in 1978, amidst national outcry.
You would think that most, if not all, of our religious bylaws would have been amended with the rising tide of multiculturalism during the 1960s and ‘70s. Yet, the Board of Trustees has been more resistant to amending bylaws that affect its own composition, only permitting non-Christians as of 2005. Following that decision, some then-members resigned in protest.
There is nothing wrong with Davidson seeking to maintain its ties to PCUSA. Perhaps the greatest “victim” (he would push back on this label) of one of our discriminatory quotas, Dr. Ron Linden, himself does not see anything wrong with Davidson maintaining a sense of self through its Presbyterian roots. In an interview with the Jewish History Project at Davidson in March 2018, he reflected on the political crisis that his almost-hiring catalyzed, saying, “Davidson is not alone in having a central vision that informs what it does with students. Duquesne, Notre Dame, [Boston College], they all include that, and I think that’s fine. People should have some notion of values. Now, the problem is when it steps over the line into exclusivity.”
Indeed, nobody told Dr. Linden before he visited Davidson for a final interview in the spring of 1977 that the school’s bylaws prohibited his hiring. Theoretically, he is right—there is nothing wrong with Davidson having a guiding vision, especially one that emphasizes the equal value of all human life and an ethical culture among its students. In fact, both he and I would argue the college is better off for it. But who would believe that the presidential requirement or Board of Trustees quota help the school embody a humane vision oriented towards social justice?
Anecdotally, I would estimate that less than half of the students currently at the school were aware of the strength of the college’s affiliation with PCUSA before arriving at Davidson—and fewer still knew about the Presidential or Board requirements. Many current students didn’t know about them either, until two weeks ago.
If Davidson truly believes these bylaws work to expand its practice of pluralism, why isn’t the presidential requirement printed on admissions literature? Why isn’t the Board quota featured prominently on our new website? Upon skimming Notre Dame’s website, I easily found a single sentence to describe their religious identity: “Notre Dame’s Catholic character informs all it does.” From looking at Davidson’s bylaws, its statement of purpose, and the report mentioned above, Davidson’s Presbyterian identity still informs much of what it does. And again, there is nothing wrong with this. What I do take issue with, however, is the school’s failure to broadcast the extent and exacting nature of its identity, as most clearly expressed in the bylaws. Shouldn’t prospective students have a sense of exactly what Davidson is before applying?
Regardless of the intent with which our religious bylaws were conceived, they have resulted in clear instances of discrimination and exclusion. We should look upon them generously, as evidence of the college’s history and ties to its founding tradition, but we must understand exactly how they continue to operate today. I’m sure that there are plenty of silent Ron Lindens, people who sought employment or haven at the college but were pushed out by virtue of who they were.
I write so strongly against these bylaws in part because I know that my experience at Davidson, as a member of a non-Christian religious minority, is actually at odds with the vision they put forward. Davidson has afforded me opportunities to explore my faith, work with other religious groups, and join in communal dialogue in ways I am sure would not have been possible at other schools. I can draw a direct link between those opportunities and Davidson’s genuine care for religious pluralism and inclusion. I believe that these commitments are clear manifestations of Davidson’s heritage. But the bylaws that stipulate my exclusion from the presidency imply that I have no appreciation for or sense of the inclusiveness, humility, and generosity of spirit the Presbyterian tradition inspires. If the only people who can truly appreciate Davidson’s Presbyterian identity are themselves Presbyterian, then why should anyone else bother to apply?
I could accept the presidential requirement and Board quota as symbolic, as some of their defenders assert, if only they didn’t have such a profound, silent impact on life here. Our leadership is inherently limited not only in who is eligible for this job but who would even be willing to be part of an institution that articulates its inclusivity through a principle of exclusion.I am not the first person to make any of these arguments. Many of the changes the Board of Trustees has made to the requirements of students, faculty, administration, and even itself, came from student organizing and agitation—the Sufficient Support campaign of 2013 being the most recent example. The Board’s invitation for us to write in and express our thoughts on the bylaws is a historic opportunity to shape the school for the better, and the undated forums they’ve announced are just as, if not more important, for us to attend. I cannot encourage you more to participate in the conversation.
Dahlia Krutkovich ’21 (she/her) is a Global Literary Theory major from New York, NY. She can be reached for contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.