Roughly a year ago, I wrote about the Davidson College Board of Trustees’ reconsideration of its requirement that the College’s president be a Presbyterian. Well, the board has reaffirmed its requirement, explaining that “the Reformed Tradition values considered to have shaped the college’s principles and practices” drives commitment to the college’s “values of free inquiry, service and leadership, honor and integrity, humility, and diversity.”
Whatever might be the case for the Board of Trustees, whose statement acknowledges internal disagreement about these matters, students and faculty seem vociferously opposed to the decision to maintain this connection to the college’s denominational heritage. Students are typically present-minded (that’s the nice way of putting it). As far as they’re concerned, they are the college, and they don’t have much sense that they’re part of an institution whose identity persists over time (and whose character should change, if at all, only through a respectful consideration of that heritage). They came to Davidson because of its academic reputation, and that really seems to be all that matters to them.
The most respectable articulation of faculty opposition is offered by Douglas F. Ottati:
The Reformed tradition “wants to support a college of liberal arts and sciences that will further what is called ‘true religion’ in the tradition,” he said. That tradition “encourages people to engage in free inquiry. This is a tradition that thinks when you are studying the world, you are studying God’s world.” This world view “wants to invite people to practice and reflect on their commitments — religious and non-religious,” he said. . . .
Ottati said that it’s true that there are colleges of strong academic quality that require everyone to sign a statement of faith or share a specific set of beliefs. And he said that many colleges founded in a tradition of faith have decided to “just relinquish it.”
He said he believes there is much to be gained by “a middle road in which you try to embody this tradition, but at the same time you are not going to be exclusionary.”
Davidson will be true to its heritage, he said, if it ends the religious test, but simply states that it expects good candidates for president to understand, appreciate and support the college’s religious roots and values. Many such people are not Presbyterian, he said.
It’s true, he said, that some people fear a shift would result in a loss of religious identity. But Ottati stressed that the religious identity of Davidson is an inclusive one, and that the board is diverging from that religious tradition. “If we have an exclusionary requirement we’re going to end up undercutting some of these most deeply held traditions,” he said. “If the only way to save a tradition is to kill it, that’s not a happy circumstance.”
Perhaps this middle ground is tenable, but I doubt it. First of all, it seems insensitive to the fact that almost all the pressure on a college like Davidson is secularizing. To retain any connection with a religious heritage at all requires a great deal of effort, pulling hard against the prevailing winds. Second, while I agree that studying the world as God’s world is a good place to begin a consideration of the life of the mind in a religious context, there’s a temptation to hold your understanding of God hostage to what you think you learn about the world. I’d be more comfortable if there were an equal emphasis in his articulation of the tradition on God’s Word.
I guess that’s why we should be glad that there are trustees.