The Idea of a Presbyterian College (2)

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.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to The Idea of a Presbyterian College (2)

  1. Doug Bennett says:

    Gary Luhr, Executive Director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities writes,
    What I find most amazing is that a college the caliber of Davidson still has this requirement in 2012. Needless to say, I will be following what Davidson does with great interest, in part because I believe the way that Davidson defines what it means to be church-related could become a model for other Presbyterian colleges. It won’t be the first time one of our schools has undertaken this sort of self-examination. The most thorough such examination happened a few years ago at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, where a blue ribbon commission of college and church leaders spend almost a year defining what it meant to be a college “in covenant relationship” with the Presbyterian Church (USA). In that particular case, the self-examination was prompted not by the calling of a new president, but by a change in PC’s general education requirements–specifically a proposal to do away with required courses in Old and New Testament, which sparked a strong, negative reaction among the religion faculty, all of whom happened to be ordained Presbyterian ministers. More recently this sort of reflection was the subject of a day-long trustees retreat at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. (By coincidence, the president of Agnes Scott, Elizabeth Kiss, is a Davidson alum who brought in a former Davidson College president, John Kuykendall, to lead that retreat.)
    You are no doubt correct when you say that a college will not long remain Presbyterian in its mission if no one in leadership is Presbyterian. My own experience has shown that when it comes to lifting up church-relatedness or an institution’s particular religious heritage, it is the president who sets the tone. That said, I have also observed that merely being Presbyterian does not guarantee that the President will see that heritage as being of great importance to the college. For it to mean something, it needs to be embraced, as you note, by the President, the trustees and at least some of the faculty. And that can happen even when the President is of a different faith background. A good example is Austin College in Texas, where the president, Marjorie Hass, who happens to be Jewish, has continued to honor and support the college’s Presbyterian heritage. She even co-taught a class this semester with Austin’s Presbyterian chaplain.
    Sometimes when I exhibit on behalf of our colleges at large Presbyterian gatherings, I will have somebody tell me that Davidson no longer does much to reflect its Presbyterian connection. I never know exactly what they might be referring to, unless it is the fact that Davidson, like almost all colleges today, no longer requires students to attend weekly chapel services. But I have little doubt that the legacy of John Calvin remains firmly embedded in Davidson’s DNA. One example was the college profile that was developed for the search that led to Carol Quillen’s hiring as president. The word Presbyterian (and more) appeared on practically every page. Another example is the letter Davidson Board Chair Mackey McDonald sent to the Davidson family after appointing the committee that will lead the forthcoming study. It showed, I thought, a deep understanding that being Presbyterian means more than mandatory chapel and required classes in Old and New Testament. Mackey said:
    “Our religious heritage is not just part of our history. Much of what we cherish about Davidson today–our strong sense of honor and integrity, our extraordinary dedication to leadership and service, and our fundamental commitment to academic inquiry and openness–is, for many, shaped by our close and strong ties to the Reformed Tradition, and specifically to our Presbyterian heritage. Similarly, Davidson is strongly and passionately committed to inclusivity. This commitment is driven in no small part by our grounding in the Reformed Tradition, which upholds the dignity and worth of every person.”
    In other words, the (Presbyterian) values that went into establishing the college continue to shape it and to undergird the type of educational experience that Davidson seeks to provide.

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