The Honorable Anthony R. Foxx
Presidential Search Committee Chairman
Davidson College Board of Trustees
Dear Mr. Foxx:
As you know Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought & Discourse (DFTD) was formed in 2018 with the mission of promoting free speech and expression, open debate, and ideological balance at Davidson College. A parallel goal is to ensure that high pedagogical standards—once uncontested—remain a central aim of the College. DFTD is made up of leading Davidson alumni/ae, including current elected federal office holders, highly successful businessmen, nonprofit luminaries, and public intellectuals and journalists. We are nonpartisan and stand up for the free speech rights of all—progressives, moderates, and conservatives—if we see free speech or expression being threatened or denied.
Under our leadership, some 180 alumni/ae have already signed the petition for the College to adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, with the number growing daily. All decades of alumni/ae, including current students, are well represented, and a much larger number of alumni express support for our mission, but are fearful of stating so publicly—a measure itself of the degree to which Davidson is less and less a home for open debate and ideological and political balance, which we believe it should be.
We know that you will serve ably as chair of the Board of Trustees Search Committee to select the next president of Davidson. Davidson is at an existential moment in its history—never has the alumni base been so polarized over the future direction of the College. DFTD represents the voice of 100s (likely thousands) of alumni/ae, and we hope to play a role in the selection of the next president. Thus, we are submitting here the qualities and priority objectives that we believe should be key in the decision on Davidson’s 19th president.
- Higher education CEOs tend to come into new positions with the mindset of “what I want to accomplish over the next 10 years.” The challenges facing colleges and universities today make such short-term outlooks dangerous: with the U.S. Census Bureau-projected college-age population declining or growing very slowly over the next five decades, the long-term demographics for higher education institutions are not good, and the inevitable institutional weeding-out is already underway; cost escalation outpacing that of almost any other sector of the U.S. economy is making higher education at best a questionable bargain and at worst, unaffordable; and the sustainability of federal, philanthropic, and donor funds is far from guaranteed. To survive and flourish over the long-term, Davidson must maintain the highest academic standards, offer unique opportunities, control costs, and produce graduates well prepared for productive work lives. We therefore plead that the search committee select a candidate who fully understands the long-term challenges facing a small liberal arts college like Davidson and whose focus is accordingly long-term—not geared to the leadership fashions of the day.
- Free expression and open discourse are safeguards of academic freedom and central to delivering an education that teaches young people to think critically, argue cogently and civilly, and gain the capacity to form their own views on sometimes controversial topics. We ask that Davidson’s next president be a passionate advocate for free expression and open discourse, lead the College to early adoption of the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, and ardently pursue their implementation in all aspects of campus life.
- Davidson’s next president should not be a political activist. We are deeply concerned by the politicization of the president’s office over the last 10 years, and regard public expression and promulgation of political and ideological views by a college president as an abuse of power. Institutions of higher education are entrusted with the task of teaching young people to think critically and debate dispassionately on social issues. Indoctrination from the top down in a particular ideological or political viewpoint is a betrayal of that trust and detrimental to the central mission of the college.
- Our next CEO should be respectful of those with different political and ideological views, leading as a binder, not a divisive polarizer.
- Davidson’s next president should make achieving ideological and political balance at the College a priority—on the Board of Trustees, in the administration (especially top appointments), and on the faculty. They should develop immediately a plan to diversify ideologically external speakers, including for the College’s prestigious lecture programs.
- Adherents of all faiths should be welcome at Davidson, and students should be provided the opportunity to learn about different religious faiths and taught to practice tolerance and respect for beliefs different from their own. But from its beginning, Davidson has been grounded in the Christian faith and the college’s character and strength shaped by Judeo-Christian culture. This grounding makes Davidson distinctive—increasingly so in a highly competitive higher education environment—and Davidson’s next president should, accordingly, be an individual whose life evidences a strong Christian faith.
- The College will benefit from the next president being someone with a deep understanding of smaller liberal arts colleges—with highly qualified Davidson alumni/ae who understand the College’s history and workings meriting consideration. The institution has undergone many changes over the last decade, and, in our view, ventured far from its roots. Now is a time for taking stock, for critically assessing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges that Davidson faces. We believe that candidates who have led institutions like Davidson—including possibly Davidson alumni/ae—will be particularly well-suited for this assessment and leading the institution forward.
- While in theory colleges and universities are governed by their boards and faculty, in reality, the sitting administration typically rules. Davidson’s administration is particularly susceptible to inadequate oversight, due to the very large size of the board and the manner in which board members are elected. A case in point is the four alumni trustee slots, where the candidates selected by the administration are rubber stamped by the administration-selected Alumni Council Board, ballots contain next to no information on the candidates’ views on key issues at Davidson or on what they would focus as trustees, and alumni voter participation is low. We therefore urge that the Search Committee look for candidates deeply schooled in college governance best practices and committed to strengthening the board in fulfilling its fiduciary and oversight obligations.
- Davidson has a long tradition of strong alumni/ae loyalty and support. Yet, we are informed of substantial pullback from alumni due to the direction the College has taken over the last decade. We are concerned that the administration takes alumni support for granted and is uninterested in and dismissive of their views. We therefore believe that the next president should evidence strong understanding of the importance of alumni/ae interest in and loyalty to Davidson and be committed to strengthening the voice of alumni in college policies—genuinely, not in carefully orchestrated ways that subvert honest feedback.
- Annual giving and large special gifts by alumni/ae are critical elements in Davidson’s finances and should not be taken for granted. It is essential that Davidson’s next president recognize this, especially that most annual giving comes from the fourth and higher decades out, and from individuals with diverse political and ideological viewpoints.
- Davidson is one of the more expensive liberal arts colleges in the country, and the heart of the rise in its costs is in administration—numbers of administrative officers and staff and their compensation. This problem is far from unique at Davidson, but it puts the College at risk, over the long term, of pricing itself out of the market. We urge that the next president of Davidson take the issue of rising costs seriously and be committed to a thorough examination of every aspect of College costs and to taking steps to curtail their rise.
- Colleges and universities that remain competitive over the coming decades will be those that demonstrably produce graduates equipped for productive lives in the workforce. We are told by headhunters that liberal arts colleges like Davidson are increasingly turning out graduates ill-equipped to function in a competitive work environment—they are too coddled, poorly schooled in critical thinking and analysis, fearful of speaking their own minds, and short-term in outlook. This is not true, of course, of the great majority of Davidson students, but it is an early warning signal, and we believe that the next president of Davidson should give close attention to how well the College is preparing graduates for productive work lives.
We understand that faculty, staff, and students will play a consulting role on the Presidential Search Committee. We note the apparent omission of alumni/ae and major benefactors in the process, and respectfully ask that representatives of this crucial college constituency be included in the consulting role. Members of Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse would readily play such a role.
We appreciate your taking our thoughts and priorities under consideration at this critical juncture in Davidson’s history and would be pleased to meet at your convenience to discuss them and explore what role DFTD might play in the Search Committee’s deliberations. We are grateful for the time, energy, and experience you and other members of the Committee are devoting to this landmark undertaking.
Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought & Discourse
Kenny Xu ’19
Leonel Benoist '93
Constance Buehler ’82
Diane Odom Cooper ’82
Tim Bode ’79
Rob Murray ’78
Billy Clark, MD ’66
John Craig ’66
Jim McNab ’66
Steve Smith ’66
The Hon. James G. Martin, ’57