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Duke Endowment gives Davidson College $45 million for construction, renovation

Biggest grant ever will help school remake campus for new model

Davidson College President - Dr. Carol Quillen
Laura Mueller - Laura Mueller
Dr. Carol Quillen became the 18th president of Davidson College on August 1, 2011.

The Duke Endowment announced Thursday that it is giving $45 million to Davidson College, prompting a collective gasp and a standing ovation from hundreds of students and faculty gathered at the school’s performing arts hall.

Then – as if that wasn’t news enough – the charitable foundation’s board chair, Minor Shaw, pulled out a check for $5 million and handed it to Davidson College President Carol Quillen.

“The first installment,” Shaw said, earning another ovation.

“I’m going to try really hard not to lose this,” responded a grinning Quillen.

The $45 million represents the largest single grant ever given to the school, founded in 1837, and launches a 10-year project to make Davidson more competitive with online schools by re-creating the way it teaches liberal arts.

Specifically, the college intends to de-emphasize traditional lecture-based classes for a more flexible approach that removes boundaries between departments and encourages students to actively engage with each other.

In other words: more research and less note-taking for Davidson’s 2,000 students.

It’s a shift experts say is critical to the survival of small liberal arts colleges like Davidson, which face growing competition from much cheaper online colleges. (Davidson costs nearly $52,155 annually.)

One 2011 survey showed the student population of less expensive “virtual schools” increased by 21 percent over the previous year, far exceeding the 2 percent growth in higher-education students.

Online schools often operate on a for-profit basis, and critics note that private, for-profit schools account for nearly half of all student-loan defaults.

Still, some experts say the growth of online classes could disrupt traditional colleges and universities in much the same way as the Internet upended newspapers and other traditional media.

“I think what Davidson is doing makes liberal arts relevant in the 21st century,” said Susan McConnell of the Duke Endowment staff.

“There is a place for online learning. If you just need information, by all means get it online. But if students want to collaborate with each other, work across disciplines and take new approaches to solving problems, four years on campus makes sense.”

Quillen lauded the endowment for backing a complicated change that calls for transforming the campus into an “academic neighborhood.”

Elements of the plan include:

• Faculty and staff will be grouped by the resources they need and their potential to work together, rather than separated by traditional buildings.

• Learning labs and shared equipment will encourage students from different disciplines to work on the same projects from different angles.

“We are being motivated by questions,” said Quillen. “What does it mean to offer a liberal arts education now? Why is Davidson worth the tuition, given online options?”

The work starts in 2013 with construction of a four-story, 120,000-square-foot science building on a lot next to the current Martin Chemical Laboratory. That project will be followed by renovation of the 27,000-square-foot Martin building, built in 1941.

In all, six buildings will be expanded, renovated or built from the ground up in the next decade, school officials said. They are the E.H. Little Library, Chambers Building, Baker-Watt Science Complex, Sloan Music Building, Martin Chemical Laboratory and Preyer Building.

Shaw said Duke Endowment creator James B. Duke was a visionary who would have appreciated the new direction being taken by the school. The endowment’s founder is the same Duke behind Duke University and Duke Energy, but those are all separate organizations.

Davidson is one of four institutions of higher learning that receives money from the endowment, along with Furman, Duke and Johnson C. Smith universities.

A total cost of Davidson’s 10-year project will be released later this academic year, officials said.

Shaw said the size of the grant is intended to send a message.

“It shows other donors we feel strongly about this initiative.”

Mark Price: 704-358-5245
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