[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hile we waited on the striped couch in the reception room of Carol Quillen’s office, suddenly feeling like three kids sent to the principal, people kept poking their heads in, or striding to the desk of the secretary, to ask, Is Carol in yet? Is it alright if we move our meeting back? Did you get my email about the draft? We began to realize that this interview we had set up and had been preparing for was only a tiny bead in a long string of things Carol Quillen still had to do that day.
President of Davidson College for the last three years and a professor of history, Carol Quillen is the first woman to lead the college, which was founded in North Carolina in 1837 but didn’t admit women until 1972. Its biggest headlines over the last six years have starred former basketball player Stephen Curry (maybe you’ve heard of him). Yet Davidson, which consistently ranks among the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the country, is enjoying new media attention and something of a growth spurt since President Quillen arrived. Under her leadership, the college has begun to explore online education, launched an entrepreneurship program, and announced the construction of a new “academic neighborhood.” Sounds magical.
President Quillen herself has been in the spotlight recently: she spoke at TedxCharlotte, and was just last week named to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans (yes, she flew on Air Force One).
When Carol Quillen arrived at her office for our interview she walked quickly and with purpose. In one breath she apologized for being late, beckoned us into her wood-paneled office, told us to take a seat around an oak table, and asked her secretary to bring in a Fresca. She had the economy of motion of a person whose days are packed. She speaks quickly, though thoughtfully, and takes time to laugh. Our conversation ran the gamut from moments of adversity to the mysteries of Twitter. We were riveted.
Zoe: Could you describe a time when you had to go toe-to-toe with an adversary? That’s something we’re interested in at Misadventures—brave women. Any situations come to mind?
CQ: So, that’s an interesting question. I can try to think about the kind of—I can describe some things for you. It depends on what you mean: you know, a real issue where you’re trying to fight for change, or a sort of perceived injustice. I think it’s important to be brave. I think sometimes the people who have enormous opportunity to be courageous aren’t. In other words, it’s low-risk. And you know, I don’t understand why that’s the case. That confuses me. And that happens a lot in universities.
CQ: There’s a lot of people who are not very vulnerable who act as if they are, which is just odd to me. But I’ve had intellectual arguments about things that really matter to me that I would say were very heated debates–with people who were much more famous or a million times smarter than I am about some substantive intellectual issue about humanism. So that’s one genre. Like, “I think you’re an idiot.”
CQ: Not saying those words, but you know, fighting about whether or not historical narratives are objective, for example. Whether or not when we operate as historians we discover the past as it really was and then tell that story as it really was, such that our narrative is a transparent window on the past—or whether that’s not what we’re doing at all. Right? How language works. So, there are intellectual debates like that, which for me are heartfelt and deeply passionate and often involve arguing with someone who’s much more established and powerful. But that’s not actually not brave, per se—I don’t feel very vulnerable at all in those moments.
Listen in on the interview:
But then there are times when I’m outraged. Or taken by surprise, and then outraged. And that’s when I tend to be the most in your face. So, when my daughter was little—this is so dumb, but—when my daughter was little, I was waiting in the endless carpool line to pick her up from kindergarten.
Zoe: Tension is always high in the carpool line…
CQ: And so, we’re all stopped, and the parents are talking. This was outside of Houston. And we were talking about gay kids and gay Scout leaders, and this one dad was like, “No, no, I just don’t think I’d be comfortable, it makes me very nervous”—and a part of me is always shocked by that. Like, really?—so I asked, “So why would it make you nervous?” and he said, “I think the Boy Scouts should have no…as a dad I would be nervous….blah blah blah,” and I finally said, “Well, why are you worried about that?” and he said, “I don’t know. I just really don’t like it, and I wouldn’t let my son be in the Boy Scouts if I knew that there were gay Scout leaders.” And he continued, “Don’t you worry about that? I mean, don’t you worry about that?” And that’s when I lost it.
CQ: I said, “No! I worry about drunk drivers, I worry about people having guns in their houses, and I worry about people like you talking to my kid!” So, those are the kinds of moments where you’re not particularly effective, but you’ve had it. And there’ve been times like that when it’s just like, “No…” But I also think I’m a pretty brave person when it comes to fighting for things that I think are right.
Zoe: You’ve facilitated a lot of innovation on campus here, speaking of fighting for things. Have you gotten any pushback?
Listen in on the interview:
CQ: I think there are some things that I’ve done that people are hesitant about. The thing about Davidson is that almost everyone truly loves Davidson, and so whether or not they think what I’m doing is best, I don’t get the feeling that there are people out there who want me to fail just so that they can say, “I told you you shouldn’t have hired her.” So even people who think, “Well, I don’t know if she was the right choice,” or, “She’s not from Davidson”—it’s more the alum thing than the woman thing—“I don’t know that she understands Davidson, she’s from different kinds of institutions,” those people will still do everything that they can to make sure that the place thrives. It’s a really great community. That’s just a different kind of community…normally you have people who are just, “OK, just go on towards that cliff!” And they just kind of watch, right? And they’re going to let you fall off it and they don’t try to stop you. And that would be hard for me.
Listen in on the interview:
CQ: I think it’s important to be clear about what we believe in. So, you know, we stand for stuff. We are not a neutral community. We actually stand for things. We stand for making equal opportunity real. We stand for being a welcoming and open community that learns from the rich heterogeneity of the people who are here. We stand for things. And so it’s not about just letting every opinion fly.
And so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the flag situation, right? Because everybody loves the rainbow flags. And that doesn’t make me nervous. I love them! But I’m waiting for something that comes out of a window that I feel like I have to take down, not because I’m offended by it but because I think it actually pushes against the mission of the institution. Whether it’s a personal attack, or it’s explicitly exclusionary, or it’s a symbol that cannot be appropriated to mean something other than what history says it means. In other words, we are not the sole determiners of our own words and symbols. You can’t make a swastika mean what it meant before Nazi Germany. You can’t do it. You can’t have the Confederate flag mean what it meant at the beginning of the Civil War. You can’t do that. You can’t make it mean something other than what it now means, and I think that’s hard for people. I sometimes think that faculty members here—you know, something will happen, a faculty member will say something that a student experiences as a microaggression. “That was something that made me feel marginalized because of some aspect of my identity”–whatever it is–and the faculty absolutely did not intend it. And the fact is, had the faculty member said the exact same words to another student, it wouldn’t have had that effect. But it still happens.
And I think that’s because as faculty members we believe that we can keep the world out of our classrooms. That we can somehow create a space where the only thing that matters is our collective pursuit of the truth, and that differences of race and class and gender and background and experience don’t come into play. “I can make my classroom a true meritocracy.” And it’s just not true. You can’t pretend like the world isn’t there. And…[pause] But that is hard. Because you really want to believe that you can. That it’s all about the ideas. But if I had said, where I used to work, to an African-American male student, “So, what sport do you play?” Even if I knew he played a sport, that has a completely different meaning than if I said that to a white male student. The presumption was so often made that all male students of color were there for sports. And so it doesn’t matter [that I didn’t intend it that way]—and getting that through to people is hard.
But we stand for stuff here. That’s the main thing. We are not neutral. We have actual values.
Zoe: Glad to hear it.
Marybeth: That’s really important. It’s really great, as an alum, to hear you say those words. I appreciate that a lot.
Listen in on the interview:
CQ: It’s super important! You know, people going to Moral Mondays, when Amendment One was up, making sure—Duke did this too, and I think Wake Forest, too—making a statement that said, “This is what we think. We can’t tell you how to vote, but these are the benefits we provide. We seek out LGBT community members.” And making the point that this is the kind of community we want to be, and we stand, right now, on the side of human rights and justice. And we can say that because that’s who we want to be. So—sorry about the state! We can’t do anything about that!
CQ: And I think it’s important to make those statements at times when it feels like that’s not the case.
Jess: I don’t know if you saw Nick Kristof’s op-ed recently about professors, and the Ivory Tower, and not having any impact on the outside world—or choosing not to use their powers for good, essentially. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on that?
CQ: I do think that there’s hyperspecialization, especially in research institutions, and that can sometimes make it difficult for these very sophisticated analytical frameworks to be readily accessible, even to the sophisticated readers of the New York Times. And so I do think that there’s a reluctance to speak, or an indifference to speak, by some. I also think that it’s impossible to get published in the New York Times. So, there’s a really funny response to that that said, “Hey! We have views! We write to you! And you ignore us!”
Zoe: “We are trying!”
CQ: Yeah, exactly. So it’s access to those kinds of outlets, too. I think it kind of goes both ways.
And I think professors are different. I have a colleague at Rice who is committed to global health. She’s a bioengineer, and she will use every dollar that she ever gets towards remediating global health care inequities—through the technology she develops, everything that she does through her personal life. So she’s a pretty powerful advocate for what she believes in. I think there are public intellectuals like that. I think the Academy lost its monopoly on truth and knowledge a long time ago—probably for good reason. People don’t necessarily believe academics more than they would others. And so the kind of authority that one could command in Europe, say, even now—academics [here] don’t have that kind of authority, so the public doesn’t look to universities so much to provide ethical views—except for biomedical, technological, and scientific knowledge.
And so it’s hard. It’s hard to figure out from where one would speak. I think we are pretty clear, at least some of us, about the importance of educational access. It’s on us to be clear about what we do, and why it’s worth it, to the society that supports us; and to make our availability to students, irrespective of their financial circumstances, a condition of our societal value. And that’s because excellence requires that. It’s not because we’re charitable. It’s because if we want to be good, we have to be available to the best students, irrespective of the income of their parents. It’s both necessary to a democracy and a condition of educational excellence. You need heterogeneity and you need to really recruit for talent. I’m trying to figure out how to talk about that in a way that makes that clear. No one’s at Davidson because they’re poor. They’re at Davidson because they’re good. They may happen not to come from money, but they’re not here because of that. And I think sometimes the way we talk about Financial Aid may make people feel that way, too. “I’m only here because we needed 10 more poor kids.” Which is ridiculous! They’re here because when you practice need-blind admission, turns out that there’s a lot of really, really, really smart kids whose parents don’t make a lot of money. So I think that’s something we can be clear about.
Marybeth: I was curious if that was part of the thinking behind the MOOCs courses?
CQ: Part of that is about visibility for Davidson. Part of it is about learning about that technology and what we can use that technology for on campus. And part of it has to do with another project we’re doing, this AP Project, using the open-source platform, edX, to create blended learning curricula that can be used in High School in Econ, Calculus, and Physics. That, I would say, is about trying to make really good high school courses available across the board, and if that curriculum works, then we’ll be able to distribute it.
We are partners in E2D–Eliminate Davidson Digital Divide–which is a project started by a little kid to ensure that all kids in Davidson Elementary, and now in four other schools, have a new computer, access to the Internet at home, and ongoing tech support. We staff LEARN Works, which is the Ada Jenkins’ after school program for at-risk kids, so I think there are ways in which, as an institution, we make a commitment to access beyond our scholarship policies. I don’t know how to make available the Davidson experience to a broader audience. I think we can look for pieces of the experience. I hope the HIV/AIDs course, for example, which will be one of the MOOCs, will show a broader audience the value of having an English and a Bio professor teach a class together on that subject. And Tim Chartier’s going to do a linear algebra class, which maybe will get kids to like math.
Zoe: Who knows if that’ll work.
Listen in on the interview:
CQ: But the why to me, of Davidson, is disproportionate impact. Making sure that everything that we’re doing is helping us as a community–of alumni, students, faculty, and staff–to have disproportionate impact for good: equipping our students to do that, making sure that we take that responsibility as an institution seriously, and always looking to develop our talents in light of what our world needs. Whether you’re going to create jobs, or help the next generation of women understand how to think about gender through this different understanding of adventure—all of that is our desire, through you, to have impact beyond our numbers, in ways that benefit lots of people.
I love the place, and the kind of people that come here, and the ways in which Davidson as a community asks us all the time to be the person that we can be, even when we doubt that ourselves. Is it hard here? Is it challenging? Yes. Yes, it is challenging in many ways, but it’s supportive and caring, and it’s OK to fail. And the only reason why it’s as challenging as it is is because the people are able to live up to that challenge, and thrive. I feel really lucky to be here. Really lucky. I’ve never been at a place with such amazing people.
Zoe: We’re glad you’re here too, and sad it was a year too late!
CQ: Oh, no, you guys clearly had a great Davidson experience. You met each other! And you’re out there, making the world better already.
Zoe: We’ll see…. Well, we’ll ask you one more question, an easy one, which is, if you could go on any outdoors trip—maybe even a Davidson Outdoors trip—what would it be?
CQ: I hiked the Inca Trail with Davidson students.
Zoe, Marybeth, Jess: What!? Whoa! Really?
CQ: The Arequipa students hike the Inca Trail at the end of their stay. I did that with them at the end of my first year.
Zoe: Perks of being president.
CQ: That was really fun. Really fun. And last Thanksgiving I went to Iguazu, which are waterfalls between Brazil and Argentina and is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly like hiking the Inca Trail, which was really kind of an adventure. But I’ve never been to Africa, and I think that would be—I don’t know which country, exactly, but Caitlin, my daughter, wants to do this, too. I really would love to see Kenya, or South Africa…so that’s what I would do. But hiking the Inca Trail was up there! I’d been camping once before in my life, so it was an adventure. And I want to go rafting with Davidson Outdoors. I love whitewater rafting.
Zoe: You should!
[divider]End of Interview[/divider]
After waves and handshakes, we left the office feeling sort of electric. Marybeth was right, it was good to hear those things, those values, so clearly. She stands for something.