Lake Norman Magazine

A Davidson-style welcome

An accomplished administrator and a respected scholar, Quillen came to Davidson from Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she served most recently as vice president for international and interdisciplinary initiatives.
An accomplished administrator and a respected scholar, Quillen came to Davidson from Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she served most recently as vice president for international and interdisciplinary initiatives. Laura Mueller

Davidson College President Carol Quillen sits in her office on the first floor in the Chambers Building. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon and she’s appreciating the view from this quiet corner of the school’s primary classroom building and campus academic center. “I honestly forgot how beautiful trees are,” she says. “Trees affect the weather and affect your mood. They really do.” Prior to being named Davidson’s 18th president in August, she was an accomplished leader and scholar at Rice University in Houston, a city known more for highways than greenways. But opportunities to admire the natural beauty just outside her Davidson office window are rare, as Quillen has busily involved herself in the campus and surrounding community. And members of both have welcomed her with open arms. “People haven’t just asked me ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Have you settled in?’” she says. “They want to know if I’ve found a favorite restaurant or if I need a recommendation for a dentist or veterinarian. Everyone is so genuine; it’s been a wonderful welcome.” You can go home againQuillen was born and raised in New Castle, Delaware, a small historic town with an active downtown community. “In many ways, Davidson is similar to New Castle in that it’s a functioning small town with a close-knit multigenerational community,” she says. But Quillen is no stranger to big cities. “Houston is such a driving city,” she says. “If people see you walking, they stop to offer a ride, assuming something must be wrong.” And while the notion of businesses not being open 24 hours a day took her by surprise, Quillen says she quickly embraced Davidson’s pedestrian-friendly environment and small-town charm. “It’s great to have coffee shops, grocery stores and a movie theater all within walking distance. I love not having to drive for anything.” But the people of Davidson have made the biggest impact. A large card covered with kind welcoming remarks from Davidson students sits prominently displayed in her office. From the excitement of welcoming Davidson’s first woman president to the enthusiasm of her commitment to funding undergraduate research, Wildcat fans are embracing Quillen in a way that moves her. “People have gone above and beyond to make me feel a part of this community. It’s an authentic greeting like none I’ve received before, and in that sense makes Davidson very unique.” ‘Everything is new to me, too’ Watching the freshman class arrive on campus this year, Quillen felt a connection to the students. “Like them, everything is new to me, too,” she says. “We’re all here on campus trying to figure this whole scene out.” She also feels a connection to the freshman students’ parents, having hugged her own college-bound child goodbye this fall. Quillen’s daughter Caitlyn is a first-year student at UNC Chapel Hill. “It’s definitely interesting to work at a college when your own child is starting school,” she says. When asked if she offered any advice to her daughter before saying goodbye, Quillen smiles. “Caitlyn’s very resilient and strong, and works very hard. But she also has a great sense of humor that pulls her through the tough times. I told her not to ever lose that sense of humor.” Live life as you chooseQuillen speaks fondly of admirable qualities she’s learned from family and those she’s met throughout her career. “My family taught me the importance of being involved in your community and making a difference,” she says. Her father was a judge who once ran for governor of Delaware and her brother-in-law is a Delaware Congressman, Rep. John Carney (D). But she has never had political aspirations. “Being the president of a college is a very public job that I like,” she says. “And while I grew up with an understanding of politics and their importance, today’s political scrutiny is very different from when I was young.” Quillen names two very public and political figures as role models. “I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a function with Nelson Mandela,” she says. “Here’s a man who could have remained so angry and bitter, yet he didn’t. And he elevated the room just by his presence.” Another influential person she met was the Dalai Lama. “I remember him saying that things happen, things goes wrong. Be prepared to respond because you can’t prevent it. “I admire people who take stands, even when those stands are unpopular,” Quillen adds. “I admire people with deep moral courage.” A significant personal role model was her husband, Ken Kennedy, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007. Kennedy was a pioneer in the computer science field and founded the computer science program at Rice University. “Losing (Ken) was extremely hard,” she says. "But I admire that he had lived his life as he would have chosen. I believe that doing so is an obligation that we all have.” ‘No cookie cutter graduates’Quillen is confident that Davidson students and graduates are living the life they choose, starting with their choice to attend the college. “I’ve never experienced an institution where students, staff and faculty are so completely vested in a school’s sense of mission.”Davidson students happily subscribe to the school’s Honor Code, which has roots dating to the college’s inception in 1837. While Quillen is familiar with colleges and Honor Codes – Rice University students also followed one – she admires Davidson’s deep commitment to the code. “I’ve met many Davidson alumni and students who told me that on more than one occasion they had the opportunity to cheat and no one would have known,” she says. “But they chose not to because they had made the commitment to be honest. That’s the effect of an Honor Code – it deepens one’s commitment to integrity.” Quillen looks forward to working with Davidson students and alumni as she learns about their connections to the surrounding community. “There are no cookie cutter Davidson graduates,” she says. “But Davidson alumni as a whole are incredibly supportive of their institution. With many alumni living in the Charlotte region, there’s great potential for linking Davidson to Charlotte’s business community.” Attending faculty luncheons, meeting community business leaders or cheering the student’s athletic and cultural events – it’s all in a day’s work, which for President Quillen usually begins at 8 a.m. and often stretches into the evening. It’s a good thing Summit Coffee & Tea – and a caffeine refill – is within walking distance of the tree-lined campus and community she now calls home.

A liberal arts philosophyDavidson President Carol Quillen’s liberal arts roots harken back to her undergraduate days as a history major at the University of Chicago. In a society that increasingly focuses on science and technology, Quillen emphasizes the role a liberal arts education plays: “A liberal arts education is necessary in today’s society because it is a complete education. The liberal arts education helps students develop all the talents they possess, it develops the entire person. A liberal arts education helps students connect how they learn (critical thinking, communication skills, and analytical skills) with how they live.”

“The reality is, a liberal arts education is always going to be very expensive, available to only a few people and therefore hard to justify to an increasingly skeptical public. But the case we need to make is the benefits to society. Our graduates have a deep sense of obligation to more than just themselves. Leadership and service are linked, especially at Davidson.”