The Professor and the President

Carol Quillen is both. She’s also Davidson’s first female president and the first non-Davidson alum to hold the office since 1957.


Mike Carroll

(page 1 of 3)

It’s time for class. On a Tuesday evening in early November, about a hundred people take their seats in a small performance hall in the Davidson College student union for a lecture by Carol Quillen, the eighteenth president—and first woman to hold the office—in the college’s 174-year history.

The college has asked Quillen, who was inaugurated in August, to deliver a Chidsey Leadership Lecture, a once-a-semester talk on leadership meant to educate and inspire potential student leaders. The room is packed. “Once students get to know her and hear her speak, they have the same reaction,” Faheem Rathore, a senior political science major who served on the presidential search committee, says a few minutes beforehand. “Stephen Curry”—the basketball star, Davidson’s most well-known alumnus—“is back on campus now, but she’s a bigger celebrity than he is. Everybody just wants to meet her.”

Quillen, fifty, is tall, lean, dark haired and dark eyed, with the stride and posture of the athlete she was in middle and high school. The college has provided a lectern, adorned with the Davidson logo, off to one side. Quillen ignores it. She marches briskly to the front of the hall and begins talking—not lecturing, talking. As she speaks, her hands carve semicircles into the air, as if she’s spinning an invisible globe. “Let me tell you what I’m about to do, which might be a little different from what you might expect,” she tells the audience, and then: “I’m going to rely on you.”

And so class begins. Quillen has been a history professor for more than twenty years, and she is not interested in merely downloading what’s in her head. “My goal is to produce understanding, not to demonstrate my own knowledge,” she told me a few days earlier. This is old-school interactive. She has questions for you: What is leadership? What does that mean, really? We say people need to trust each other—what is trust? Five minutes in, she sheds her red cardigan and works the hall in a sleeveless black top and gray slacks, calling on students, gesticulating, rephrasing, laughing, challenging. In an hour, she consults her notes, abandoned back at the lectern, once.

She’s a teacher, after all. That was part of her appeal. College Board of Trustees Chairman Mackey McDonald, in introducing her to Davidson in May, called her “a collaborative leader who knows what she doesn’t know and surrounds herself with people who do.” She leads, but she’s more shepherd than general, in keeping with Davidson’s mission to teach young people how to motivate and manage themselves for life.

In other ways, Quillen—who succeeded Tom Ross, a Davidson alumnus who’s now the president of the University of North Carolina system—was an unconventional choice, a woman to oversee a college that granted degrees to males only until 1972 and the first president since 1957 not to have graduated from Davidson. The college tends to think of itself as distinctive, a place apart, an institution few non-Davidson grads can truly understand. Yet Davidson has welcomed her with uncommon enthusiasm. “Her values are Davidson’s values,” McDonald said in announcing the decision. “She inspired us.”

Quillen isn’t taking over an institution in crisis. Davidson is highly ranked academically, financially sound, and scandal free. The student body benefits from the Davidson Trust, a remarkable mechanism established in 2007 that offers loan-free packages for all students in need of financial aid. At a time when two-thirds of American college students assume debt to attend college and the average debt load upon graduation is $27,000, it’s an extraordinary pledge.

“There are two questions I consistently ask every Davidson group I talk to. One is, ‘If you could change one thing about Davidson, what would you change?’ And the other is, ‘If you could ensure that one thing never changed, what would that be?’”

Davidson isn’t cheap. It costs $49,723, including tuition, housing, meals, and fees, to attend the college for the 2011-12 school year. The Davidson Trust is one of many reasons why Davidson inspires an intense loyalty, unusually strong even among small private schools, in its students and alumni. The Davidson Alumni Association’s Charlotte Chapter has more members (2,043 at last count if you include Rock Hill) than the college’s enrollment, 1,920. Many of those alumni—most notably Mayor Anthony Foxx, class of ’93—hold leadership positions in Charlotte. The college’s alumni giving rate, a source of great pride, is an eyebrow-raising 60.3 percent. That ranks second in the country among similar-style schools.

Quillen’s job is to build on that loyalty and extend it beyond the gorgeous campus and the small town it defines. A growing metropolitan city sits just twenty miles down Interstate 77, but Davidson’s singularity can, at times, isolate it; what makes Davidson an oasis also makes it an island. The new president believes Davidson can retain its distinctiveness and still raise its profile in the city where many alumni live, work, and lead.

One of them is Ann Blakeney Clark, the chief academic officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and a 1980 Davidson graduate active in both Davidson and Charlotte life; she serves on the college Board of Visitors (which is separate from the Board of Trustees) and numerous nonprofit boards in the city. “Through brief interactions and talking to folks on the executive team, I know she does want to enhance the relationship between Davidson and the city—and there are a lot of things to build on,” Clark says. She points to the Charlotte Teachers Institute, a two-year-old initiative among Davidson, CMS, and UNC Charlotte that offers continuing education for CMS teachers.

Of course, Quillen’s visibility in Charlotte will be part of that enhancement, Clark adds. “There are opportunities for the president to have a more visible presence in Charlotte and urge faculty and staff to do that as well.”

Quillen says she’s committed to connecting the college with Charlotte. “I think Charlotte provides a rich urban life, and I’d like for our students to be able to participate more in that,” she tells me in her office in late October. “I think we have talent that would make a contribution to Charlotte: research talent, problem-solving talent, contributing to improving the lives of underserved populations. … I think we haven’t always been able to do that as well as we could.”

That’s a general goal, she stresses. The particulars aren’t in place yet. She’s still trying to take in the institution she’s been hired to lead. One of the great things about liberal arts education, she says, is that teachers can learn from students. Quillen revealed a cornerstone of her educational and personal philosophy the moment she stepped on campus when, during an interview posted at the college’s website, she said her primary goal was to listen.

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