Board Update – April 17, 2013

Board Update – April 17, 2013

I write to you today to update you on the church-relatedness discussion of the Board of Trustees. As I shared with you in February, the Board heard from the Trustee Committee on Church-Relatedness and began its consideration of the committee’s work. Since that time, the Trustees have continued to explore this issue.

The committee has followed a rigorous, thorough and thoughtful process, one that engaged a wide range of the Davidson family. The committee has worked hard to understand the college’s faith tradition and relationship with the Presbyterian Church from all perspectives. The committee has discussed at length the Reformed Tradition values considered to have shaped the college’s principles and practices, and those that most contribute to its distinctiveness. The committee has concluded that Davidson’s distinctiveness is real and genuine, and Davidson’s church-relatedness has been a significant contributing factor to that distinctiveness.

Our discussions have taken place in a broadly diverse community—one made up of students, faculty, alumni, parents, staff and friends who come to Davidson from around the world, representing a range of generations, backgrounds, opinions and experiences. One of the things we value most about this remarkable community is its ability to discuss difficult issues while respecting those with whom we don’t agree.

As a result of extensive conversations on this subject, and as part of our meeting yesterday, the Board of Trustees came to the following conclusions:

  • The Board reaffirmed the Statement of Purpose and the continued voluntary relationship between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Davidson College.
  • The Board acknowledged that there are differing views among the Trustees with regard to the Presidential Bylaw and recognized that there does not exist sufficient support for any particular change to it.
  • The Board will ensure that appropriate methods are in place to engage with the college community on an ongoing basis about the college’s faith heritage and relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

As always, Davidson remains strongly and passionately committed to its values of free inquiry, service and leadership, honor and integrity, humility, and diversity. The commitment to these values is driven in no small part by the Reformed Tradition, which upholds the dignity and worth of every person and therefore values members of the community who come from a different or no religious tradition. We admit, enroll, and employ the most talented students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds with the belief that they all contribute to a community where faith and reason work together to foster growth in learning, understanding, and wisdom.

Mackey McDonald ’68
Chair, Davidson College Board of Trustees

About the Author

Mackey McDonald '68Mackey McDonald is former chair of the Davidson College Board of Trustees.View all posts by Mackey McDonald '68 →

  1. Tamara Tiska '95
    Tamara Tiska '9504-17-2013

    I fully appreciate the daunting and time-consuming task with which the committee was presented, and the thorough way that they completed the task. Thank you for your service. However, I was disappointed with some of the recommendations, namely, that the Presidential Bylaw will not be changed. Since I do vote as often as allowed for my alumni representatives, on both the board of trustees and the alumni association, I think it would be very helpful for many of us to know the individual opinions of the committee members. I realize there is a certain amount of peace-keeping intended with presenting a “united front,” but the statement itself acknowledged “that there were differing views among the trustees.” If I am to continue to support those who I feel best represent my view of what Davidson should be, I feel it would be helpful to know where the individual trustees stand. I don’t think that it too much to ask.

    Finally, I grew up in a strong Christian faith, and appreciate the deep sense of service that was demonstrated and discussed at Davidson. Yet, it was during my time at Davidson that I actually decided that Christianity intellectually made no my sense for my own life. Simultaneously, my dedication to service, integrity, and justice all deepened as a result of my classes (which included “American Religious Thought” and “Buechner, O’Connor, and Percy”), experiences on and off campus, and–most of all–by the quiet examples of my professors. The most moving speech I ever heard on the importance of service and the alleviation of suffering was delivered at my brother’s Davidson graduation in 1999. I recall no mention of Christianity or Presbyterianism in that commencement speech, but it still sticks with me today.

    I appreciate the Presbyterian Church’s historical significance in the founding and development of Davidson College. There are other far more knowledgeable than me on the subject, but it seems like it was a pivotal relationship at the time in history. But the Davidson College I know and loved (in the late 20th century) allowed me to learn from both secular and religious sources without needing to jettison the truths of either one. That, I believe, is and will be the ongoing beauty of Davidson. I am deeply saddened that we may be excluding many visionary and exceptional future leaders from Davidson’s Presidential Office simply because of a bylaw that we cling to out of fear of losing our institutional identity. Davidson is unique and necessary because of so much more than its current affiliation with the Presbyterian Church.

  2. Ryan Price
    Ryan Price04-17-2013

    Disappointing, but unsurprising. There will be a lot of inertia implicit in this sort of decision, as well as some very vocal support from both people for whom the religious affiliation is a driving reason for their matriculation to the college and those major trustees who are already a part of the ‘old boys club.’ Perhaps 50 years from now we will see the problem with the ‘separate but equal’ approach. This sends the message that it’s fine to come, give your talent, your sweat and tears to the college (if you are up to snuff), but unless you are of the proper religious affiliation, you have no chance to take over leadership of your alma mater, whatever your dedication, whatever your experience, whatever your talent.

    This, of course, is insulting to those of us who love the college but happen not to be affiliated with the religious tradition. It’s discrimination at the highest level, and betrays a suspicion that those who do not share the faith do not share the commitment to common *human* values of ‘free inquiry, service and leadership, honor and integrity, humility, and diversity’ necessary to guide the college.

    I have no problem with the college identifying an historic connection with the PCUSA; there is no denying the long, rich tradition there. The question is merely what we do with that history, and what future the college wants to express. Should it be a Presbyterian college, stooping to allow other creeds to share in the wealth of knowledge and wisdom held within its walls and ‘celebrating’ the diversity of others from a difference but itself remaining invariant; or rather, should Davidson be guided to restructure itself such that the very institution reflects the values to which it claims to aspire. Both are valid paths, but surely only the former will be possible while Presbyterians have a privileged voice in the matter. Thus, we have the insurmountable inertia which makes any committee-oriented search doomed to provide no outcome but the one we have just attained.

  3. Kristen Kidd Donovan '97
    Kristen Kidd Donovan '9704-17-2013

    Allow me to echo both Tamara and Ryan’s disappointment. The trustees’ decision to maintain the status quo excludes from consideration most Davidson alumni along with countless other qualified individuals on the basis of where they spend their Sunday mornings. Glancing over the Class of 2016′s demographics leads one to believe Davidson values diversity. The trustees’ decision to uphold the Presidential Bylaw leads one to wonder whether tradition is valued over diversity.

  4. Hannah Foltz
    Hannah Foltz04-19-2013

    Disappointed alumni,
    Check out this student body response:

  5. Scott Denham
    Scott Denham04-19-2013

    I’m encouraged by these good comments by Tamara and Ryan and by the ideals of equality that my students are talking about right now because of the board’s decision. I hope for equality for all members of the Davidson family.

  6. Scott Denham
    Scott Denham04-19-2013

    I’m submitting this on behalf of my dad, Bob Denham ’61, with permission.

    “The problem with the by-law is that it decides in advance what the proper expression of strong Christian faith and commitment will be. Both aspects of appropriate expression––affiliation and participation in the life of the DCPC––are feeble criteria. One could be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church but not be at all active. If strong faith and commitment are to be the measuring rods, affiliation, which means simply connection or association, is hardly a proper standard by which to judge this faith and commitment. If Theodore Hesburgh were to apply for the presidency, would he be rejected because he was not “affiliated with” the Presbyterian Church (USA)? As for active participation, why should the president be limited to the DCPC? Vanity is not a virtue, but there is a certain arrogance in the assumption that one’s faith can be lived out only within the confines of the DCPC. Would a president be fired because she or he decided to attend Prospect Presbyterian Church, which is where Davidson College was founded? And how is active participation to be measured? Surely, it would involve more than showing up on Sunday morning for a worship service. One would think that active participation would be defined or at least illustrated. In other words, there is a great disconnect between someone “whose life provides evidence of strong Christian faith and commitment” and the two things that determine the “appropriate expression” of that faith and commitment. Jesus and St. Paul would not even be asked to submit their vitae. I happen to think that the gospel of love is a good foundation on which to build any number of human enterprises, including educational ones. I do not have a quarrel with the assumption that a college with a religious accent can have some advantages over a purely secular institution. Charitable behavior, respect for others, an inclusive attitude, service to all humanity, generosity, and kindness would be, I should think, some of the traits the college should look for in a president. One could be affiliated with a church and not embody any of these values. If there is to be a Presbyterian litmus test for the presidency, it should be carefully articulated and reasonably justified. No teacher of writing at Davidson would countenance the kind of careless thinking evidenced in the by-law, not to say its conceit and small mindedness.”
    –Robert Denham ’61

  7. Keyne Cheshire, Classics
    Keyne Cheshire, Classics04-19-2013

    The composition of the Board of Trustees as prescribed by the Bylaws, a minimum of 55% from PC-USA and 80% active Christians, strikes me as far more than “church-relatedness,” the phrase regularly used to frame this issue at Davidson.

    The whole of Article I also helps me to understand why compositional change to the Board is quite remarkable if and when it does occur.

    As a professor at Davidson College, I remain deeply concerned that the current Bylaws will continue to prevent many highly qualified, intelligent and principled candidates from contributing to the college and community as a president or trustee, owing simply to their religious affiliation (or non-affiliation). At times it may even be a “best” candidate who will be overlooked. Very, very often the overlooked or denied will continue to be shining members of Davidson’s own increasingly diverse pool of faculty, staff and alums, the diversity of which bodies our Board of Trustees appears otherwise to encourage.

  8. Chris Currie
    Chris Currie04-22-2013

    I am glad the College has chosen to maintain its close affiliation with the Presbyterian Church by keeping the Presidential by-law. I understand the arguments of those who think the Presidency should be opened up to a larger demographic, but the Presidency is one of the few visible signs/signals that this relationship is of importance, and to change the bylaw would be a major dilution of the relationship. The Reformed Christian ethos has shaped the school and is one of the factors that makes the school unique and makes the school what it is. It may not be the most significant factor, but to dilute or distance the institution from one of the things that make it what it is would defintely lead to identity change, if not all at once, at least gradually (and who knows, maybe this would be good–I just don’t think so).
    If changing the Presidential by-law is not a further weakening of the college’s commitment to the Presbyterian faith and its ongoing relationship in the life of the institution, then I think there needs to be an ongoing discussion about the importance of the life of faith at Davidson and the visible commitments (beyond the college Presdient) Davidson has to its relationship with the Presbyterian faith and the Presbyterian ethos that supports expressions of all faiths and none while maintaining its core convictions. One of the hallmarks of the Reformed expression of the Christian faith has always been an openness and generosity to all religious and ethical expressions while at the same time maintaing its core convictions. I’ve always loved that Davidson believed reason and faith could be held together institutionally by owning its relationship with the Presbyterian Church. I realize this is not an easy place to stand in the world of higher education, but it is what makes Davidson unique and important in the world of higher education and liberal arts colleges in particular. I also believe that those who support the institutional commitments to the Presbyterian faith and who support maintaining the Presidential by-law, do so in good faith and not out of prejudice or bigotry or small-mindedness, and that those who want to change the Presidential by-law would afford those who disagree with them that generosity and goodwill.
    Chris Currie
    Class of 1997
    Minister in the PC(USA)
    Ph.D. Candidate in Theology
    University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity

  9. James Durling P ’14
    James Durling P ’1404-22-2013

    I share the views of those disappointed by this decision.

    My concerns fall into two categories. First, as to the merits, I find it difficult to understand the argument for the bylaw requirement. I completely understand the strong desire to preserve the connection to the Presbyterian Church, but that does not itself justify the requirement in the bylaw. I attended Haverford College, a school with very strong ties to the Quaker faith. Haverford has managed to maintain these ties with and without Quaker presidents. Most presidents have been practicing Quakers, but the President is not required to be a practicing Quaker. I also chaired the board of an Episcopal elementary school. We confronted a similar issue — the founding head had been a practicing Episcopalian and the school very much valued that faith connection. We had to decide whether formal affiliation with the Episcopal church would be an absolute requirement for the next head of school. After much discussion, we concluded that being a practicing Episcoplian was a large plus factor, and we that expected any candidate to demonstrate what in their background prepared them to lead and steward the Episcopalian foundations of the school, but candidates were not absolutely required to be practicing Episcopalians. There are so many ways to preserve the Presbyterian traditions of Davidson without reaffirming an explicitly discriminatory rule — and thus my struggle with understanding the decision. That Davidson may be legally permitted to discriminate based on religion for this position does not make the discrimination morally correct.

    Which leads to my second concern. I have been watching this issue very closely — reading everything the school released, looking for other non-school commentary about the issue, and discussing it with Davidson students and alum that I have met while the issue has been pending. I have read everything made public about this issue. Yet I find that although the process has been described exhaustively, there is no summary of the arguments presented on both sides and no explanation of how the Boad reached its decision. Having served on a board, I understand the need for some level of confidentiality. But at the same time, I feel the Davidson Board owes the Davidson community something more than “we couldn’t agree, so nothing will change.” Absent more transparency about the decision, those outside the Board deliberations are left to wonder. That speculation can only hurt Davidson and how it is perceived by the many in the community who disagree with the Board decision.

    The good news is that it is not too late to improve the communication about the decision.

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