President's Letter: Davidson Time
Inaugurations, like commencements, are about the future.
Yet these ceremonies are also about tradition, starting with academic robes, academic processions, and the seal of the college. On a campus as storied as Davidson’s, we constantly connect past, present and future.
During the inauguration symposium entitled “Envisioning Our Future,” we learned from Dr. Kristi Multhaup that our brains actually process the past and the future in similar ways. Multhaup, Davidson’s Vail Professor of Psychology, explained that similar neural pathways are activated when a person remembers the past or envisions the future. Why? In each case, we are constructing (or reconstructing, in the case of the past) a narrative of events.
Joining Dr. Multhaup in conversation, Dr. Hilary Green, James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson, pointed out that keeping alive historical memory plays an invaluable part of living in the present and building an equitable future.
In her inaugural poem, “Spring, Unraveling,” Leah Mell ’19 weaves together past, present, and future. (The poem is published on p. 2 of this issue.) She interlinks her three sonnets, with the final line of each sonnet being repeated as the initial line of the next one. “Memory is not hindrance, but necessity,” she writes. She calls us to imagine a future, recalling the past in all its complexity and building on the promise of today.
Leah’s poem reminds us that meaning can and does emerge from ordinary moments. In ancient Greek philosophy and the New Testament, there are two different words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronology is everyday time, linear time. In contrast, kairos is when time stands still, or when time opens up.
For me, inauguration was a profound moment of kairos. It brought together myriad members of the Davidson community, including alumni ranging from the classes of 1952 to 2022. The gathering brought to campus family, friends, and colleagues from every phase of my life. My high school English teacher, who recommended me to Davidson, sat in the front row with my father, brothers, spouse and kids. Friends and delegates represented colleges and universities across the country.
And at the inauguration our students represented the future. They brought their energy, their critical and constructive questions, their commitment to a more equitable and sustainable world. The Class of 2023 includes eight Fulbright Scholars, a Watson Scholar, a Truman Scholar, a Goldwater Scholar, and so many more extraordinary graduating seniors with great promise.
Throughout my first year as president of Davidson College, including in my inaugural address, I’ve emphasized the virtue and the practice of hope as a way of being in the world. Whereas optimism is about seeing the past and the present as better than they are, hope is about understanding the world exactly as it is, and then imagining and working for a better one. Practicing hope allows us to be active shapers of the future, not merely those who passively accept whatever comes. We understand our responsibility to cast off cynicism and division, and to model mutual respect.
Over the past nine months, I’ve met hundreds of hope-filled people—students, staff, and faculty all across campus, and alumni, parents, and Davidson friends in a dozen cities across the country. Some have asked, “Has it been a blur?” At times, yes. More often, the experience is more like what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. There have been a lot of kairos moments, during which time has stood still and Davidson community members have told me their stories and their hopes for our future.
So don’t be fooled by the medieval robes or ancient caps at big events like inauguration, convocation or commencement. We remember our past and enact traditions in the present precisely because we are focused on the future. Our graduates, who become alumni, are both the people we serve and the products of this extraordinary education.
I firmly believe that this challenging moment in American public life is Davidson’s time to excel in every field and endeavor. As our Statement of Purpose puts it, we are called to lead and serve in a world that sorely needs our humane instincts and disciplined, creative minds. Let us not be optimistic about the future; let’s practice active hope to shape it.
This letter was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.