The Inauguration of the Eighteenth President

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Davidson’s 18th president, Carol Quillen—who began work at Davidson on August 1—was formally installed during a celebratory inauguration ceremony on October 18. A threat of thunderstorms forced inauguration indoors, to Belk Arena, where the new president was joined by all four living past presidents and more than 1,500 students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, and delegates from other colleges. Board of Trustees Chair Mackey McDonald ’68 administered the Oath of Office and presented the new president with the college mace, a symbol of the presidency. The centerpiece of the inauguration was the new president’s inauguration address, reprinted here.

Welcome , and thank you all for being here. I want to thank our amazing staff who made this event possible— I think everyone who works here at Davidson has contributed to this day. A special thanks to Traci Russ-Wilson, Suzanne Grzeszczak, and Cissi Lyles, without whom many of us would be stranded at the airport or struggling through today without coffee. Wendy Roberts runs Davidson College, and I am grateful to her for all things great and small. And there are no words to express my gratitude to and admiration for Leslie Marsicano, whose patience, wisdom, and leadership made this day near effortless for the rest of us. Please join me in thanking these folks.

Kristin Hills Bradberry has introduced me a few times now. Her words better describe many of you than they do me, but please know that I strive every day to be the person whom she sees, that it is a privilege to be her friend, and that her extraordinary combination of high expectations and generosity of spirit typify this remarkable place. At Davidson, each of us strives to be the person that this place, our family, asks us to be.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could say that would in any way do justice either to this venerable institution or to those of you assembled here. Obviously, I have never done this before. The stakes feel high. First jump, no net. This is a weighty occasion, and you—the extended Davidson family—are an accomplished crowd.

Senior Class President Faheem Rathore, who served on the Presidential Search Committee, offers congratulations to President Quillen as she processes to the podium.

You out there are good at what you do. You are kind of like a Who’s Who argument for liberal arts education. You are inventors and judges, CE Os and pastors, healers and diplomats, athletes and artists; you are past and future Rhodes Scholars, educators and war heroes, and passionate advocates for Habitat for Humanity International, the mayors of Davidson and Charlotte, several global business leaders, the vice chair of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the president of the Touch Foundation, the founders of Access to Success and Project Life, and the brains behind several groundbreaking start-up companies. Among you are leaders at The Duke Endowment, the Mellon Foundation, the Belk Educational Endowment, and the Cannon Foundation, and the presidents of universities and colleges. Among you are my daughter, parents and family, my colleagues and my friends, the people I most love and people whose example daily calls forth the best in me.

And, as if that weren’t intimidating enough, sitting here are four former presidents of Davidson College, all also alumni, men whose wisdom, energy, and unwavering moral courage can only inspire awe. These men are very different, one from the other. Yet each embodies the compassion, humility, and deep sense of purpose that are the heart of our heritage. Each demonstrates the fearless commitment to unfettered intellectual inquiry without which true learning cannot thrive. These men—Sam Spencer, John Kuykendall, Bobby Vagt, and Tom Ross—live our Honor Code, and they have nurtured here the culture of trust and rigor that makes us who we are.

These past presidents are also the men who introduced coeducation at Davidson and who, following President Grier Martin, steadfastly sought out a broadly talented, broadly diverse Board of Trustees, faculty, and student body. Our past presidents insisted that financial circumstances must never, ever block our doors to eager and able students. These men held fast to our foundational values, even when doing so required significant institutional change. In the courageous lives they have built and in their abiding commitment to leadership and service, Sam and John and Bobby and Tom each fulfills our core mission and our deepest purpose.

So, as I join you here, I have ready exemplars of the attributes I most need: in Sam, quiet but unwavering moral courage; in John, rigorous honesty and abounding generosity of spirit; in Bobby, unbounded aspiration and the highest standards; and in Tom, an unshakable commitment to leadership and service, even at some personal cost. I am fortunate beyond measure that these individuals preceded me, and I am filled with gratitude that they are all here.

That said, these guys add to the intimidation factor, and when I asked for advice about what to say they were, you know, no help at all. First jump, still no net.

Furthermore, there is a lot that you, the audience, might want to hear that I simply don’t know quite yet. I can’t yet outline a compelling and achievable vision for Davidson’s future or describe with confidence our top three priorities. I still have a lot to learn about who we distinctively are. In fact, my job so far has been not to make speeches but to listen.

I have been walking around—around Davidson, Charlotte, New York, Brevard, and other places—mostly asking questions: What matters to you about Davidson? What most worries you? Why did you choose a liberal arts college, and why among these did you choose Davidson? What do you think liberal arts education here should look like going forward? If you could change one thing about Davidson, what would it be? If you could ensure that one thing never changed, what would that be? If everything goes perfectly, what will be most different about us in 10 years? I have been listening, and, thanks to generous, perceptive people like Leland Park, Hansford Epes, and Will Terry, I have learned a lot. Here is some of the best advice I have gotten:

• make as few major decisions as possible for six months;

• meet everyone whowe know you are from the northeast, but bless your heart, let us finish our own sentences;

• teach a class;

• go to Patterson Court;

• don’t go to Patterson Court;

• listen more than you talk;

• remember why they hired you;

• when things go wrong, which they will, learn from it and move on;

• resist the urge to tell your side of the story;

• make yourself necessary;

• good intentions often have unintended consequences;

• don’t be boring.

President Quillen honored Davidson’s four living past presidents, pictured here in the front row, as “men whose wisdom, energy, and unwavering moral courage can only inspire awe.”

Now admittedly, some of what I learned is more titillating than useful; some of it should not be repeated ever, let alone here; and some of what I learned is just fun—like that Dean Will Terry is responsible for more legitimate Davidson alumni children than any other human being, or that one of our more famous graduates is the fictional invention of another less famous one. Still in all, I have learned a lot that is useful. So, as a way of sharing with you my boundless excitement at joining this remarkable community, I would like, in the next few minutes, to describe the Davidson that through you I have come to love.

Davidson stands for liberal arts education. A liberal arts education—one characterized by breadth, sustained faculty engagement with students in and outside of formal coursework, serious class discussion and a collaborative quest for knowledge, significant research opportunities, a residential environment that promotes a culture of inquiry as well as personal growth—this kind of education cultivates a student’s capacities like nothing else. Davidson is a place where you can develop all of your talents, even ones you do not yet know you possess. Davidson enables students to build meaningful connections between how they learn and how they live. Students leave here able to meet any challenge or opportunity that presents itself with intelligence, creativity, resilience, and generosity of spirit.

It would take a long time to describe just how this happens, but I do want to spend just a few minutes talking about what goes on in our classrooms.

College professors are in it because we love to learn and we want to share that with others. We are moved by what we do. To our math professors, the best proofs are not just correct. The best proofs are elegant, and so beautiful that they take your breath away. Biology professors don’t just collect data. They long to make new and startling sense from disparate pieces of data, so that their work potentially transforms what counts as scientific knowledge.

I am a humanities professor. When professors like me read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or God’s speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job, when we read Toni Morrison’s description in Beloved of an African’s experience in a slave ship, or when we recall the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, when we watch Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful, or see Romeo and Juliet, or stare at Picasso’s Guernica, or listen to Yo-Yo Ma play Bach’s Cello Suites, when we have these experiences, we are moved. These words and images and sounds reach into us, unsettle and transform us in ways difficult to describe, and we are wiser and stronger because we have opened ourselves to these challenging works of art. And when we communicate to others what we have experienced through our encounters with these works, new knowledge gets produced.

This is the experience we want to share with our students. It differs in detail from discipline to discipline, but the basics are very similar. The desire, the need to share this experience of being unsettled is what makes teaching so hard, and so incredibly rewarding. We want our students to see how shocked and moved and transformed we are, we want our students to see that this kind of deep learning is worth the exposure, the risk, that it requires.

So, we do not walk into class with a nicely crafted lecture all prepared and then read it while students diligently write it all down. We walk into class expecting that our students, like us, have opened themselves to new material and that our students, like us, have urgent questions about what they have read, and that they are ready to work together with us to produce from these questions new wisdom.

This is the daily miracle of the liberal arts classroom. It demands work and perseverance and the courage to be vulnerable, but it is fundamentally why we are here. It is the basis for the connections students will build here between how they learn and how they live. It is transformative.

If you doubt it, ask them, our students. The other day, at a reception sponsored by the Student Government Association, I mentioned that Peter Ahrensdorf, who teaches political science and humanities here, had taught me at Chicago. The junior to whom I was speaking, her whole face lit up, and she shouted, “Dr. Ahrensdorf’s class on Plato rocks my world!”

Davidson is a place where this miracle of liberal arts education happens over and over and over, each and every day. Our amazing faculty do it as well as anyone. Thanks to our faculty, our students build computers out of bacteria, they decode Alzheimer’s, they become Juliet, they imagine what John Calvin might say to John Locke about a democratic society. Our commitment to liberal education is unrivalled, and our achievement speaks for itself.

In the coming months, we, together, will work to define what, in the light of our history and mission, liberal arts education should be in the 21st century. We together will make the case for why it matters, why we do it so well, and how our doing it serves our broader world. Our best evidence, our best case, is the impact for good that our graduates exert.

Beyond a passion for learning, our faculty, together with our phenomenal staff, commit to the success of each student. Indeed, alumni routinely say to me, “Clark Ross taught me how to think”; “without Gil Holland, I would never have learned how good a writer I can be”; “Nancy Fairley showed me how to make sense of the world I live in”; “Kathy Bray saved my life.” Several weeks ago, I was privileged to have lunch with a few women from the Class of ’77, who kindly shared their Davidson stories. These stories highlighted how our faculty and staff can nurture each individual student, because they take the time to know our students as human beings. Indeed, at dinner last night, one of our alumni cited these close, deep, lasting relationships between faculty or staff and students as a distinguishing feature of Davidson.

The power and the importance of these relationships became vivid for me last summer when, while I was still in Houston, I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah McIlroy, from the Class of 2011. Sarah was in Houston as a new Teach for America corps member. Over coffee, she described how she knew from day one that our faculty were amazing teachers, but it was not until her sophomore year that she realized just how much they cared about her beyond her success in class. During Sarah’s sophomore year, her father, who had battled leukemia for years, passed away. His death was painfully hard for Sarah, her family, and especially for her mom. Sarah’s Davidson mentors saw her through that time. They called, they made her dinner, they gave her small gifts to remind her how much she mattered to her friends and family, and they helped her to see that the near unbearable sadness and sense of loss would not last forever. Sarah summed it up this way: “Had I not been at Davidson, I would have survived my father’s death, but I would not be who I now am. I would not be this joyful, happy person who loves life and the opportunity to serve that each day presents.” In a very real way, Davidson gave Sarah back to herself, and the world is a better place because of that.

President Quillen’s daughter, Caitlin (center), and parents Marcia and William are all smiles as the ceremony concludes.

From stories like these, I have, over the past few months, come to grasp Davidson’s genuine commitment to a true liberal arts education, one that nurtures and values whole human beings.

I have also been inspired by our reason for being. Davidson exists to assist students in developing humane instincts, disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service. Founded by Presbyterians and animated by the Reformed Tradition, we have a specificonate across the decades and the generations.

They are meaningful words: humane; creative; disciplined; service; leadership. At Davidson, students cultivate humane instincts and creative and disciplined minds in an environment of trust that is sustained through the Honor Code. We are good at what we do. Indeed, the names of our alumni—John Belk, Anthony Foxx, Becca Stimson, Elizabeth Kiss, Herb Jackson, Bob Dunham, Tony Snow, to list a few—these names are synonymous with the attributes we stress, and the aspirations to which these attributes give rise unite all of the extended Davidson family.

This resonance across the generations is striking. Virtually all alumni I have met, from John Mawhinney and Perry Sloan, both Class of 1939, to Shamita Punjabi, Gerard Dash, and Faheem Rathore, all Class of 2012, cherish the Honor Code and the commitment to integrity that the Honor Code makes possible. The Honor Code is the thing that you all tell me must never change. No matter what year they graduated, virtually all alumni remember a time early in their Davidson years when they could have lied or cheated and could have done so with complete impunity—no risk at all of getting caught. They remember choosing to be honest. And they remember how great this felt. And from that moment on, these students took for granted that you wanted to be the person that Davidson expected you to be.

The resonance across time is all the more significant because, between 1939 and now, much about our world has changed. Perry Sloan and John Mawhinney remember weekly Vespers; in 1939 freshmen carried the seniors’ laundry, there were way more rules, and neither Shamita nor Faheem nor Gerard would have matriculated at Davidson. And yet, if these five people were to meet, they would immediately feel the Davidson connection. The bond of trust created here, the sense of purpose that we share, the imperative to generosity and compassion and forgiveness that “humane instincts” connotes— these span the decades to make fast friends of all. Mr. Mawhinney famously welcomes all Davidson graduates to Houston and makes a home for them in his.

Our powerful mission and the things for which we strive—humane instincts, creativity, discipline—attract gifted people from everywhere to our faculty, staff, and Board of Trustees, people whose work here both furthers and exemplifies our core ideals of leadership and service. From them, from people like Carlos Alvarez and Carole Weinstein, we have learned why global reach matters and how to do it better; we have learned how to build bridges from the classroom to the world, so that the work of our students can have its greatest impact; and we have learned how we might better sustain a genuinely respectful and welcoming environment, one where our very real differences are acknowledged and therefore become sources of strength rather than an excuse for divisiveness. As we together define how best to develop humane instincts and creative and disciplined minds now, in our very interconnected world, we are grateful for the wisdom and advice of these members of our family.

In the coming months, we at Davidson will face new challenges. This is a time of financial uncertainty, and what we do here is very, very expensive. Our society increasingly craves universal, efficient, one-size-fits-all solutions— and we are a small, labor-intensive, highly selective place. As we go forward to define and make the case for 21st-century liberal arts education, we must hold fast to those attributes that most make us who we distinctively are. It is easy to list some of the attributes that set Davidson apart: academic rigor; The Davidson Trust and the commitment to access that it represents; a grounding in the Reformed Tradition; the Honor Code; a commitment to the highest level of athletic competition. At Davidson these things work together to create something distinctive, and amazing.

At Davidson, values drawn from a particular religious tradition ground a foundational commitment to a broadly diverse and collegial community, where people possessing different talents, from different cultures, whose deepest convictions differ, can learn from and with each other in an environment of warmth and respect. Davidson creates a distinctive culture of inquiry and trust within which students grow as humane thinkers and perceptive leaders precisely because they are simultaneously engaged in the production of knowledge and challenged to build creative, purposeful lives.

President Quillen shares a hug and a smile with Mitzi Short ’83, trustee and member of the search committee.

Davidson graduates morally courageous individuals who are not afraid to take intellectual risks. Most important, Davidson somehow enables each student to discover the remarkable human being he or she could become, such that each student seeks to fulfill his or her highest potential—not because they have to, not because other people expect it, not because they will get in trouble if they don’t, but because they genuinely want to be that remarkable human being that this college shows them they are capable of becoming. We at Davidson give our 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.

And, because of what we do here, when our graduates look back, when men like Perry Sloan and John Mawhinney look back over the decades and decades that have passed since graduation in 1939, they have what I most wish for all of us: they know that the lives they have built are the lives they would have chosen.

For the privilege of joining a community that has offered that greatest of gifts to generations of students and that daily calls forth the best in us, I thank you all.

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