Is This the Face of Davidson?


By Issac J. Bailey ’95

Yes and no. The face of this college has been changing for decades, sparking a conversation about traditions, values, and identity that is challenging—but rewarding.

Close your eyes. Think Davidson student. Who do you see? I spent weeks asking that question during visits to Davidson to assess the diversity on campus.

I quizzed white, black, Latino, and Asian men and women. They were young and old, Davidson veterans and newcomers, American-born and international. Their initial responses were not particularly varied. Most were akin to this, as was mine:

“Suburban, six-foot-two, white male with short, brown hair, khakis, a polo shirt.”

There’s irony in that description—because it came from NBA star Stephen Curry ’10, whose face is nationally more associated with Davidson than any other.

Curry doesn’t fit his own tip-of-the-tongue description of a typical Davidson student. After more deliberative thinking, he and most of the respondents broadened their descriptions.

“It’s kind of a smorgasbord that Davidson has to offer,” Curry said. “It’s tough because of the history here being predominantly white. We’ve come a long way. I think [the diversity]here is good enough. But there’s always room for more.”

It’s telling that the primary image of Davidson—even among those who know the college best—is that it is a place for uppercrust, white men. It’s encouraging that when being deliberative, those whom I asked recognized this image as inaccurate. But the subconscious isn’t deliberative as it guides us in everyday, rote thinking, the kind that gets some to notice the “black table” in Vail Commons, while never noticing the hundred white ones;the kind that makes it easy for American students to look past international students without considering the unique challenges they face.

It’s the kind of rote thinking that convinces many white students that the STRIDE program, which is designed to help students of color better acclimate to Davidson, is harmful, while never thinking about whether they might participate in such a program if they were in the minority (or, for that matter, while never thinking about attending an historically black institution, for example, where they would have been in the minority). It’s why some minority students can’t see that their presence on campus means that they, too, are privileged. Their forebears were denied access to such places and faced violence trying to break barriers. Nigger is scrawled on a campus door or a student writes a Davidsonian editorial condemning homosexuality as a sin, and the Davidson College community rallies to defend minority students.

It’s why Davidson students are more likely to have cross-cultural relationships in high school and early in college than they do as seniors. According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey, 60 percent of Davidson freshmen attend racial and cultural awareness workshops, and 69 percent socialize with someone of another racial or ethnic group. The CIRP College Senior Survey, completed just before graduation, shows that the cross-racial socialization drops to 46 percent.

“Davidson is like a cliquish place. It’s hard to branch out,” said Cameron Barr ’09, a white alumnus who was trained as a student to foster cross-cultural dialogue. “We want people to express their feelings. We want them to be able to say some students make them uncomfortable, and that we want to work through this. Nobody is willing to admit that they don’t understand. It’s a very painful conversation to have.”

I spoke with black students who temper their displays of passion for fear of seeming like the “angry black guy” or the “stereo typical sassy, black woman.”

I heard from white students who didn’t want to go on the record about their views, and faculty who have grown tired of fighting what feels to them like a losing battle.

“We all aren’t really expressing how we really feel,” said Brandon Giles ’09, a black student who graduated last May. “Even if then-word is in a book, white students whisper over the word.”

Defining the Issues
There are obstacles facing those trying to redefine diversity. They have to fight against the view that diversity is primarily about finding the right racial mix, without ignoring the reality that racial perceptions—and the legacy of race—will remain potent factors in the evolving conversation about diversity.

Whites hold most high-level faculty and staff positions even while the student body is more racially diverse. Davidson students live in a country where a black man has been elected president while their school has yet to choose anyone other than white mento lead it.

“The hardest challenge for us is in some cases with staff and faculty,” Davidson President Tom Ross ’72 said. “In trying to increase the African-American faculty, there are not many candidates in some fields. Sometimes Davidson might not be the right environment.”

Associate Professor of Anthropology Fuji Lozada agrees that the faculty needs to be more diverse. He got involved in diversity issues after growing tired of seeing the hurt on the faces of Asian students who’d seek refuge in his office. “When you see that the faculty doesn’t look like you in the student body, I think that’s a problem.’’

Recruiting minority faculty is a challenge across higher education. The pool of minorities with Ph.D.s and other necessary credentials has grown in recent years, but remains relatively small. “Despite significant and in some cases heroic efforts to diversify the faculty, our goals still are far from being reached,” said American Council on Education president Molly Corbett Broad in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 26, 2008).

Further, because colleges and universities have a tenure policy designed to keep faculty members for the long haul, positions rarely come open, said Clark Ross, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. Sometimes only two slots for tenured positions become available in a given year.

Former Assistant Chaplain Brenda Tapia, who worked at Davidson from 1986 to 2007, said Davidson’s attempts and rhetoric to diversify rarely matched.

“They need to name the problem—lack of diversity, racism, classism, etc.—determine how they honestly feel about it, and know that it is okay not to give a damn,” Tapia said. “Davidson has never been about non-intelligent things, and diversity does not take rocket science.”

School officials trying to redefine diversity have to deal honestly with that tension, while not forgetting that even in its most homogeneous days, Davidson was able to mold men like Dean Rusk,a 1931 graduate. He was the son of a poor farmer and grandson of Confederate soldiers. As Secretary of State for Kennedy and Johnson, he played an integral role in keeping the world out of a potential nuclear war. He graduated from Davidson when Jim Crow held sway. That didn’t prevent him from standing firm behind his daughter and her black husband in the face of overwhelming political and social pressure.

Diversity reformers also have to overcome the psychic legacy that remains from Davidson’s founding, in which slave owners helped build the school to educate white men while their slaves tended to the place. But there is no bigger obstacle than the unwillingness by a significant number of students to engage in brutally honest dialogue.

Still, Assistant Dean of Student Life Ernest Jeffries cited some recent events that show progress. “Students have been at the forefront of these initiatives,” he said, noting a diversity forum students organized in the wake of a racial incident in spring 2008.

When he arrived 14 years ago, Jeffries was charged with improving the campus experience for students of color. “And I cannot complain about the support I have been given in those efforts,” he said. Describing himself as a “controlled cynic,” Jeffries said that the current environment at Davidson “gives me the most hope I have ever had concerning a paradigm shift” in diversity efforts—and results—on the Davidson campus.

“It’s not about numbers,” said Tom Ross. “It’s about ‘Are you an open, inclusive place?’ ‘How is life here?’ ‘Are we learning from each other, challenging each other and supporting each other?’ Have we made huge progress? Yes. Are we done? No.”

As part of the college’s strategic planning, a group was asked to define diversity and make recommendations about how to cultivate it. Students and faculty are being trained to lead difficult, complex discussions across rivers of perspective. As a member of the team charged with creating a diverse and inclusive community and curriculum, Jeffries cautioned, “We cannot push the race conversation to the corner; we haven’t got that right as a nation yet, much less as a college.”

College officials are trying to create an atmosphere that makes inclusiveness and tolerance the tree; its branches would include race, but also gender, sexual identity, religion, physical disparities, socio-economic status, political leanings, and other differences. It’s important, they said, because the U.S. will be a majority-minority country in a few short decades. The college wants to educate students in an environment that resembles the one that they will serve and lead after graduation. But the problem is that “diversity” has sometimes “been code for ‘learn how white have been bad,’” Professor of English Shireen Campbell said.

“We need to focus on differences instead of race, such as ‘where have I been in positions of dominance and subordination.’ It’s how Davidson frames and presents these questions that’s important, so that we don’t fall back on our defensive positions.”

Zach Bennett ’11 said the college is failing on that front.

“There is a sort of dogmatic adherence to the notion that diversity, in an unqualified way, is good,” Bennett said. “I think that there are many who dissent from this notion, and I think that many of those dissenters are afraid to speak for fear of being labeled racist or, if not racist, unprogressive.”

Bennett and others want greater intellectual diversity “that encourages a meaningful diversity of thought.”

Others said that increasing racial and ethnic diversity on campus will help achieve Bennett’s goal. They believe diversity is akin to excellence in the way energy is akin to mass in Einstein’s E=mc2. Under the right conditions, energy becomes mass and mass energy, just as diversity can become excellence, and excellence diversity. They are made of the same stuff.

“Like any school that cares about these issues, Davidson cares deeply about building an inclusive community,’’ said Patty Perillo, associate dean of students and director of residence life. “A lot of people think that just because you have [minority students], then you are diverse. Having them is a first step.’’

From a racial and ethnic standpoint, Davidson is more diverse than ever. The student body in fall 2008 was 74 percent white, almost 6 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic or Latino and 4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. Nearly 4 percent were international, and the remaining groups were multiracial, other, or unreported. In the early 1990s, nine out of 10 Davidson students were white.

Making Strides
And students in the classes of 2012 and 2013 are more socioeconomically dispersed. About 42 percent of the sophomore class applied for financial assistance under The Davidson Trust, created in 2007 to provide loan-free financial aid to qualifying students. Only about a third of students before that class received financial assistance. Economic diversity continued to increase in the Class of 2013, with 44 percent of students qualifying for financial aid.

Davidson’s increased racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity has not harmed the college’s quest for academic excellence— in fact, it may have enhanced it. In the last 20 years, as the college has become more diverse, the school has been consistently recognized as one of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges and has been dubbed one of the “New Ivies.”

A little more than 88 percent of first-year black students entering Davidson between 1993 and 2002 graduated, just a three-percentage point difference from the 91 percent of white Davidson students who graduated during the same period. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education considers gaps of 10 percent or less successful. Black students at Davidson graduate at more than twice the black national average and are on par with the graduation level of other elite liberal arts colleges.

Other slices of Davidson’s population have been as successful, with 89 percent of Hispanics and Latinos, 86 percent of international students, and 87 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students having graduated during the same period. Do these numbers mean Davidson is diverse enough?

“The numbers are still too small,” said Ruth Ault, Maddrey Professor and Chair of Psychology, Davidson’s first full-time Jewish professor when she arrived in 1979. “I shouldn’t ever have a class where there are no faces of color enrolled.”

Andrew Lovedale ’09, who came to Davidson from Nigeria via Great Britain and played on one of the most racially and ethnically diverse basketball teams among major colleges, said there could be more students from Australia, for example.

“The internationals on campus are from specif ic regions,” he said. “We need to get more minorities on campus. But [the college is] definitely taking great steps in the right direction.”

More than Color

What about religious diversity at a school founded in the Reformed tradition? In his 1838 inaugural address, Davidson College President the Rev. R. H. Morrison said “those who learn most of the Bible will be best prepared to understand and admire the perfections of Jehovah displayed in the works of his hands.”

More than 170 years later, Vaidehi Trivedi ’09 was a Hindu at Davidson at a time when 60 percent of students self-identify as Christians and experience the world through a Christian lens. One half of one percent of Davidson’s student body last year was Hindu, according to a profile of religious affiliations produced by the chaplain’s office. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslim, and Jewish students combined made up 5 percent of the population.

“I didn’t realize Neo in The Matrix was like the Jesus figure,” Trivedi said. “The temple [where I pray]is far away. It is really isolating.”

Trivedi, whose family moved to Mooresville when she was in the eighth grade, wasn’t complaining, just explaining. She loves Davidson, but doesn’t always feel that her uniqueness is identified as a characteristic that makes Davidson, well, Davidson.

Chaplain Rob Spach ’84 understands this point, adding that students of all faiths, including Christians, can feel marginalized at Davidson. “You can’t say that because someone is a Christian, they automatically feel comfortable here all the time,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve encountered Catholic students or those from evangelical Protestant traditions who have been conscious of not being in a majority.” But Spach believes that increased religious diversity at Davidson makes it easier for people to share what they are. “When I arrived as Chaplain in 1993, there were 11 students who self-identified as Jewish; now there are more than 60. That number makes it possible for Davidson to have a thriving Hillel chapter.”

International students bring another perspective to the diversity picture at Davidson. Kun Zhang ’11 said he noticed the difference between Davidson and his native Beijing.

“China is l ike a one race country,” he said. “In Davidson, there is a clear borderline between each group. There is too much white-black talk.”

Being part of a small minority magnifies other things as well. Zhang gets tired of having students not know that he is Chinese, not Japanese. “My English deficiencies, it causes problems,” Zhang said. “People get tired of trying to understand.”

Religious, geographic, and ethnic differences, not to mention those related to gender or disability, don’t come close to exhausting the list of groups that can be counted under the diversity rubric at Davidson. And the relationship between diversity and student achievement is unsettled.

John McWhorter, a senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute, quoted the former dean of the University of Michigan law school Terrance Sandalow in an essay McWhorter titled “A Look at Real Diversity.”

“My own experience and that of colleagues with whom I have discussed the question,” Sandalow said, “is that racial diversity is not responsible for generating ideas unfamiliar to some members of the class. … I cannot recall an instance in which, for example, ideas were expressed by a black student that have not also been expressed by white students.” And in their book, Nurture Shock, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman said self-segregation increases where diversity increases.

Other college officials have found merit in diversity.

“The research we did … showed that students who had contact withdiverse students also demonstrated increased academic skills, intellectual engagement, and civic commitments,” said Sylvia Hurtado, Professor and Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences, in the Harvard Educational Review. “We found these connections were important for both students of color and white students. We did not look at grades, but we know that more complex thinking is related to diversity, and some economists … have shown the link with more creative solutions in organizations.”

Who’s Missing?

While it ’s true that diversity can’t be neatly defined by counting heads, counting heads still serves a practical purpose. The country has changed since 1837. Davidson would no longer be an elite college if it were still 100 percent white and male, if it hadn’t begun initiatives to diversify. It would have missed out on Patricia Cornwell ’79, a white lesbian who became one of the world’s most prolific best-selling authors.

It would have missed out on Anthony Foxx ’93, the first black student to be elected Student Government Association president, now a Davidson trustee and mayor of Charlotte, N.C. It would have missed out on Jana Mashonee (Sampson) ’96, a Lumbee Indian singer who performed at an inaugural ball for President Barack Obama.

It would have missed out on K.C. Currie, who graduated in 2009. She was a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

“Alumni are shocked that gays are out on campus,” she said. “A lot of people don’t see that [diversity]is not static. When you are in that group, you want it now.”

Currie lived among many Christian students who believed homosexuality was a sin. She knew they felt compelled by a call to save her from what they believe would be an eternity in hell. She also knew herself.

“I let them pray for me, and that’s fine. I try to respect religion,” Currie said. “But I draw the line at people trying to convert me.”

It’s that kind of self-awareness that helped Cecilia Payne, a young Englishwoman in the early 1900s, use E=mc2 to discover that the sun was made of hydrogen, though early theories said it was 66 percent iron, according to David Bodanis in E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.

“Raw enthusiasm is dangerous for young researchers. If you’re excited by a new field—keen to join in with what your professors and fellow students are doing—that usually means you’ll be trying to fit in with their approaches,” Bodanis wrote. “But students whose work stands out usually have had some reason to avoid this, and keep a critical distance.”

Payne was a woman in a man’s world. That gave her a reason to avoid trying to completely fit in—rather, she chose to fit in only enough to learn and teach. That’s why she was able to challenge, and change, long-held scientific beliefs.

Davidson, had it not changed, would have also missed out on Meikaela Zwieryznski ’10, the college’s Student Government Association president. She’s part Polish, part Irish, part African American.

“Davidson will always be steeped in that history,” she said of slaves and slave owners and women being second-class citizens. “After you realize that, you respect so much more where Davidson is now. Davidson is doing a good job of ref lection and self-evaluation. I think that Davidson is attempting to make itself more inclusive. But I think there’s always more room for groups that people don’t understand.”

Davidson’s reach, its impact, is broader because it always employed people and admitted students who kept agitating for change, for a higher level of excellence—not because it reached the right mix of blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, Christians and Hindus, and stutterers and New Yorkers.

Minority alumni don’t participate in committees, reunions, and other events as much as white alumni do. Maybe that’s where Davidson’s diversity efforts will pay their greatest dividends, helping minority students love the college instead of simply appreciating it. In November 2009, the college invited international alumni and alumni of color back for a weekend of workshops and discussions about these issues, and about their hopes to redefine the alumni experience for minority groups [see page 10].

That’s the true power of diversity, forcing the school to constantly re-examine itself. That’s why everyone should close their eyes and think Davidson student and know that the work won’t be done until everyone sees what President Ross sees.

“I just get this rapid view of dozens and dozens of students I’ve gotten to know here,” he said. “They are all unique. The only thing they have in common is that they are different and amazing. I can’t describe a Davidson student, and that might be the most significant change since I graduated from Davidson.”

Issac J. Bailey ’95, a columnist with the Myrtle Beach Sun News, is the author of Proud. Black. Southern. (But I Still Don’t Eat Watermelon in Front of White People), which can be purchased at


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1 Comment

  1. David Campbell on

    “Is this the face of Davidson?” illustrates the pitfalls of currently fashionable appeals to “diversity”, regrettably by falling straight into them. What I see when I think “Davidson student” is someone studying-no particular ethnic or gender considerations come to mind. However, if you were to ask about the average Davidson student, statistically that answer should reflect the current cultural/ethnic/etc. majority or plurality on campus. Thus, the question asked may shape the answer, and too much may be read into such a prompted response.

    More fundamentally, “diversity” is both problematic and a relatively low standard. It is inherently problematic, because a true commitment to diversity would be a completely laissez-faire attitude, including allowing intolerance of diversity. Likewise, appeals to diversity give no grounds for excluding those who use violence to promote their position. In actual application, “diversity” has the additional problem that it in fact serves as a code for “diversity that I approve of”. The article promotes ethnic and gender diversity but is hostile to religious diversity, equating traditional moral standards with crude racism. Likewise, the article celebrates promoting awareness of ethnic diversity but commends refusal to even consider the possible truth of a religious viewpoint, for that is what proscribing efforts at conversion amounts to. (Not to mention the fact that critiquing attempts at conversion constitutes an attempt to convert someone to the anti-conversion viewpoint.) The problem is quite widespread-a few years ago the same issue of National Geographic had an article declaring that natives ought to be left to their own devices and one declaring that poor treatment of Dalits by higher caste Indians was wrong. Some types of diversity are highly desirable; some are highly undesirable; some are irrelevant. Efforts to help minorities and campus adjust to each other are a good idea (e.g., while changes may have taken place since my time there, Vail could probably provide more information to help students with religious or other dietary concerns). However, these efforts need to aim at integration as well as support, lest they merely reinforce divisions. Conversely, one can push too hard for integration-on average, within-group interactions will be more comfortable than cross-group, whatever the group might be.

    Diversity is an unduly low standard because it calls only for tolerance. On its own, it merely says “Do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t bother me too much.” Genuine concern for others, and a genuine concern for learning, will prompt a careful evaluation of both one’s own and other positions, and expression of concern when someone’s position appears to be harmful or risky. In particular, the New Testament call to love one another demands far more of us than merely not caring if someone is different.