Douglas A. Hicks
March 31, 2023
Thank you, Anthony and Alison. I am profoundly grateful to you, to the Presidential Search Committee and to the Board of Trustees for entrusting me with this role. It is the honor of a lifetime to be able to lead my alma mater.
Thank you to the Inauguration planning committee who designed an excellent series of events. You’ve brought intellectual depth, creativity, and even Doug Mugs to campus. Many staff colleagues have made this ceremony possible, from the facilities team that set up chairs and banners across campus, to those who helped coordinate the visits of hundreds of guests and alumni.
Thank you to the Davidson faculty and staff whose hard work and dedication shape the lives of so many students. On a personal note, I want to thank the Davidson mentors who taught me. Some of you are in this arena and others are on livestream, and for me that makes this day that much more meaningful.
Former presidents John Kuykendall, Bobby Vagt, Tom Ross, Carol Quillen: I am grateful for your presence today—and we all thank you for the leadership and four decades of service you collectively dedicated to this college. Learning from predecessors as gracious and wise as you has helped make my transition smooth and effective.
Parents and family members, thank you for your vital part in supporting the Davidson community. To the Hicks and Bagwell families, including my brothers and my father here from Indiana, my spouse (and Davidson professor) Catherine Bagwell, and our kids Noah and Ada, thank you for your vital part in supporting me.
This gathering is made more extraordinary by the public officials, delegates, and friends who have come from schools far and wide. We have a shared mission to advance knowledge and educate future generations.
Alumni, from the Class of 1952 up to 2022, thank you for being here. Our alumni base spans across the world and across eight decades.
And a big shout-out of appreciation to current Davidson students for being here!
Davidson friends, today we don’t just inaugurate me, we inaugurate our shared future. So we have to ask: Given that we are looking forward, why in the world are many of us dressed in ancient, medieval robes?
I suggest that we can’t envision where we want to go unless we seek a truthful and respectful understanding of where we’ve been.
In religious studies, we speak a lot about tradition. Tradition is about inheriting something important and passing it forward from one generation to the next. Tradition is a bucket brigade; it’s a relay race. Yet unlike a simple baton, with tradition, each person adds their own interpretation of what is handed to them based on their time and their experiences.
The philosopher Alisdair McIntyre captures this sense of ongoing change—defining tradition as an extended argument over time among members of a community, who are constantly shaping it.
This past August 28th, I met with the entire first-year class and transfer students in the Duke Family Performance Hall. The students were there to enact one of our most cherished traditions: to sign the Honor Code. Before they each wrote their name, I gave a talk on the meanings of honor—and the students made it a lively conversation that ranged from Aristotle and Rousseau to Michel Foucault and our Davidson alum Clint Smith. The Honor Council members personalized this tradition by adding to the solemn ceremony and celebration that followed. Our Honor Council Chair, Michael Yen, worked all weekend to bake hundreds of brownies for the entire entering class.
Come to think of it: A lot of our Davidson traditions seem to revolve around community and food: the Cake Race, gift baskets given by “bigs” to “littles” in eating houses, and faculty sharing meals with students in Vail Commons and in their homes.
All of this adds up to Davidson as a grand tradition that shapes humane instincts and creative, disciplined minds for lives of leadership and service. We embrace this enduring purpose while knowing that it looks different over time.
Who belongs to the Davidson tradition? Who is excluded? How do we ensure that all members have a say in its future?
I’m proud that Davidson is answering these questions thoughtfully and with intention. The oldest part of our campus includes Phi and Eu Halls, and Oak and Elm Row, historic buildings mentioned in the Inaugural program and etched into our college mace. These buildings are made of bricks fashioned from the red clay of this area. Researchers involved in the Commemoration Project have observed that these bricks were created by hand and are very soft and quite rough.
There’s something else remarkable about these earliest campus buildings. On the bricks you can see and touch indentations, the outlines of thumbs that shaped them. These are thumbprints of the enslaved laborers who built Davidson’s original campus. These persons were part of this community, yet they didn’t experience the dignity of membership. Instead, they suffered the dehumanization of slavery.
We are now engaged in the shared initiative to acknowledge these founders of the college—to name their vital place in the Davidson tradition. Yesterday we unveiled plans for the Commemoration Memorial to honor enslaved persons and others whose labor was exploited.
A truthful account of our past is crucial for building a dynamic, hopeful future. We are adding new faculty and curricular areas to understand equality, justice, and community. We have initiated a partnership with the Catawba Nation, beginning with the “Unshadowed Land Project,” which has planted indigenous Catawba corn on our campus. We will expand community partnerships in the greater Charlotte region, including our special connection, supported by The Duke Endowment, with Johnson C. Smith University.
For me, the Davidson tradition has always been about expanding our worldview and sense of community. Nearly four decades ago, I arrived at Davidson from Indiana in the family minivan. My mother and I moved my stuff into Belk—not far from where I live now. In classrooms and offices in Chambers, faculty like Charlie Ratliff, Clark Ross, David Kaylor, and Sandy Kemp opened my mind both to what is possible in the ideal realm and what social realities keep people and communities from reaching that ideal. My Davidson education led me to frame the key question of my professional life: How do we shift our focus away from human deficits and deprivation to build our human capabilities?
I came to see religion and economics as lenses to promoting human well-being. In that sense, religious studies and economics are disciplines of hope. From inspiring holy texts like the Psalms to stories of faith in action such as Joann Robinson’s memoir on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it’s not hard to see the hope in religion. As for the so-called dismal science, the pioneers of economics believed that alleviating poverty “gave to economic studies their chief and highest interest.”
For any liberal arts education to go beyond understanding our world to shaping it, we need hope. We dare to hope for a future more equitable and humane, with less suffering and division, than the present. We dare to believe that Davidson’s high educational purpose plays a key role in bettering ourselves and the world we live in.
Yet, like hand-crafted bricks, we are all a little rough and imperfect. From the Reformed Tradition comes the idea that only God is perfect, and humans always fall short. Richard Niebuhr writes that progress toward justice often occurs not because of human actions but despite them. Our human fallibility, not to mention finitude, strikes a cautionary note on what we can achieve. It calls us to humility in leadership.
Niebuhr’s observation also compels us to be skeptical of grand narratives. One of those is the narrative of constant progress. The myth of progress, deeply embedded in modern Western thought, asserts that each society is superior to those that came before it. In an educational enterprise, we are drawn to the idea of progress, seeking new ways of teaching and advances in knowledge. We see moral, medical, and economic developments as reason for hope.
Yet, let us beware of the assumption that new ideas are always superior to old ideas—an assumption that can lead us to moral superiority. At its worst, it contributes to a marginalization of older persons, and a devaluation of their wisdom. The preference for the new over the old is also tied to consumerism—to planned obsolescence of products, to fast fashion—with devastating impacts on the environment. Artificial intelligence is already affecting the human experience, and we are grappling with its technological and moral questions at Davidson. Let us critically evaluate—and create—progress not based on innovation alone, but on deploying innovation toward humane ends.
In contrast to the story of progress stands another grand narrative: the story of loss and decay, of moral and social decline. We hear that some earlier era was more peaceable, respectful, orderly, or fair. In educational institutions it can be heard in laments about grade inflation, or that students don’t read books any more, that they are afraid to share their true beliefs, or that the pandemic has eroded their capacities to learn.
These topics deserve attention and understanding. But the narrative of decline often overlooks the reality that any earlier period was far less inclusive than our world is today. If there was less perceived dissent or more perceived civic unity in another time, we must acknowledge that some voices were not being heard.
Davidson opened its doors to Black students in the 1960s, and fully to women students in the 1970s. Five decades later, we are now a far stronger college, a better community, because our student body, faculty, and staff now more closely reflect American society and the world. Our commitment to access and affordability is a high moral purpose; and we must remain committed to full belonging and success for all students who make Davidson such a vibrant place for learning.
Our historical storyline, like the campus bricks and like ourselves, is rough. It includes steps forward, some backward, and often not as quickly as we would like.
Let us embrace a story neither of pure progress nor decline. Instead, let us envision and embody a dynamic Davidson. Ours is a living tradition that embraces the tension between continuity and change. It strives to be responsive to the educational needs of our students in every era, preparing them for their individual and shared futures.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we are filled with a sense of gratitude for community. Our classrooms and campus are vibrant, enlivened by faculty who love what they do and by students eager to learn.
Without a doubt, campus conversations are sometimes rocky. Faculty meetings, student debates, or alumni association discussions occasionally get heated. Why? Because we are imperfect people with rough edges and, just as important, because we are doing the hard work of critical reflection and mutual engagement.
At Davidson, we embrace our tradition of being able to tackle the hardest questions. Students work alongside staff mentors to develop their capacity to lead and motivate positive change. Our arts programs open new worlds of moral imagination. Competing in athletics at the highest national level prepares us to persevere in the face of defeat and to win graciously.
We—you—do all of that today. At a time when some seem to take pride in polarization, let us be known as a college focused less on winning arguments and more on listening to and learning from each other.
I said earlier that my two forms of intellectual training – religion and economics – are disciplines of hope. And I believe that hope is central to what we do at Davidson.
Hope isn’t the same thing as optimism. Optimism is seeing the world as better than it is. Hope sees the world exactly as it is, with its smooth parts and its rough parts, and yet envisioning a better reality. With the late Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, I view hope as active, something that requires a great deal of work, and a healthy dose of courage in the face of what we see today.
Or let’s say it a little differently. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. differentiates magic hope from realistic hope. Magic hope involves sitting around, waiting for something miraculously to change. It gets us nowhere. Realistic hope requires much from us: critical thinking skills, social analysis, organizational prowess, motivational power, and moral imagination. Those are the liberal arts components of hope.
In both philosophical and religious worldviews, hope is a virtue. But it’s more than that. Hope is a practice. An active, daily practice, a way of being in the world. We exercise our critical thinking skills to analyze and understand the world. We exercise our moral imagination to envision something better and to believe that no problem is too big or intractable to solve. Then, we exercise our courageous resilience and get to work.
In the coming academic year, we will undertake strategic planning to prepare for a shared future. We’ll do so with respect for a dynamic tradition and in the spirit of hope. To realize our high ideals, we can and must
- continue to expand access and affordability;
- transform our library and academic programs for the digital age;
- build new ties across the Town of Davidson and the greater Charlotte region;
- advance our athletics program and support scholar-athletes amid dizzying changes in the NCAA;
- forge smoother pathways from our liberal arts curriculum into the ever-changing global workplace;
- model an inclusive campus culture in which conflicting ideas are not feared but embraced in the interest of learning.
When I meet people across campus, and when I travel to see Davidson alumni, parents, family, and friends, I see hope personified and hope in practice.
Students, your generation is questioning our work practices and structures; you want a more humane workplace. You must learn how to manage quantities of data that are magnitudes greater than the data earlier generations had at our disposal. You are fed up with inequalities, injustices, and divisions.
I see hope in the Davidson Disability Alliance, whose students educate the community on disability as a culture and identity and imagine improvements that make our campus more accessible for everyone.
I see hope in the students in the Justice class taught by Piko Ewoodzie and Michelle Kuchera, who ask tough questions of their professors, their president, and each other about what they value.
I see hope in the faculty sitting in their academic robes, for the ways they share their knowledge far beyond Davidson—in textbooks, monographs, articles co-authored with students, exhibitions, digital resources, and creative works.
I gain hope as I walk around this beautiful campus, and view the care with which the physical plant, dining services, and art gallery teams cultivate an environment conducive to deep thinking and moral and spiritual growth.
I see hope in Davidson community members who welcome Ukrainian refugees and students. Hope in the Bonner Scholars who serve local agencies, schools, and people in poverty.
I see hope in Davidson graduates who use their talents to improve public health: an alumnus who developed blood tests to detect viruses and to improve drug dosages, and an alumna who welcomes students into her lab to discover new ways to fight neonatal infections.
I experience hope in this loyal alumni body, some 25,000 strong, who year after year rank in the top five colleges or universities in the world for engagement and annual giving. We are indeed a living tradition, connected across the years.
I see hope in our shared commitment to freedom of expression, reflected in a statement drafted by a group of Davidsonians diverse in identities and convictions—a living document that has been affirmed by the faculty and trustees.
We are called to be a dynamic Davidson. We will soon celebrate the commencement of the Class of 2023, even as we are already welcoming the Class of 2027, whose minivans, and Ubers, will arrive this August. Each of us will play a part, finalizing diplomas and recommendations for our graduates--meanwhile preparing courses, financial aid packages, and residence halls for our new members.
This is how we hold together continuity and change, how we build upon our proud and yet imperfect tradition. Davidson friends, today we inaugurate our shared future, and I am honored to share in that work with all of you.