Leap of Faith


In the fall of 2011, Carol Quillen was inaugurated as the 18th president of Davidson College. Five years later, over coffee on the back deck at Summit on Main Street, she took an hour with the Davidson Journal to share a few perspectives born of experience, hard work and no small sense of academic and administrative adventure. That conversation provided the groundwork for the following look through Quillen’s eyes at this moment in the life of Davidson College.

“First jump, no net” was an evocative recurring image that ran through your inaugural speech in the fall of 2011. Five years on, what “leaps of faith” stand out in your mind from your first five years as president, and how has Davidson responded?

It’s an interesting question. When it comes to leaps of faith, by which I mean trying something new when you cannot know exactly what will happen, I have found that at Davidson everyone’s willing, it’s not just me. In the speech, it felt more like, “Here I go!…”

Now that I am here, I’ve found that the faith, trust and aspirations of the institution allow us to take these leaps.

Joining edX [a Harvard-MIT-led consortium that creates MOOCs and studies online learning]was a leap of faith. Our experience is different than we would have predicted, and we have learned a lot.

Joining the Atlantic 10 Conference in athletics was a leap of faith. We want to demonstrate that Division I sports on the national stage can serve our scholar-athletes and further our educational mission.

Moving from a single-department chemistry building to a transdisciplinary academic center was a leap of faith, and our faculty and facilities team have helped us to think differently about space and how to align our use of space with the learning opportunities we want to offer our students.

The $425 million campaign goal was and is a leap of faith that took our entire community.

And today, we continue to ask: What leaps of faith are we willing to take to honor our primary purpose, to fulfilll the promise that exists on this campus and to heed the call from our country to lead in exemplifying liberal arts education today?

Part of a leap of faith is not knowing what is going to happen or what you’re going to learn, but being willing to do it anyway—that is difficult, especially for a bunch of Type A, very accomplished people who want to know they are going to succeed before they start!

Carol Quillen's Inauguration

Also in your inaugural speech, you asked, “If you could change one thing about Davidson, what would it be?” and “If you could ensure that one thing never changes, what would it be?” How would you answer those questions today?

I asked those questions a lot on my listening tour during my first six months and I ask them now of seniors when they come for dinner. My answers are less important than the ones I heard and hear from others.

Davidson people generally agree on a few things that should not change: the Honor Code, Davidson’s special sense of community, the relationships among students and between students, faculty and staff—our shared commitment to creating a community where these deep relationships are possible. This sense of community builds on our Reformed Tradition heritage and it makes our campus a place of gratitude, not entitlement. At Davidson, we are grateful for opportunities to lead and serve and we’re attentive to these as they arise.

Another thing alumni wouldn’t change is the academic substance and challenge of Davidson—Davidson is a place of genuine discovery and learning, and the learning is real and transformative. I think the academic rigor of Davidson demonstrates that the faculty have deep respect for what our students can do. It’s hard to get into Davidson, but the challenge does not end there.

In terms of what people would change, there was a lot more variation. One senior wanted a zipline to go up and down the hill. A few students suggested gardens all over campus where they could tend flowers.

Alumni and young alumni in particular talk about wanting Davidson to be better known throughout the country. We’re doing a little better with that now. When we focused on it, we demonstrated our ability to earn national media attention for the great work our faculty and students do. National visibility takes work. You have to focus on it.

Davidson, nearly uniquely, has the opportunity to be the leader in showing what liberal arts education can be now. We want the country to know about what we do because our world desperately needs the leaders that Davidson graduates.

In your speech, you evoked some of Davidson’s strengths: “collaboration and research, a residential culture of inquiry, intelligence, resilience, creativity and generosity of spirit.” How have you found those attributes fit with the overarching concept of innovation that has become a focal point in Davidson’s reimagining the liberal arts for the 21st century?

Davidson has a long tradition of innovation. Most of the ideas that we are implementing today—transdisciplinarity, new pedagogies, a dual commitment to excellence and access, and student research, for example—have a long history at Davidson. Here are just a few examples:

Transdisciplinary Collaboration and Embracing Emerging Fields

The Humanities Program, which highights connections among religious, artistic, literary, and political traditions, pioneered a truly transdisciplinary approach to engaging students in crucial big questions. Today, Genomics, Africana Studies, Neuroscience, Environmental Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Education Studies, and Latin American Studies, among other programs, all draw on this tradition of transdisciplinarity to engage students in crucial questions facing our world.

In addition, some of our richest research opportunities for students come from collaboration across disciplines and in emerging fields. Cindy Hauser and Karen Bernd on air quality; Malcolm Campbell and Laurie Heyer on bioinformatics; Keyne Cheshire and Mark Sutch on a theatrical production of a new translation of Aristophanes. The list goes on and on, and each of these collaborations, not to mention our fabulous new E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center, builds on a long Davidson tradition.

Innovative Technologies and Teaching Methods

Wolfgang Christian’s Physlets®, which he began to create decades ago, are the clear antecedents to new technologies used today in our biology, physics, digital studies, and computer science classes and are one inspiration for our Digital Learning R&D initiative.

Lou Ortmayer developed a case-studies teaching method whose influence you can see in community-based learning classes that faculty develop in collaboration with the Center for Civic Engagement, as well as in the classrooms of many faculty nationwide.

Perhaps inspired by Wolfgang’s and Lou’s examples, our current faculty are reimagining how introductory courses are taught. Classics Professor Jeanne Neumann is nationally renowned for her Latin pedagogy (see her Lingua Latina: A College Companion), and in biology Malcolm Campbell, Laurie Heyer and Chris Paradise are effectively pioneering an integrated approach to introductory biology (Integrating Concepts in Biology) that several other institutions are piloting. And as part of the re-accreditation process, our faculty as a whole chose to focus on exploring how new teaching methods can improve student outcomes in introductory courses.

Original Research

Soon after arriving at Davidson over 30 years ago, Clark Ross and Verna Case, among others, stressed the value to students of original research. Today, in addition to Clark and Verna, many faculty (John Wertheimer in history is legendary for this) shape their own research agenda and class structure so that students can participate in important original work as undergraduates. And thanks to generous donors, we now have the Davidson Research Initiative, which pairs students and faculty on original research projects usually conducted over the summer. I was lucky enough to learn about many of these projects at our fall research showcase, and I am in awe of the crucial contributions to knowledge that our students are making.

Access as a Precondition for Educational Excellence

Davidson’s founding documents make reference to affordability because our predecessors understood the connection between education and a vibrant civic culture. Well over 40 years ago, President Sam Spencer called on us to recognize the implications of that connection. Guided by that spirit and by the imperatives of the Reformed Tradition, we at Davidson now see a foundational connection between the quest for educational excellence and ensuring that our campus welcomes all talented students, irrespective of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality or financial circumstances.

Virtually all of our current initiatives, from The Davidson Trust to athletic scholarships to the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative—have antecedents in the past. Davidson’s tradition of innovation continues today. Now more than ever, we as a college are able and obligated to exemplify liberal arts education in the 21st century.

Carol Quillen speaks with students

Yet another question you asked five years ago: “If everything goes perfectly according to plan, what will be most different about Davidson in 10 years?”

Well, I know now that asking about something 10 years in the future is naïve! But, that said, here are some thoughts I have gathered from our community.

The barriers to collaboration and experimentation would be lower. Faculty, staff and students will work together more frequently and our campus will collaborate more with other organizations, businesses, foundations and schools. For example, our Sustainability Initiative will have built on early successes like The Farm at Davidson to expand student-driven projects in Enivronmental Studies that make our campus greener. And our student-led “Campus as Lab” project will have grown such that all of us see our daily work as an opportunity to learn, experiment and improve how we do things. We will have figured out how to connect with all alumni, so that Davidson remains a meaningful source of renewal from the moment they graduate and throughout their lives.

You quoted a piece of advice you’d gotten: “When things go wrong, which they will, learn from it and move on.” You have shared this advice about the value of failure with students, faculty and staff. Is there an illustration of that principle that springs to mind from your first five years at the helm?

At Davidson, a truly great place with a history of success, most of what we do is by any conventional standard good. Things go wrong, sure, but we know what to do. In fact, I worry less about things going wrong than I do about missed opportunities and the “all deliberate speed” with which we recognize that something could be better. Over the next year, I hope we create spaces for experimenting, where decision-making can be faster and a trial and error approach is accepted. Cindy Hauser once remarked that this should be easy to do at Davidson, since basically this is how scientists work. I hope we all come to see the campus as a lab and our work as an opportunity to learn and improve. We want to eliminate barriers that block creativity and collaboration, so that we can attend to the opportunities in front of us. “That’s not how we do things here” is not the best approach to stewarding the powerful legacy and purpose that we have inherited. Just think about new technologies. New technologies can expand learning opportunities, improve our operational efficiency, extend Davidson’s global reach and visibililty, and enable us to lead and serve our community more effectively. To explore these technologies, we need to be open to changing how we do things. We cannot let fear stand in our way. We need to take some leaps of faith.

This generation of students wants to understand how what they are learning can help them to be, and to construct the meaningful lives of leadership that they want to live. Our primary obligation, as always, is to them.

President Carol Quillen and Athletics Director Jim Murphy hold press conference to announce Davidson's athletics switch from Southern Conference to A-10 Conference.

A final quote from the speech: “In the coming months, we together will work to define what, in the light of our history and mission, liberal arts education should look like 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 the broader world. Our best evidence, our best case, is the impact for good that our graduates exert.” What do students today need for the greatest impact for good in the world?

Our Statement of Purpose says “the primary purpose of Davidson College is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.”

If we take that as our guide, and we ask, “What do our students need?” then what we are doing makes sense.

First, our students need today what Davidson has always provided. As in the past, our students learn to communicate clearly across multiple audiences, they learn to analyze complex questions from multiple perspectives, they learn to produce new knowledge and new art, and they develop resilience, intellectual humility, compassion, and moral courage.

Today our students also must learn to lead in an interconnected, culturally heterogeneous world. Our humanities faculty continually work to ensure that our students have the background and the analytic skills they need to do this. We also ask our students to live with and learn from people who eat, dress, think and pray differently than they do. Building on Davidson’s traditions, we strongly encourage more experiences working and serving off campus, through community-based courses, internships, international study, and research around the world.

Our grads also need to understand the possibilities and implications of new technologies—these have after all transformed how we live, work and communicate. So we have added and continue to add computer science courses and data analytics opportunities across the curriculum.

They need a collaborative approach to work and life, so we build a space that makes it easy to collaborate, and they need a creative entrepreneurial approach to problem-solving.

That’s the liberal arts.

Follow President Carol Quillen on Twitter @CarolQuillen.


About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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