The College Donor Digest

Challenging times at Davidson College—and advice for alumni

December 22, 2021

Davidson, a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, is perhaps best known for its 2008 NCAA tournament run that introduced the world to superstar Stephen Curry. The college has found itself in the spotlight once again this year, though less as a Cinderella story than as a symbol of a higher education crisis erupting across the nation.

Recent events at Davidson ought to be a warning to other academic institutions: alumni are seeking more involvement at their alma maters than ceremonial dinners and tickets to the football game. And they are concerned about the all-too-likely decline at their beloved institutions.

DAVIDSONIAN MONOCULTURE

The Davidson story began in 2018, when alumnus John Craig (’66) founded Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD). He established DFTD as an advocacy group for alumni who share his concern about a growing “ideological and political monoculture” on campus. DFTD wrote to Davidson College president Carol Quillen in the same year, outlining seven specific problems related to a lack of viewpoint diversity and declining academic standards.

Craig’s letter recommended steps that the administration could take to evaluate and rectify these pressing problems, including commissioning an independent annual survey on the state of free speech and ideological diversity on campus. The group also proposed the adoption of the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression, the “gold standard” for a commitment to free expression on campus, which 83 colleges have adopted to date.

FIGHTING FOR FREE SPEECH

After three years of inaction by the administration, a renewed push for Davidson to adopt the Chicago Principles and examine its campus culture began this fall, after President Quillen announced she would step down from her position at the end of the academic year. The push came as a result of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on October 17. In the article, Edward Yingling and Stuart Taylor, Jr., founders of Princetonians for Free Speech, announced the formation of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a new federation of alumni groups dedicated to advancing free speech on campus. DFTD is one of five founding members of AFSA, alongside alumni from Princeton University, Washington and Lee University, the University of Virginia, and Cornell University.

The formation of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance was heralded as the much-needed spark to ignite change on college campuses. After the Journal article drew attention to the cause, DFTD commissioned my organization, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, to conduct two surveys this fall on free expression: one examining major donors to Davidson in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., and one examining students in partnership with CollegePulse.

The surveys investigated donor and student perceptions of ideological bias and the administration’s commitment to free speech, as well as how these perceptions have altered student and donor behavior. All  of this was with an eye to aiding the search committee for Davidson’s next president.

A CLEAR NEED FOR CHANGE

Both surveys clearly indicate that free expression should rank high on the next president’s list of priorities.

Of the donors surveyed, most of whom are also alumni, 62% “strongly” and 18% “somewhat” favor the proposal that Davidson adopt the Chicago Principles. The survey found troubling levels of donor discontent, with a clear majority of donors indicating that they are  “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the direction that Davidson College has taken over the last decade. More than one-third of donors said that their level of giving had declined or ceased in recent years, and 94% said that Davidson’s next president should make campus freedom of speech and civil discourse a priority.

One would hope that the next president is prepared to listen to and learn from these responses.

The students we surveyed echoed the sentiments of donors and noted a serious self-censorship problem on campus. More than seven out of 10 respondents reported they felt they could not express their opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond. Eighty-eight percent of student respondents agreed that “Davidson’s next president should make freedom of speech and open, civil, discourse on campus a high priority,” and 79% said that Davidson’s next president should “make the adoption of and implementation of the Chicago Principles a high priority.” Students and donors alike recognize the importance of free expression in academic exploration.

Fortunately, their concerns have not fallen on deaf ears. At the end of October, shortly after the announcement of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, President Quillen commissioned a working group of alumni, faculty, and students to draft a statement affirming Davidson’s commitment to free speech and open inquiry. The diverse group of stakeholders was led by Issac Bailey (’95), the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy. In November, President Quillen released the working group’s “Commitment to Freedom of Expression” in an email to alumni.

I remain optimistic that Davidson College, my alma mater, will end this tumultuous year on a high note by affirming a commitment to free expression—and I hope that this (likely) success serves as a model for other colleges and universities.

For too long, colleges and universities have treated their alumni bases as “walking checkbooks,” welcoming their annual donations but not their input. And for too long, alumni have turned an eye, blinded by nostalgia, to the very real problems at their alma maters. Or they have acknowledged the unfortunate direction of American higher education while believing that their alma mater was the exception to the rule.

This trend, I hope, will change—both for the sake of smart giving and for the sake of higher education.

The emergence of groups like those in the Alumni Free Speech Alliance signals a hopeful new role for alumni, who are finally looking beyond the glossy fundraising brochures to understand better the reality of campus life today. And then responding accordingly.

This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on December 20, 2021.

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