Carol Quillen

In 2013, shortly before the launch of the Game Changers campaign, business theorist Clayton Christenson made a bold prediction: 50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States will be bankrupt in 15 years. 

Christenson saw higher education as a sector stubbornly resistant to reform even in the face of evolving economic, demographic and cultural conditions. Think tanks across the political spectrum were holding “future of work” forums that questioned whether today’s jobs would exist in five years. Demographers were charting a declining high school age population. Public officials were growing increasingly alarmed at rising tuition and spiraling student debt. And a growing number of adults, their jobs made obsolete by globalization or new technologies, were seeking credentials that would prepare them for 21st century career success. 

Christenson imagined the story would go something like this: As traditional residential colleges doubled down on recruiting the most desirable (defined variously as highest achieving, most artistically gifted, fastest, or richest) among a shrinking pool of high schoolers, they would spend money (think lazy rivers and food courts) aimed at attracting existing applicants with shiny objects incidental to education. More and more potential learners—working adults, returning veterans, first-generation students who wanted career choices, unemployed people seeking retraining, women seeking to re-enter the work force—would be left out, priced out or underserved. 

Enter the “disruptive” entrepreneur, who would use new technologies to offer these learners the high-quality education they sought more efficiently, flexibly and at a much lower price than conventional institutions. Eventually, even traditional college students—the high schoolers—would question the value of the four-year residential experience and make the switch. 

While a few schools did build lazy rivers, our campus reacted differently. Christenson’s prediction (whatever one thinks of it) and ongoing public debates about cost, equity, debt and relevance offered our community—professors, staff members, alumni, students and families—the opportunity to reflect on Davidson’s foundational commitment to affordability and longstanding tradition of innovation (remember Dr. Ortmayer’s case studies?) in light of our primary purpose. 

We asked ourselves what we did well, what new things we wanted to do, what we no longer needed to do, where we could improve, and what it means, in our time, to prepare students for lives of leadership and service. We asked alumni which of their Davidson experiences proved most meaningful after graduation and what opportunities we should offer young people today. And we asked current students, most of whom could not have attended Davidson had they been alive in 1837, how our campus should change so that we could welcome and effectively prepare them for lives of impact now.  

From these conversations, exciting priorities emerged that built on Davidson’s powerful tradition of innovation. Our community wanted to foster even more collaboration across departments and between professors and students. We wanted to expand the curriculum to include crucial fields like computer science and public health, and we wanted more chances to pilot experimental programs. We wanted to explore new technologies in the context of our primary purpose and to discover how these could expand our reach and help us to address educational challenges in our community and world.

Other discussions highlighted foundational strengths—many singled out the Honor Code—and existing high-value programs. How, for example, could we expand paid internship opportunities, especially over the summer, and could programs like Davidson in Washington and the Stapleton Internships be a model? Given that early experience in the lab inspires more students to persist in their chosen majors, could we create such opportunities for rising sophomores? Could we expand the Davidson Research Initiative and increase international opportunities? How could we build on our unique position as a top liberal arts college that plays Division I sports to consistently attract exceptional scholar-athletes? How could we continue to recruit and retain outstanding professors and staff members who make everything we do here possible?

We turned urgent needs into bigger opportunities. The need for chemistry facilities pushed us to imagine a state-of-the-art transdisciplinary building, now the Wall Academic Center, that nurtures community and creativity across the entire campus. Our need to recruit extraordinary students amidst changing demographic circumstances inspired a distinctive range of scholarship programs that hold open our doors to all talented young people irrespective of their finances, nationality or background. Our need to honor the aspirations of scholar-athletes (one court for three teams meant some were practicing too late) inspired us to dream also of studios, now the Cheryle Williamson Center for Dance, that celebrate the arts as foundational to a liberal education. And the need to serve all students in these rapidly evolving times led us to create the Spencer-Weinstein Center for Community and Justice, a position for a Buddhist chaplain, Lula Bell’s Resource Center, the Davidson Research Network, the Africana studies program, the Lavender Lounge and the Hurt Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Throughout, our values and the theological tradition out of which they arose grounded our conversations. Davidson assists students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service. We honor the dignity of each human being. Our loyalty extends to all of humanity. We commit ourselves to a quest for truth. 

These conversations are, of course, ongoing. Initiatives in deliberative citizenship, inclusive pedagogy, restorative justice, policy studies, digital studies and Jewish studies, to name just a few, are taking shape, and others will follow. A reimagined humanities program is thriving, the physics, Hispanic studies, and chemistry departments have restructured their curricula, and each semester professors offer new experiences, from studying the effects of vaping to analyzing pro sports draft picks to creating documentaries about racism and performances inspired by the musical Hamilton

None of this, from the early ideas to their actualization, happens without you. Because you give generously—your time, energy, resources and brain power—we can say with confidence that a Davidson education is worth it, especially in the face of a future no one can accurately predict, because of the lives our graduates are equipped to lead. Thank you with all my heart for allowing me to be a part of this special community.


About Author

Carol Quillen

Davidson College President Carol Quillen has engaged the college community in reimagining the liberal arts experience within the changing landscape of higher education and an increasingly interconnected world. Quillen became the 18th president of Davidson College on Aug. 1, 2011.

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