DFTD was founded in 2018 in response to two distressing trends in American contemporary academia, both of which are evident at Davidson. The first is the ideological and political monoculture that increasingly characterizes elite American colleges and universities. The second is the associated declining pedagogical standards of these institutions amidst rising costs and increasing unaffordability.
In recent years, Davidson College has experienced a marked decline in ideological and political diversity among faculty and administrators. The loss of viewpoint diversity has led to pronounced “group think,” resulting in diminished creativity and individual responsibility in the conduct of the college’s affairs and to decline in the intellectual ferment so essential to academic excellence.
The campus has become increasingly politicized, with the college’s leadership making strong public ideological statements and encouraging political activism by students. Those who do not share the prevailing ideological and political viewpoint are often intimidated and ostracized in discussions, with the result that freedom of speech and open discourse are discouraged.
While the College’s push for increased diversity and inclusiveness and commitment to justice, equality and community are commendable, pedagogical standards are being put at risk. Pedagogical standards are being further threatened by the emphasis now placed on student activism and community engagement. As admirable as heightened recognition of and respect for faiths other than Christianity on campus are, a result is risk of marginalization of Davidson’s founding Christian values.
In 2018, DFTD wrote to President Carol Quillen enumerating specific issues of concern and proposed steps that the administration and trustees should take to address them. [Link] We urged 1) adoption and vigorous implementation at Davidson of the Chicago Principles of Free Expression—the “gold standard” of free speech in academia; 2) corrective policy changes that would raise the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) free speech rating for Davidson from a failing “Red Light” score to its highest “Green Light” score; 3) a concerted effort to diversify ideologically invited external speakers; and 4) biennial independently conducted confidential surveys of students and faculty to assess the state of free expression, open discourse, and ideological balance on campus. We also urged the Board of Trustees to establish guidelines for on-campus political activism by the College leadership.
Over the last three years, 165 Davidson alumni/ae—from across every decade of graduates— have signed the DFTD petition to the Board of Trustees for Davidson to adopt and vigorously apply the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, the core statement of which is “….the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” [Link] No action was taken by the president or Board of Trustees until October 2021, when a task force was appointed to develop a Davidson version of the Principles. Our hope is that if Davidson principles of free expression are indeed adopted, they will have the clarity of the Chicago originals and be vigorously activated on campus.
While DFTD worked with FIRE in 2019 to guide the administration on the policy changes that would raise Davidson from the lowest “Red Light” free speech rating to the highest “Green Light” rating, the administration took no action until mid-2021 when it agreed to changes that only moved the college to a cautionary “Yellow light” rating. [Link] No meaningful progress has been made in the administration actively diversifying the ideological makeup of external speakers brought to campus.
With President Carol Quillen’s announcement in July 2021 of her plan to step down in June 2022 as Davidson’s president, a Presidential Search Committee has been formed by the Board of Trustees, the membership consisting of selected trustees, faculty, staff, and students, with the trustees being voting members. Noting that alumni and donors are the college’s single largest stakeholders, DFTD has sought but has not obtained a seat on the search committee. We have taken the liberty of laying out 12 criteria for selection and priorities for the next president that we maintain are crucial in the search and selection [Link], and we have commissioned independent confidential surveys of students and major Davidson donors, to provide viewpoints from these constituencies that will be useful for guiding the search. The online surveys are being conducted respectively by CollegePulse and Braun Research, and the independent reports on findings will be produced by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), and will be published on this website.
In our estimation, Davidson College is currently at the most critical crossroads in its history: will it maintain its heritage as a non-political liberal arts institution dedicated to an unfettered search for truth and education of students trained to think critically and to lead productive lives; or will it go the route of so many American institutions of higher education that, in the name of social justice, are close-minded on ideological issues and increasingly focused less on educating youth for challenging jobs and productive lives and more on indoctrination and suppression of independent thinking and free expression.