A New Chapter in the Davidson Story


Board of Trustees Chair Mackey McDonald introduced Davidson’s 18th president
to an enthusiastic community—using a new pronoun. Meet Carol Quillen.


By Stacey Schmeidel

What a great day for Davidson College,” Mackey McDonald ’68 said to a full house at an all-college meeting in the Duke Family Performance Hall in the Knobloch Campus Center on May 26. “And what a great crowd,” the board chair added. “You all must be expecting some exciting news!”

Indeed, the students, faculty, staff, and alumni who packed the auditorium—and the 1,200 people who tuned in to watch the event live online—had come to witness the introduction of Davidson’s 18th president. Mindful of the significance of the moment, McDonald described Davidson’s new leader as “inspirational,” “collaborative,” and “courageous” before mentioning the new president’s name. There was a murmur in the audience when McDonald first told the crowd that the committee was so enthusiastic about this leader that they made a unanimous recommendation to the board, even though the person “was not a member of the extended Davidson family.” There was another buzz—and happy applause—when McDonald first used the word “she” in his introduction. “Yes, that was the right pronoun,” McDonald laughed.

McDonald went on to introduce Carol Quillen as “a leader who will understand and protect the values and traditions that are so important to us, but also believe and understand a vision for the future of Davidson College that would prepare servant-leaders for a rapidly changing world.” He noted that the Presidential Search Committee—chaired by Kristin Hills Bradberry ’85, and made up of trustees, faculty, students, staff, alumni, and parents—had approached its work from a wide range of experiences and perspectives. “But this diverse committee came to complete agreement—not only agreement, but a great deal of excitement—about the future of Davidson under the leadership of our next president.”

“A leader who will understand and protect the values
and traditions that are so important to us,
but also believe and understand a vision
for the future of Davidson College.”

Quillen—who currently serves as the vice president for international and interdisciplinary initiatives at Rice University in Houston—was backstage during McDonald’s introduction, and she smiled as she took the stage to a standing ovation. The recipient of degrees from the University of Chicago and Princeton, she acknowledged that she had a lot to learn about Davidson, and said she was eager to start asking questions. “I have learned from conversations with the search committee that Davidson people are thoughtful and smart,” she said. “They are respectful and open in debate; they are humble yet quietly firm in their convictions.…It has been and is a privilege getting to know the amazing people on the search committee. And it will be a privilege to join them and you here.”

Carol Quillen and students

President Quillen posed with students (l-r) Damian White ’13, J.D. Merrill ’13, Gloria Bui ’14, Faheem Rathore ’12, Rachelle Falk ’12, and Margaret Holt-Smith ’13. Merrill, Rathore and Shamita Punjabi ’12 were student representatives on the Presidential Search Committee.

Quillen has a long and distinguished career at Rice, both as an administrator and a professor. A member of the history faculty at Rice since 1990, she served from 2004 to 2008 as the first director of Rice’s Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, leading development of the center’s mission and shaping the organization’s agenda. For four years beginning in 2006, she served as Rice’s vice provost for academic affairs, focusing particularly on faculty diversity and faculty development, as well as resource development. In her current role, she is responsible for developing and implementing Rice’s overall global strategy and facilitating university-wide initiatives. A humanist whose academic interests include ethics, European history, and gender studies, Quillen has written two books on Petrarch, as well as a number of scholarly articles, reviews, and papers. She has received a number of teaching awards during her tenure at Rice.

Quillen grew up in New Castle, Del., a small town where she says “it was second nature to support the community and look out for other people.” A Presbyterian, she attended Quaker schools from pre-kindergarten through high school.

Quillen’s daughter, Caitlin, will be a firs-tyear student at the University of North Carolina next fall. Quillen’s husband, Ken Kennedy, a pioneering computer scientist, died of cancer in 2007. “His greatest gift to me, and to the Rice community, was in living the life he would have chosen,” Quillen said. “That’s something I think about in a very profound way every day.”

Quillen’s appointment at Davidson is effective August 1—and already she has started thinking about how to tell the Davidson story. In her remarks at the all college meeting, she made a passionate case for why a liberal arts education is not only valuable but necessary, and she articulated how the Davidson community—uniquely structured around honor, trust, and unfettered intellectual inquiry—“gives students the courage to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for those decisions, so that, whatever they choose to do, they live lives of purpose and consequence in pursuit of their highest aspirations. Davidson is uniquely able,” she said, “to re-imagine and to exemplify this profoundly valuable kind of education at this crucial time. And because Davidson is uniquely able to do this, Davidson is also obligated to do so. It will be a great privilege to contribute with you to this daunting, urgent, and profoundly rewarding task.”

To learn more about Carol Quillen:

May 26 news release
Video clips of interview with President-Elect Carol Quillen
Audio clips of interview with President-Elect Carol Quillen
All-college meeting remarks by President-Elect Carol Quillen


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