Lake Norman & Mooresville

New president says liberal arts are still vital

Davidson College inaugurated Carol Quillen as its first female president last month during a ceremony that featured former and current colleagues, past and present students, family and friends.

The former Rice University administrator officially started in August, filling the vacancy left by Tom Ross, who stepped down as president in December to become the president of the University of North Carolina system.

Quillen, 51, the college's 18th president, sat down with Lake Norman News last week to discuss some of the issues facing the college.

Q. In today's economy, what is the place of a liberal arts education?

Liberal arts education develops a student's talents and capacities in a general way through rigorous study through a range of specific disciplines. It's aimed less at communicating specific skills than it is at developing human potential. I would argue that that kind of education is ideal in a world where people are more likely to move around from job to job and field to field.

The world today is much more interconnected than it was 30 years ago. Students need to be able to cross boundaries. We want to make sure that our education gives students the opportunity to do that.

Q. At Davidson College, the cost for a four-year education is more than $200,000. With these ever-increasing costs in a poor economy, is higher education even sustainable anymore?

Davidson is deeply committed to access. It's needs-blind. Our financial aid packages contain no loans. We're committed to making sure Davidson is accessible to talented students. We don't want our selectivity to ever have anything to do with their ability to pay, and it doesn't.

Q. Students can graduate with thousands of dollars in debt and potentially no job. How do you plan to help those students who may struggle, post-graduation?

We have recognized the real importance of graduate placement. We have a really good record with graduate schools.

A very high percentage of students who wish to go to medical school end up going. We let them know that if they take the required pre-med courses, there's a good chance you'll be accepted into a graduate program.

We've expanded the career services offices. There's now someone who works specifically on internships over the summer.

We're mindful of our obligation to students, especially in this economy, to help them move the talents they develop here to a position in this world.

Q. Does a liberal arts college like Davison have a place in the world of Division I sports?

We're distinctive in that we're a small liberal arts college that plays Division I sports. Most don't.

I think it's incredibly important to Davidson's culture. Student athletes bring to our campus leadership skills that are difficult to develop. Student athletes at Davidson are students first. The fact that they perform in the classroom and also compete in the highest level of intercollegiate athletic competition brings out talents and skills that are hard to develop in other ways. It enriches our lives.

They're models of time management for everyone here. The discipline and resilience that are developed from playing sports in this context - we all benefit from that.

Q. How do you plan to foster a close relationship between Davidson College and the town?

Open communication is going to be very important. There are some issues where, if Davidson makes a decision, it affects the town. And if the town makes a decision, it affects the college. We need to be in very close communication on things with parking and signage.

The town leadership is very forward-looking. It's helpful for us that they're so focused on economic development, transportation issues, green space, affordable housing, independent retail merchants.

Q. As the first female president at Davidson College, do you see yourself as a role model to the female student population at Davidson?

I feel a heightened sense of responsibility for being the first woman. I have not yet encountered resistance and questions about being a woman. I think generally speaking, they wanted to find the best person.

The faculty and students (who were the first females on campus), they really were the ones that created an environment that made it not complicated or controversial.

There were women who attended Davidson in the '70s. We admitted them slowly as transfer students.

All the people that were at Davidson at that time enabled the transition from single sex to co-ed.

I'm a beneficiary of that; I'm not a pioneer.

There were women who were children of faculty members who took classes at Davidson as early as the 1930s.

Q. What would you like your legacy to be at Davidson College?

A passionate advocate for liberal arts education. I believe Davidson does it better then anyone.

Nationally, internationally, I would like us to have attracted support from people unaffiliated with the college.

I want people to believe that the disproportionate impact that Davidson has on the world makes it worth supporting, I want people to say, "We're lucky to have that in our state and country. The work that that place does is really worth my attention and support."