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Davidson Dispatches

By John Syme

Posted: Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2013

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John Syme

John Syme graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor of arts degree in French in 1985. He worked as a general-assignment reporter at The Winston-Salem Journal, where he later wrote freelance travel stories during his first solo cross-country road trip in the summer of 1989. He worked as a copywriter at a Charlotte advertising agency, as a research translator at a French nutrition center outside Paris, and as a politics and education newspaper reporter in Charlotte. He returned in 2001 to Davidson, where he is senior writer, alumni editor and instigator of the "Road Trip 2009" blog, which evolved into his current blog, "Daybook Davidson."

I got to work late to start the week off on a cold and rainy Monday morning, in a loaner car and a bad mood, looking forward to lunch and not much else. Grrr, I was like.

So thank the gods for this particular Monday morning’s special staff-meeting guest speaker, President Carol Quillen. Carol Quillen is flat-out inspiring on the podium, as down-to-earth as a favorite professor while soaring skyward to eagle-eye the big picture of higher education passions and insights that brought her to us in the first place. All that to say: You can feel this woman think. By the end of the hour, I was like, “Thanks, I needed that!”

Carol, who can by wry, somewhat facetiously described her job as “talking to really smart people and repeating what they say to other really smart people.” That small comment got a big laugh from the assembled, a smart crowd of fundraisers and communicators. Then she talked specifically and with conviction about how Davidson is superbly, even uniquely, positioned in 2013 for "reimagining the liberal arts," so that we can continue to ensure an “unsurpassed, transformational education” to Davidson students. She talked about a currently trending umbrella concept on this campus, "transition to impact," a term encompassing internships and entrepreneurship and career services programming and post-graduate fellowships and community-based learning and more initiatives still emerging. And in the meantime, for anyone who doubts how highly the market values a solid liberal arts education, feast your peepers on 21 Division I men’s and women’s athletic teams.

She talked about March Madness (of course!) and the college’s firm commitment to its 21 Division I men’s and women’s athletic teams as a(nother) unique Davidson calling card among liberal arts colleges and as an integrated part of the Davidson experience for all our nearly 2,000 students. “There’s one door into Davidson,” she said, and “Our student-athletes go to class the day after the big game,” and “People who compete at the highest levels of athletics gain skills you can’t get anywhere else.”

She paired Davidson’s longstanding and continuously emerging reputation for excellence—academic, athletic, and otherwise—with the college’s paramount intention of access for all, as embodied in The Davidson Trust. The Davidson Trust is the college’s commitment to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for all admitted students without the necessity for loans.

She cited David Leonhardt’s current New York Times piece, Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor.

“That’s tragic,” she said. “We can’t have a society where the primary predictor of a young person’s chance at education is the income or inheritance of their parents…. The Davidson Trust makes equal opportunity real.

“Our value proposition is not that we are cheap,” she continued, and I nearly snorted coffee out my nose. Right she is, I thought, and let’s call things by their name. Not cheap and worth it.

Higher education is becoming ever more “highly differentiated,” she noted. That’s great, she said, and all the more important, then, to define exactly what a Davidson education means, and can mean.

“Our curriculum is based on students doing things, on professors asking questions for which nobody knows the answers yet,” she said. “Our faculty is always going to be overwhelmingly tenured and tenure-track and part of the community.”

Aaaannd we’re back to “not cheap.” Also not scalable, she noted, but a one-student, one-family at a time proposition. That’s how we learn and how we live, at Davidson. You can’t do that online. And we are figuring out the enormous challenge of steady funding for The Davidson Trust and we shall continue to do so, she said with no small emphasis. If Carol Quillen were the type to put her hands on her hips and stare down educational injustice with a big ol’ schoolmarm stinkeye, she would have done so here. As it is, she’s lighter than that and more forward- and upward-looking, especially as regards standing behind The Davidson Trust. So she looked around the room and declared to us, clearly with the highest personal, professional and institutional conviction, “I don’t think it’s a choice. It’s an ethical obligation…. We believe we can do it, because we believe we can do anything.”

And having spent a good portion of the rest of the rainy Monday on campus among Davidson students, I believe it, too.

Thanks, Carol, and colleagues, and students, I needed that.

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