This all began so long ago, yet I remember the day vividly. It was a Thursday in late August, and the late summer sun in North Carolina was beating down on Davidson College, when my phone rang as I walked out of the Chambers Building on Davidson’s campus. I did not recognize the number so I answered as I always do to strangers, “J.D. Merrill.” It was a reporter from the Raleigh News and Observer wanting to know the student body’s reaction to the departure of Davidson College’s President, Thomas Ross, to the Office of the President at the 17-campus University of North Carolina System.
Confused, I responded that I knew nothing of the matter and would have to call him back. As it turns out, this phone call was one of many on August 26 asking members of the Davidson family to confirm that Ross was leaving the college, something that few if any of us were aware of at the time.
When it was confirmed later that day that Ross was in fact going to be elected as the President of the UNC system, our community faced reality with open hearts and minds.
While on the one hand we were extremely sad to see the leader who navigated the college through difficult economic times with grace, helped bring The Davidson Trust, and tremendous gains in diversity to the college, we were consciously aware of the unique “once-in-a-lifetime” nature of the offer that would enable Ross to make an even larger scale impact on the nation.
So the college pledged to keep moving Davidson forward. The first step was to bring back one of Davidson’s most legendary leaders, President Emeritus John Kuykendall ’59, as our interim President. The college family knew that he, of all people, could instill a sense of stability and comfort in a way that few else could.
At the same time, the Board of Trustees elected Kristin Hills Bradberry ’85 to Chair the Search Committee for the next great leader of Davidson.
And on October 21, nearly two months after receiving that phone call, the search committee was announced. For the next seven months I could not say a thing about the details of the search to anyone outside of the committee, an experience that tested my integrity, honesty, and faith. All I could do was listen.
My experiences listening to the Davidson community about what it wanted in its next leader were indicative of the diversity of our community. Everyone wanted something. An academic. A political figure. An alum. A non-alum. A man. A woman. A dog-owner. Using these categorizations, it would be impossible to find the perfect candidate.
So we dug deeper by asking ourselves, what are the underlying values that our community embraces, and how can we in turn write a job prospectus that gives respect to each and everyone of our family members?
Ultimately, we constructed a document that narrowed, in a sense, the focus of our search. We agreed that we wanted someone with rather specific personal characteristics and professional experience.
- A clear understanding of and profound appreciation for the values of liberal arts education and an ability to lead, support, and articulate Davidson’s educational mission.
- Integrity and moral values consistent with Davidson’s ethos of personal responsibility and its Honor Code.
- Strong Christian faith and committed and active church membership.
- Dedication to the development of an educational community that includes persons who bring a wide diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and personal histories.
- The qualities of warmth, compassion, fairness, humility, accessibility, and collegiality necessary for consensus-building leadership.
- Energy, passion, fearlessness, and enthusiasm to take on the rigors of fundraising, management, and decision-making and to inspire others by example.
- Superb Management and Leadership. Candidates should have a demonstrated track record of successful and skillful leadership in an institution of higher education or in a similarly complex organization. Davidson’s next president will need to possess strong organizational and time-management skills as well as considerable political savvy.The successful candidate must have a leadership style that is truly collegial, collaborative, and empowering. Candidates will evince the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with all the varied constituencies of an institution, and to bring out the best in those whom she/he has led.
- Thoughtful Decision-making. The candidate must present strong evidence of an ability to delegate effectively. Her/his leadership must be defined by a willingness to be decisive in making wise, informed, fair, and even difficult decisions in the concurrent pursuit of excellence and the safeguarding of an institution’s core values and mission. She/he must be comfortable embracing dissent without defensiveness.
- Financial Savvy and Fundraising. It is essential that the president have a genuine commitment to and aptitude for resource development and experience in aligning the pursuit of resources with strategic goals. She/he should have a solid understanding of finance and budgeting from an executive perspective.The college began the quiet phase of its current fundraising campaign on July 1, 2010. The president will have a central role in engaging directly with donors; it will be vital for candidates to possess experience in the fundraising arena. It is important to note, however, that the aspiration is to have a president whose role is balanced between campus engagement and fundraising. The Davidson presidency is not fundamentally an external role.
- Strategic Vision. Candidates must present evidence of effectiveness in ongoing strategic planning and in implementing strategic plans. Administrative experience should show a talent for articulating vision, setting both short- and long-term goals, and confidently overseeing the timely implementation of goals. Candidates should have a demonstrated capacity to think boldly and creatively.
- Presence. Davidson’s next president must be an excellent listener as well as an articulate speaker. She/he will have strong public speaking skills and an ability to inspire through communication, both oral and written. She/he will have the reputation of serving as a dynamic and inspiring presence. The Davidson president will be someone who can build relationships of warmth, humor, and humility with students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, trustees, and the extended Davidson community.
With these agreed upon characteristics and experiences as our guide, we embarked upon our quest for the next great leader of Davidson College.
Eventually, we found her in Houston, Texas at Rice University where she was the Vice President for International and Interdisciplinary Initiatives. It became obvious that she was everything Davidson wanted and needed…and more.
Ultimately, she, the candidate unanimously supported by the Search Committee was recommended to the Board of Trustees for approval. Our enthusiasm must have caught on because yesterday, on May 26, 2011, the Board of Trustees voted to approve the recommendation of the search committee, and we were able to present the product of our work to the entire Davidson community.
At 2:30 the campus bells rang and faculty, staff, and students (many of whom were on campus doing research) made their way to the Duke Family Performance Hall for the announcement.
After remarks from Bradberry, Board Chair Mackey McDonald introduced Dr. Carol Quillen as the 18th President of Davidson College to a loud standing ovation of claps and cheers from the nearly 500 people who filled the auditorium.
In her remarks, Quillen talked about the importance of a liberal arts education and Davidson’s unique ability and obligation to re-imagine and to exemplify this type of education to the world.
Inspired, the audience offered Quillen another standing ovation at the close of her remarks. The entire announcement and Quillen’s speech can be watched here.
This was a tremendous moment in Davidson’s history, and I am so honored to have been a part of it. I truly believe that she will take Davidson to the next level.