May 9, 2012
Inside Higher Ed this morning has a news piece about Davidson College entitled “A Presbyterian Presidency.” It raises the question again about what it means to be a Presbyterian college. I’ve written about this recently.
Davidson has a newish president, Carol Quillen, just finishing her first year. Davidson, a Presbyterian college, has always required that its presidents be Presbyterians. Quillen is a Presbyterian. But now the trustees have begun a process “to examine the college’s ‘church-relatedness’ and make recommendations.” The article adds, “Administrators at the college, which faced a high-profile fight recently over allowing non-Christians to serve on its board, stress that the study may result in no policy change at all.” Among the issues to be addressed is whether Davidson’s president needs to be an active Presbyterian.
My first reaction was to wonder how Quillen feels about this. Doesn’t the re-examination risk the appearance of saying that the college wound up with a less than ideal president because of the requirement? I hope they’re not saying that, and I hope she doesn’t feel that there’s that implication.
My second reaction was to ponder again what it means to be a Presbyterian college, or for that matter what it means (as I’ve explored before) to be a Quaker college, a Roman Catholic college, an evangelical college, or even a Christian college.
On the one hand, there needs to be some substantive conception of what it means for a college or university to be grounded in a particular religious denomination. This substantive conception has to closely link to the college’s mission. Sometimes this takes the form of a written covenant between church and college. I couldn’t find one for Davidson on its website. The best I could find is this statement on the college’s religious heritage that also introduces the trustee study. But Presbyterian College (TX) has a covenant, for example, and the there is an overarching covenant between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. Earlham College recently developed a covenant with Indiana Yearly Meeting stating their understanding of the mutual obligations of a Quaker College and its Quaker denomination.
Whatever this conception, it needs to give life to programs and activities that involve students and shape their learning.
On the other hand, there needs to be some person or group charged with seeing that the college actively lives into that substantive conception. Should it be the Board? the President? or the Faculty? You can make an argument that none of those should be constrained by a religious test in their selection, that such constraints undermine excellence. (But if Davidson is Presbyterian, isn’t Presbyterian understanding an aspect of excellence?) If none of these (Faculty, President, Board) need be Presbyterian, who will have the deep knowledge to steer the college in fulfillment of the religious aspect of its mission? It’s hopeless to imagine that a college will be Presbyterian in its mission with no one in leadership being Presbyterian.
Of the three roles, I think it is most important that there be members of the Faculty who are church members and feel strongly about the connection to a particular religious denomination. Next most important is probably the President. Least important is the Board. Why that ordering? Because substantive programs (curricular or co-curricular) are likely to be best created and sustained by the Faculty. Such programs may be encouraged and promoted by a President. But it is unlikely that a Board by itself can dictate programs or programmatic emphases on a college whose Faculty or President have little interest in them.
I very much doubt Davidson has any religious test for its Faculty, and the article doesn’t say what percentage (likely diminishing) of its Faculty are Presbyterians. Should Davidson drop the religious requirement for its President, the responsibility for sustaining the college’s Presbyterian dimension would fall largely on the Board, the least efficacious candidate.
The Inside Higher Ed article speaks of discrimination, apparently a bad thing here, and of diversity, apparently a good thing here. Those considerations are the forces that will lead any college away from using religious affiliation in any selection process. In general, discrimination is a bad thing and diversity a good thing, unless we are talking about essential values we are trying to preserve. Then we want to discriminate in favor of them and not pursue diversity that weakens them.
The article says next to nothing about what impulses will lead to strengthening or sustaining Davidson’s religious (Presbyterian) dimension. Without such countervailing impulses or energies, the religious character of any college will surely slip away.