Leap of Faith, Gift of a Lifetime

President Carol Quillen in front of plant wall

When in May of 2011 Kristin Hills Bradberry and Mackey McDonald introduced me as Davidson’s 18th president, I felt grateful beyond words for this unfathomable opportunity. I was also terrified.

Could I do the job? Would I fit in at a place not built for me? If I crashed, would better qualified women pay the price?

Right after the announcement, Ginger Evans, then a trustee, made a point of introducing me to Will Terry, class of 1954 and a legendary dean emeritus. In that moment, I saw Will as everything I was not: a man, a venerated loyal alumnus, a Presbyterian pastor who spoke with some kind of drawl—in my mind exactly the type for whom Davidson was built. As we shook hands, I anticipated deep skepticism.

In what I imagine was a colossal leap of faith, Will opened his arms, his home and eventually his heart to me, sharing singular, often hilarious insights and truly rotgut wine (“always bring your own,” his friends warned) as he introduced me to a campus he had loved for half a century. Those conversations taught me more about Davidson than I could learn from any library, but Will’s most precious gift was helping me to see myself here.

Will didn’t fit into any box. He was the septuagenarian white male southern Christian who contributed religiously to Planned Parenthood, marched for racial justice, and voted (near-exclusively) for Democrats. If he knew you, he visited if you got sick and gave you refuge when you needed a break. He married hundreds of Davidson couples and gleefully took credit for the legitimacy of their children. I’m not sure what he thought in 1973, but when I met him in 2011, he celebrated the decision to admit women as one of Davidson’s smartest. Vegetarians befuddled him but in the end he’d adapt his cooking for them, and that generous hospitality extended to all who crossed his threshold, though he never fully trusted people who for no good reason refused a drink on the porch.

He loved Davidson College with his whole heart and clear eyes. When a friend once remarked that he’d never met a Davidson grad who wasn’t a good person, Will’s reply was, “Well, then you haven’t met them all.”

I doubt those who founded Davidson in 1837 had Will in mind. I expect he experienced many jarring moments during what he called his lifelong love affair with this place. Davidson sometimes let him down or pushed him away. He sometimes clashed with presidents, professors, trustees and staff. What he rarely doubted, though, was the urgency of Davidson’s primary purpose and his call to serve it. Trusting in that calling meant that Will changed, sometimes right away, sometimes grudgingly, so that he could effectively support ever more talented, ever more heterogeneous generations of students.

Davidson wasn’t established with Will or me or, let’s be honest, most people alive today in mind, but his example focuses us on a different question. We’re here now. It’s our responsibility to ask, with courage and humility, how we can best help today’s extraordinary young people develop humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.

And it’s exactly in those “wait, what?” moments of not belonging, times when we feel pushed away or let down or like we’ve landed on an alien planet, that we learn to build a more inclusive campus where all can find a home. Attending to this work with you for the past 11 years has been the gift of a lifetime. I thank you with my whole heart.

Carol E. Quillen


This letter was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.