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At Davidson, heritage and principle collide

Spend some time at Davidson College, and you’ll learn quickly that it’s different from most schools. From students to faculty, administration to alumni, the Davidson community shares a distinctive commitment to learning and leadership, one that’s reflected in an honor code that allows students to schedule their own exams and take them unmonitored.

Most at the school agree that the Davidson ethos comes from its 176-year affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, which continues to shape its dedication to integrity and service. Some say that Davidson’s strength also comes from its inclusivity, that the school community purposefully recognizes the worth of every person, regardless of his or her religious tradition.

But recently, the two tenets have seemed at odds in a growing debate over a school bylaw that places religious restrictions on who can be school president. The longtime bylaw requires that the president be “affiliated” with the Presbyterian Church (USA) during his or her tenure. That doesn’t necessarily mean the president has to be Presbyterian; a Christian of another denomination could have such an affiliation without giving up a previous church membership. Non-Christians, however, would not qualify.

Concerns about the bylaw were raised during the school’s search for a new president in 2010-2011. This April, after studying the issue, Davidson’s Board of Trustees announced it would not change the requirement. About 650 members of the school community have since signed a petition asking that the trustees reconsider, and faculty and alumni boards have passed resolutions against the bylaw.

Opponents of the requirement argue that it runs contrary to the inclusivity that Davidson treasures. That openness is reflected in a diverse faculty and population in which only one in 10 students is Presbyterian. If a Jewish student/alum is truly a valued participant in the school community, bylaw opponents ask, should his faith be a sole disqualifier for leading the school he loves?

But would changing the bylaw weaken the school’s ties with the Presbyterian church? That relationship isn’t formal – the church has no say in the day-to-day governance of the school – but the bond is not insignificant. At least 24 of the school’s 45 voting trustees must be Presbyterian, and the church’s Reformed Tradition shapes student life in countless ways, from faith-based academic pursuits to the honor code and other principles students are expected to uphold.

One of those principles, by the way, is inclusiveness. A church faith statement, The Confession of 1967, urges Christians to approach all religions with openness and respect.

Opponents of the religious requirement for presidents say they understand and embrace Davidson’s relationship with the church. In fact, they say, that bond is so strong that it wouldn’t be threatened by removing the bylaw. We agree. The bigger threat to Davidson might be the rigid message trustees would send to future students and faculty by keeping the bylaw, especially now that the issue has become more public.

This much is certain: Discussion about the issue has remained exactly that – a thoughtful, civil discussion. That’s a testament to the heritage – and openness – that keep Davidson so strong.

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