News

Fall Convocation Address by Clark G. Ross, Vice President for Academic Affairs

by Davidson College

October 26, 2012

Community and Diversity at Davidson: Perspectives from 34 Years

Thank you very much, Carol, for the honor of speaking today. I admit to some trepidation, wanting to acquit myself well before my faculty colleagues, as well as to offer something relevant for us here today, faculty and staff, visiting family members, as well as the class of 2013, our graduating seniors. I hope this message might bridge their experiences at Davidson with challenges that await them, within a mere nine months, in worlds that will at least differ in place.

Our planning of the last several years has identified broad values, objectives, or aspirations that have been approved without dissent by our faculty and by our trustees. Two recurring ideals have been "community and diversity." I would like to explore these two concepts and their relationship, while relating some personal experiences that might shed light on these issues.

The Fifth Edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which is actually quite long and without electronic screen) defines Community as "an organized political, municipal, or social body; a body of people living in the same locality." Note that this definition does not include any reference to cohesion, an issue to which I shall return. The same tome defines Diversity as "the condition or quality of being different or varied; unlikeness." Clearly diversity can be reflected in race, income, thought, sexual orientation, height, among many other metrics.

Were I to ask you if the word "community" strikes you positively, I would expect a loud affirmation; I would expect the same reaction with your response to the word "diversity." What if I asked how the two relate? Many might ask me to explain that question. Well, that is my objective today: to explore the relationship between community and diversity. In so doing, I ask the indulgence of those who are expert in issues of social theory, for this intellectual venture may seem overly simplistic; others may feel that I am making a simple relationship overly esoteric. But, in any case, here I go.

If a community seemingly has a set of expectations and even explicit practices, referred to as its social infrastructure, the population comprising the community likely will have a reaction to them. If there is a complementarity of the social infrastructure with the population, I would say there is Harmony, accord or congruity. If there is a conflict between the social infrastructure and the population, I would say there is Discord, an incongruity or dissention. I posit that harmony can be a worthy objective, for it is one in which people live together in trust and respect. Moreover, under some circumstances, but not all, I shall argue, harmony contributes to an atmosphere conducive to learning and growth.

Now, harmony, according to this set of propositions can be achieved in varying ways. A very rigid social infrastructure combined with a very homogenous population can achieve harmony. Monastic communities have achieved harmony for centuries. The 17th century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony of John Winthrop manifested a form of harmony; remember Roger Williams who learned that lesson the hard way. I have worked in strict Moslem villages in Senegal where such harmony exists. Think of the Davidson of yesteryear, when student, faculty, and skilled staff were nearly exclusively white, Southern, male, Presbyterian, and seemingly straight in sexual orientation. Likely, there was harmony, suggested by a small counterpoint: an alumnus of the 1950 and 1960s, who was white, Southern, male, and Protestant who felt some disconnect. Why? While Protestant, he was not Presbyterian and did not share some of the past experiences of those students who had had connections in Presbyterian circles. Today such a distinction would seem trivial. In those days, the College could view its social infrastructure and its expectations as constant and appropriate, searching then for a population of students and faculty who were accepting of and even seeking that social infrastructure. And, according to my analysis, there was harmony. Yet, this harmony, associated with such homogeneity, was not necessarily conducive to intellectual challenge and certainly was not inclusive. In fact, this harmony may have come at the cost of intellectual dynamism.

Beginning, principally in the 1960s, however, Davidson appropriately concluded that a more diverse or heterogeneous population of students and faculty was needed for a variety of reasons: some ethical and principled, some aspirational. Our harmony of yesteryear, so to speak, was not going to promote the intellectual vibrancy expected in a first-rate liberal arts college. Proponents of this view understood that such evolution was entirely consistent, and even demanded, by our commitment to the Reformed Tradition.

And, so we began to change. Through the efforts of courageous presidents and faculty, supported by principled students and understanding trustees, important changes occurred. President Grier Martin championed first the enrollment of an African student, then African Americans. Resistance to the requirement that full professors be Presbyterian was led by two fine faculty: Dan Rhodes and Charlie Ratliff. In the early 1970s, a courageous President Sam Spencer led the movement for co-education. Dr. Spencer engaged a Dean of Faculty, T.C. Price Zimmermann, who had an unwavering commitment to excellence and to developing a professionally active faculty. In the late 1980s, President John Kuykendall extended our reach to community concerns and incorporated sexual orientation into our statement of non-discrimination. In Bobby Vagt's last year as President, the Davidson Trust was introduced to broaden our appeal to students from middle and lower income households. Today, President Quillen, in all that she does, is aware of difference, advocating our volition and need to be more inviting and inclusive.

Yet, the social infrastructure, including the curriculum, College rules, and unwritten expectations, has often lagged these desirable demographic changes. In such cases, we have moved, at least for a time, on that continuum from harmony toward discord. A more heterogeneous population was not fully comfortable with a social infrastructure that better complemented the more homogeneous population of years past. Recently at homecoming, our first African American student, Leslie Brown '68, eloquently compared this disconnect to a dance, in which he and Davidson had become partners, without fully knowing how to move together. There was the inevitable "stepping on toes" as each tried to accommodate the other.

By the late 1970s when I arrived, the student body was more diverse than that of 1959. With a few more women and many non-Presbyterians, the faculty was also different. Yet, the existing social infrastructure and social expectations were not fully synchronized with this more diversified population. Discord, as I have defined this breach, was manifested in different ways: unhappy and isolated African American students, bewildered gay students, faculty who were not fully comfortable with presumed expectations and mores.

Let me offer some examples. Some of these incidents have elements of amusement, but only in hindsight, others are downright troubling, but all symptomatic of a limited world view:

Stories still circulated of faculty in the late 1950s drinking beer in their own homes with curtains drawn (a relic of the past for which I am personally grateful). Why? I guess for fear of disapproval.

Until the renovation of Chambers in the 2005 period, we scarcely provided comfort facilities for women in that academic building. And within these rooms, remained the urinals of a by-gone day, also the case in some of the female dormitories, or at least I am told. For thirty years of coeducation and even longer, and with female faculty and staff, we just accepted that reality. Finally, when the renovation of Chambers was completed, I was invited to a celebratory event in the third floor women's room. Thirty years after the fact, we had achieved gender parity in our comfort opportunities.

The contract offered me in 1979 read as follows: "As you know, Davidson is a Presbyterian college, founded by churchmen and continuing in its relationship to the church. Though it is non-sectarian in its practices, it has a basic Christian commitment and orientation." Over the ensuing years, working with our Presidents, we have made this language much more inclusive. Yet, I still receive questions about the presence of such language in a faculty contract.

Like other new faculty, in my first few days, I was asked "in whose house do you live." To this seemingly odd question, I was tempted to respond, "in my own house." Yet, I related accurately, to what seemed to be stunned auditors, that I had bought a house at the lake. My good mentor, Charlie Ratliff, would quickly chime in that Clark had sold a house and, with the IRS advantage, he needed to buy one. Charlie could tell that I was puzzled by this truthful, but less than fully relevant interjection. He then privately related to me that new faculty ordinarily live in Davidson, in College-owned housing (each referenced by an illustrious prior tenant), and did not buy a home until receipt of tenure, lest one appeared presumptuous. Well, I thought, before I have even taught my first class, I have violated three unwritten expectations.

When I had my tenure interview, I was awed that the Honorable Dean Rusk was there, attending his last trustee meeting. We were having an interesting discussion about my work in West Africa; meanwhile, another trustee was eager to change the subject. He began saying "I understand that you are a Roman Catholic. Now I must ask you, are you comfortable on this campus?" Now I am not a theologian, but I had assumed that the Presbyterian and Catholic faiths did share a common belief in a couple of important tenets. Having that presumption challenged, I regained a semblance of composure, answering, "yes, indeed," then mumbling "at least until now." As an aside, in the 1998-99 academic year, we suspended the practice of asking a tenure candidate about religious preference prior to the trustee interview.

Our curriculum frequently has failed to offer courses that would likely appeal to the backgrounds and experiences of our more diverse student population, courses that would relate to sexual orientation or different canons of literature.

Sometimes, new faculty were asked to teach courses that were conceived generations ago, with little opportunity to discuss the relative merit of varying some curricular offerings.

If I have been remotely effective in this address, then my conclusion should be obvious, captured in three propositions. First, I believe that Davidson College must be an increasingly diverse institution for it to claim a place of leadership among liberal arts colleges and must be inviting to those from varying backgrounds. Second, I believe that learning in the broadest sense best occurs in an atmosphere of harmony and trust. Third and finally, to achieve harmony with increased diversity, each, as a member of the Davidson College community, must commit to change. We must shape a social infrastructure and informal expectations that will be complementary to the diverse population that we seek, or we will not reach these aspirations. And, moreover, in my opinion, we would be less than fully honest and ethical, for we will have encouraged a more diverse population to join us, but then would be saying to them, "yes, join us, but now be like us."

I know that if we succeed in better matching our social infrastructure to increased diversity, we shall be a better place with real differences, possibly including

  • a revised curriculum with reassessed canons of literature and expected knowledge
  • a faculty and upper echelon staff that would look different from those of today
  • a comfort in the classroom where the faculty member and the students can discuss an extraordinarily important and complicated issue like, higher unemployment rates for younger African American males, without fear of engendering insecurity and mistrust or introducing stereotypes
  • first-year students who will not hesitate as they move into their dormitory to unpack and display a picture of a same-sex high school partner
  • sufficient self-confidence that we encourage gatherings of diverse groups while not fearing the independent association of those with common interests

To name but a few.

So, let us hope today that we each, whether in making decisions or in shaping attitudes, will reflect on the unfinished work that I have implied. We cannot take for granted that simply advocating diversity will achieve our overall objective. Good intent does not entitle us to the result.

For in what we think and say, as well as what we do and, even, fail to do, we must make a positive difference, if we are to achieve the harmonious, diverse community of learning and respect to which we aspire.