Davidson College scrubbing historic perk for students

It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to historic quirks about Davidson College – in business since 1837 and the place where Woodrow Wilson practiced his oratory and Stephen Curry his lay-ups.

For our purposes, we will start in 1911, when the minutes of a faculty meeting raised the need for a campus laundry: Agricultural students who worked mornings in the fields had a malodorous air about them, according to college lore.

It took 14 years, but in 1925, the college built its own laundry and since then has washed, dried, folded and ironed students’ clothes for free.

That perk will end a year from now, the college notified its 2,000 students Wednesday afternoon. After 90 years, they’ll be on their own, though the college will add more free washers and dryers to those already available.

This is a big deal. Davidson takes its traditions seriously. Though nationally prominent for its academics, free laundry distinguishes Davidson on every Internet list of special student benefits for various colleges.

For decades, each incoming Davidson student has been assigned a laundry number (only bother to write it on the clothes you want back, every freshman is told). At reunions, alumni recite their laundry numbers to show they’re still with it, said Richard Terry, who oversees the laundry as director of auxiliary services (Terry graduated from Davidson in 1981; his laundry number was 309).

Resources better used

Making the announcement a year in advance will provide time to find jobs for the staff of more than a dozen who work in the laundry service, Terry said. In all, the move will save the college $400,000 annually.

Carol Quillen, Davidson’s president, said she wants to apply the savings to the college’s core initiatives, things like scholarships, internships, research, the entrepreneurship program and community-based learning.

“Traditions here are sacred,” said Quillen, now in her third year as president. “Tradition is what makes it so hard to change. But we must practice good stewardship of our resources.”

Quillen, who washed her own clothes as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and while pursuing her Ph.D. at Princeton, added that no one comes to Davidson for free laundry.

More than just laundry

“Many students are definitely saddened by this news,” said Zi Yang, a 21-year-old sophomore from Wenzhou, China, and president of the student body. “It has been a crucial part of our Davidson experience.”

Yang said that students dropping off their laundry often stop and chat with workers and come to know them personally. “They’ve been taking care of us for decades, and students definitely have lots of love and lots of appreciation for them.”

Yang said that the laundry wasn’t technically free – while students didn’t pay, the cost was included in tuition and boarding fees that total about $58,000 annually. He said he thinks it’s probably best to spend the money on other things, including a student-led initiative approved this week that will keep the college’s library open 24 hours a day.

Named for Lula Bell Houston of Cornelius who worked there for 60 years, the laundry building will be outfitted with self-service machines, and students will help design the new space, Yang said.

Against the grain

As the number of high school seniors drops nationally as demographics change, some schools find campus perks can attract the attention of potential students.

High Point University, for example, offers a steakhouse called 1924 Prime with formal five-course meals where students can dine free once a week (which may be all they can stand – cellphones are banned in the restaurant). Boston University offers a lazy river with inner tubes and a climbing wall. Michigan Tech students can ski free at a university-owned resort.

A highly selective liberal-arts college that accepts fewer than a quarter of the students who apply, Davidson stresses academics instead, Quillen said.

Still, the college retains some unusual comforts. It operates its own bed-and-breakfast in the old library, provides naturally grown produce to dining halls from its own farm, and students have access to Davidson’s Lake Campus on Lake Norman. There’s also a coffee house/pub.

Memories of an alum

Larry Dagenhart, the 1953 class valedictorian and a longtime observer of change at Davidson, was shocked when he heard about the laundry closing.

“We gave up vespers, we gave up chapel, we went coed, we even gave up the marching band, but dad-gum-it, we can’t give up the laundry. What is this world coming to?”

Dagenhart, who still works at 81 as a lawyer at McGuireWoods in Charlotte, doesn’t remember his laundry number but remembers the laundry itself. He had to carry upper-classmen’s dirty clothes there, as was the tradition in his day when the school was all male.

He remembers a box on the counter stuffed with thousands of buttons that had come off.

“Once there was a wedding on campus, and the bride lost a button. They went over to the laundry and found a button that matched her perfectly. You could probably have found buttons from Confederate officers’ uniforms in there.”