Davidson in the World: Two College Presidents’ Thoughts
At Alumni Reunion Weekend June 6-9, 2013, not just one but two college presidents shed light on not just the world of Davidson but the much wider world of higher education overall.
In the Friday back-to-school class “The Transformation of Music and Music Education,” Berklee College of Music President Roger Brown ’78 opened with a musical slideshow of well-known Berklee alumni, from top pop songwriter Claude Kelley and conductor Alf Clausen of The Simpsons repute to John Mayer, Esperanza Spalding and Quincy Jones. Then, to drive home the point of how the industry has changed in a scant few years, he held up a smartphone and said, “There is more music in this device than I had in my dorm room at Davidson.” To which his onetime roommate Bruce Holliday ’78 chimed in, “That’s a lot of Foghat!”
Deftly barreling past questions of evolving musical tastes, Brown went on to describe the “disaggregation” of the various components of the music industry. That’s a “canary in the coalmine” phenomenon that he predicted is about to hit higher education in earnest, too.
“We have to decide what each component is worth,” he said.
For example, what is the relative value of classroom information imparted and/or created, alongside the social aspects of living on a residential campus like Davidson’s? How does Davidson’s strong, residential, liberal arts approach fit into the bigger picture of a digitized higher ed landscape where many people already want to “buy the single” instead of the album? Brown clicked to an image of a recent higher ed word-association “tag cloud.” The biggest words on the screen were: degree, choice, choose, individual, design (your own major), and options.
In his work at Berklee, which focuses on the business of music as well as the fine art of it, he sees the real-world utility of a liberal arts perspective. For instance, he hired an executive assistant partly because she is a Davidson alumna. “I bet she can write,” he told himself. “And she can really write. She’s a great writer.” [Full disclosure: Said great writer, Jennifer Bangley Roe ’92, recently promoted to Manager of Planning and Communications, Office of the President, is also a treasured personal friend of the Daybook’s. We bonded early on over common grammar peeves and ancillary ribaldry when she was midday announcer next door on Main Street at WDAV.]
Brown noted that Berklee and Davidson are two of the top-tier schools that have signed on with the online learning consortium edX, a collaborative venture founded by Harvard and MIT. “I’m proud to say Berklee and Davidson signed on with edX on the same day!” he said.
Later Friday, Davidson President Carol Quillen addressed alumni in a packed Hodson Hall.
“I’m really grateful to be part of this place that asks us to be the person we want to be,” Quillen said. What that means for students over the course of four years here is new and different in a way that it never has been before, she said. “They may get jobs when they graduate that didn’t exist when they were freshmen!”
Technology is changing our lives in interesting ways, she said, then sotto voce, “and sometimes in profoundly stupid ways.” (Knowing chuckles rippled through the crowd. This was, after all, the same week that Internet meme phenom “Grumpy Cat” got a Hollywood agent.)
Zooming quickly back out to the big picture of higher education, Quillen declared, “There is nothing transient or outdated about Davidson’s Statement of Purpose.”
Au contraire, she said, the challenge Davidson undertakes now is continuing a strong heritage of helping each student find his or her way into a fully meaningful life, a life in service to something greater than themselves. To do that in 2013, Quillen said, we must:
• Reimagine the liberal arts: “What do we need to keep the same? What do we need to add? What do we need to stop doing?”
• Focus on access and excellence: The Davidson Trust is a primary tool for making a Davidson education a realistic possibility for any and all. “In a democracy, your access to an education should not be your parents’ income,” she said, her voice slowing and lowering. “It should not be.”
• Be deliberate about developing technology as an integral aspect of the curriculum: “We must help students more effectively express themselves, to multiple audiences across multiple media.”
Quillen talked about Davidson’s burgeoning “transition to impact” fellowships and other partnerships for students and new graduates. She talked about the importance of the Honor Code in today’s world and about the importance of Division I sports in campus life and the overall Davidson experience. She talked about growing relationships in Charlotte, the region and beyond for collaboration, research, entrepreneurship and start-up ventures.
Quillen held up transdisciplinary teaching like “Representations of AIDS,” a joint class that was offered by Associate Professor of English Ann Fox and Professor of Biology Dave Wessner. “The range of perspectives that comes out of that kind of collaboration, from professors and from students, is something that only happens in a place like this,” Quillen said.
She talked about plans for the new academic neighborhood capital construction that will center around venerable Martin Chemical Laboratory, where Davidson chemists have become fond of joking that the periodic table has been updated more than the building has in recent times. She talked about hiring to build in specific academic areas, and she talked about building on existing strengths, and creating new ones.
She talked about edX and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as one tool for doing so. “[An online presence] is not a threat or a substitute for what we do,” she said. “Our curriculum is based on people doing things.”
Other quotables from the hour:
• “Our (Davidson) culture has assumed at times a certain homogeneity, so we want to be careful that being welcoming doesn’t mean ‘Become like us.'”
• “Davidson students ask, ‘What does the world need?’… They will be called on for creativity, resilience, compassion and moral courage.”
• “How can technology help Davidson reach its aspirations?”
• “Employers look for a set of credentials and not a (major) degree.”
• “Entrepreneurship has an affinity for liberal arts thinking.”
Quillen said she loves her job, and is looking forward to continuing the many forward-looking conversations, not shying from the hard ones, that have been a hallmark of her first two years at Davidson: “My job is to listen to smart Davidson people, and repeat what they say to other smart people, and then get out of the way!”