Lake Norman & Mooresville

Former president returns to Davidson

He has received master's and doctorate degrees from Princeton University, taught religion for decades at Davidson College and Auburn University and was recently selected as president of Davidson College for a second time.

But John Kuykendall just wants the students to call him John.

It's the kind of familiarity that the selection committee was looking for in an interim president, said Kristin Hills Bradberry, chair of the committee. The school was also pleased to get someone with his credentials.

"He's very inspiring. He's very wise. He's very eloquent," said Hills Bradberry, who was in the first graduating class under Kuykendall's first presidency in 1985. "We're grateful that we had someone close by who was so highly regarded internally and externally and willing and able to help in that way."

Kuykendall will replace Tom Ross, who left Davidson after a three and a half year presidency in order to become the president of the UNC system in December.

A Charlotte native, Kuykendall graduated from Davidson in 1959 with an English degree. He later earned a bachelor's of divinity from Union Theological Seminary, a master's of sacred theology from Yale Divinity School and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton.

He was working at Auburn University as a professor of religion and as a campus pastor when he was named president of Davidson College in 1984. He had never been an administrator. Kuykendall had only one stipulation: He could teach one class a semester.

"I love teaching better than anything in my vocational life," he said. "I just really enjoyed the interaction of the classroom and being around students. That was a good life."

Students seemed to pick up on Kuykendall's eagerness to get to know them during his first presidency, which ended in 1997, said search committee member William Rykard, an attorney who graduated from Davidson in 1967.

During the early 1990s, a group of football players were upset about a possible decision to change sporting leagues. The players went to Kuykendall's home at 10 p.m. to talk to him about how the move would affect the players.

"He opened the door and welcomed them in," said Rykard. "He didn't seclude himself in any respect from students. He made time in his heavy administrative load to talk with the students."

Kuykendall also demonstrated an impressive talent for fundraising, said Hills Bradberry.

During his tenure, the college completed a $160 million capital campaign, then considered the largest financial campaign by any liberal arts institution ever. The money went toward scholarships, faculty and staff salaries, a new sports complex, a half dozen residence halls, renovations and more, said Kuykendall.

"That way that John approaches fundraising - he's not just asking for money, he's asking them to serve," said Hills Bradberry, who works as an advisor to non-profits in the area.

And serve the alumni do. Last year, Davidson had the highest percentage of alumni participation in giving of any college or university in the nation. Rykard credits that at least partially to the legacy and alumni relations that Kuykendall created during his first presidency.

Despite more than a decade of experience at the helm of Davidson College, Kuykendall is quick to acknowledge that "you never step in the same stream twice."

A lot has changed on the campus: the formerly isolated college is now a short drive down I-77 to Charlotte, and technology is a way of life that Kuykendall will need to embrace if he is to remain relevant to students, he said.

"I never turned on the computer during my first presidency. It was just a piece of furniture in my office," he said. "I could not be an adequate adult human being in this particular environment if I didn't know how to deal with technology."

Kuykendall's main goal as president is to maintain the momentum of the college in order to achieve the goals in Ross's strategic plan. One of those goals - raising millions of dollars to fund the Davidson Trust so students don't have to pay back loans - is one of the main focuses of Kuykendall's presidency.

"I'm going to be a transitional person between Tom's wonderful planning and ambition for this college and the next president's capacity to get out and raise money and make this a reality," said Kuykendall, adding that he has no intention of remaining president any longer than necessary.

The search committee hopes to have a new president by the start of fall 2011, although the committee won't settle for any president just because of an expected deadline, said Hills Bradberry.

Although most of the search process is clandestine, Hills Bradberry noted the last five presidents were all Davidson alumni. Still, that's not a requirement, she added.

The search committeehired Storbeck/Pimentel, a national search firm, to help look nationally and internationally for the next president, she said.

"Tom made a decision to go elsewhere, and he's done a good deed for the state of North Carolina, but he left us in a situation where we need to have some encouragement right now," said Kuykendall. "I want to do the best job I can and really make an effort to maintain the continuity and momentum in this community in a positive sense as we go from one president to the next."