Meeting the Moment: The Path for 19th President Doug Hicks ’90 Began at Davidson College

photo of Doug Hicks in his office

Doug Hicks wants you to know that he sees you.

As he walks along Davidson’s Main Street or zips across campus in his signature red golf cart, he frequently calls out to people by name. These are not the usual pleasantries that people exchange when they pass on the sidewalk. Doug Hicks calls to you from down the block. From across the yard. He calls to people who aren’t even looking in his direction.

Hicks’s shout outs are not simply a product of good-natured friendliness. He’s building community, and he knows that community begins when people know they are seen.

Commmunity is Hicks’s taproot, and it sinks deep in the soil of his Indiana childhood, particularly in the culture of Park Tudor, the independent school in Indianapolis he attended for 12 years. Park Tudor’s rigorous college prep curriculum earned a national reputation for producing famed scientists, filmmakers, athletes and scholars. Hicks likes to point out that he placed a foot in both the nerdy and athletic realms of his high school—captain of both the chess and baseball teams.

Hicks’s senior year resume from 1986 reflects a young man with unusually broad interests and talents: Valedictorian at Park Tudor, Indianapolis Teenager of the Year, academic honors, service and church commitments.

That record, and a nudge from his English teacher, led him to the Stuart Scholarship he won from Davidson College, which he now leads as the institution’s 19th president.

That record also lays a foundation. The scholar. The teacher. The servant leader rooted in a faith tradition. Over the next three and a half decades, Hicks built steadily on that foundation, rising from Davidson to an all-star lineup of universities, from comforting dying patients in a North Carolina hospital to dean at a top ranked New England university.

Davidson’s Clark Ross, Frontis W. Johnston Professor of Economics, taught Hicks introductory economics and became one of his primary advisors. Ross remembers a young man with an excellent high school at his back and solid Midwestern values under his feet. By his own admission, Hicks did not arrive at Davidson with a sophisticated worldview. Family, faith, school, and sports provided the four pillars of his life. His Presbyterian background emphasized service more than dogma.

Davidson expanded Hicks’s sense of himself and the world. Much of the growth began in the religion and Spanish departments. David Kaylor and Sandy Kemp exposed him to liberation theology, the social gospel and other perspectives on Christianity. Bill Mahony helped him explore Buddhism and other traditions. These teachers broadened his understanding of Christianity and the wisdom of other faith traditions. Economics taught Hicks to probe the assumptions beneath arguments and to think rigorously about causes and effects. Economics also made Hicks a student of systems and institutions. He learned how the rules of any organization, economy or political system point toward an ideal, even as they reflect the interests of the people who make them.

In the fall semester of his sophomore year, Hicks took Charlie Ratliff’s course in the history of economic thought. Ratliff introduced Hicks to a passage from the economist Alfred Marshall that Hicks recites as easily as his own name: “The question of whether it is really impossible that all should start in the world with a fair chance of leading a cultured life, free from the pains of poverty…[gives] to economic studies their chief and their highest interest.”

Understanding this quote is vital to understanding Doug Hicks. It highlights poverty as the central problem of economics, and it gives economics a clear moral imperative. The quote also reflects an intellectual genealogy that Hicks learned from Ratliff: economics descended from political economy, which descended from moral philosophy, which descended from theology.

It was travel, however, that truly fired Hicks’s commitment to alleviating poverty. In the spring of his sophomore year, he joined professors Brian Shaw, David Kaylor, Sandy Kemp and 10 other students on a two-week tour of Guatemala, Costa Rica and war-torn Nicaragua.

Hicks wrote later that the cardboard huts, the dust, the communal faucets of polluted water, the smell, the faces of hungry children overwhelmed him. Prior to the trip, Hicks understood poverty as an intellectual problem. He returned to Davidson with a burning commitment to understanding poverty as something “I had seen, heard, smelled and touched.”

Hicks saw that economics and religion could be partners. The former empowers us to help people live fuller lives. The latter helps us care to do so. When a rigorous mind combines with active humane instincts, the dismal science can do God’s work.

This is the Doug Hicks who wrote a sophisticated senior thesis on poverty in Charlotte and co-authored a Charlotte Observer article with Ratliff calling Charlotte leaders and citizens to alleviate it. This is the Doug Hicks who later wrote about Adam Smith not as a champion of savage individualism but as a moral philosopher who encouraged humane imaginations that nudge us to care about people beyond kith and kin.

“When Doug talked, people listened,” says Foxx. “He had a gravity in his voice and bearing that made others see him as a leader.”

Practicing Diplomacy

Davidson also sharpened Hicks outside the classroom. In his many leadership positions, Hicks developed a reputation as a convener of important conversations. President Emeritus John Kuykendall ’59 recalled that as leader of the Westminster Fellowship, “Doug got that group to talk about serious social issues and not just eat cookies in the fellowship hall.”

Anthony Foxx ’93, remembers meeting Hicks, a senior, when Foxx was a first-year student. “When Doug talked, people listened,” says Foxx. “He had a gravity in his voice and bearing that made others see him as a leader.”

The gravity, combined with his excellence as a student, gave Hicks credibility with faculty and administrators.

This credibility proved vital in one of Hicks’s most meaningful leadership roles, chair of the SGA’s Solidarity Committee. The Solidarity Committee worked on a variety of racial and social justice issues on campus and in the community. Students selected Hicks for the job.

“As a white kid from Indianapolis,” Hicks recalls, “I never thought that I would have an opportunity to lead a group like that.”

Chairing the committee required a mix of diplomacy and decisiveness that became a hallmark of Hicks’s leadership. He helped students with strong views about social justice define a common vision that everyone could support because they felt truly seen and heard. He also proved his willingness to act boldly for the sake of that vision.

During Hicks’s time at Davidson, the trustees established a committee on investment in South Africa, a nation in the grips of apartheid. At one of the committee’s meetings in Chambers, Hicks and other students staged a lie-down protest to demand divestment. Looking back, Hicks is not sure that divestment by Davidson would have made a positive difference in South Africa. But he still thinks the protest was the right thing to do.

“The testament,” he says, “was more important than the economic policy.”

The protest remains important to Hicks not because of what it accomplished, but because of how the people in the room behaved.

“Everyone in Chambers that day, students and trustees, treated each other with civility and respect,” he says. “This is what Davidson can be in the world today—a model of how people with differing views can engage each other with dignity.”

After the protest, college leaders invited Hicks to join the committee.

At his commencement in 1990, Hicks received the Algernon Sidney Sullivan Award, Davidson’s most prestigious service award. Dean of Student’s Will Terry’s ‘54 citation included a long list of Hicks’s accomplishments—athlete, resident advisor, religious leader, student government officer. After four years at Davidson, said Terry, Hicks “truly demonstrated the nature and purpose of liberal learning, not only in the classroom but also in the larger world.”

After earning a Master of Divinity degree at Duke, where he served as a hospital chaplain, Hicks moved on to Harvard’s Ph.D. program in religion. Harvard’s program allows students to combine the study of religion with an allied field. To this day, Hicks remains the only student to combine religion and economics.

A small cadre of Harvard scholars became especially important in Hicks’s development. Chief among them was Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who taught him to focus on the assets that poor communities have rather than on the things they lack. Hicks learned to examine how social and political institutions distribute assets and opportunities across communities.

His dissertation drew from development economics, political philosophy and Christian ethics to propose “a theologically informed approach to socioeconomic life.” In its multidisciplinary approach, its methodological sophistication, its emphasis on equality before God and the social factors that shape human flourishing, the work reads like a mature and global extension of his Davidson senior thesis.

Hicks also worked closely with Diana Eck, professor of religion and Indian studies and the founding director of Harvard’s Pluralism Project.

Eck remembers Hicks as “preternaturally aware of how our public life was becoming more religiously diverse.” She notes that while many organizations today hire staff who encourage diversity, equity and inclusion, “Doug understood the importance of this work two decades ago.”

The Pluralism Project still uses Hicks’s study of conflict over religious symbols at William and Mary as a teaching tool.

Eck remembers Hicks as “preternaturally aware of how our public life was becoming more religiously diverse.” She notes that while many organizations today hire staff who encourage diversity, equity and inclusion, “Doug understood the importance of this work two decades ago.”

From Scholar to Leader

When the Jepson School of Leadership Studies opened its doors at the University of Richmond in 1992, some faculty grumbled that teaching leadership meant coaching ambitious careerists to dress and schmooze. This, they argued, is not the work of a liberal arts institution.

It also is not what Richard Morrill, Richmond’s president, had in mind. Shaped by his training in theology and two previous college presidencies, Morrill understood leadership education to mean character formation and ethics. These values, central to the liberal arts tradition, provided the Jepson School’s center of gravity. Morrill set out to hire smart young scholars whose research would bolster Jepson’s credibility within the university and beyond.

Doug Hicks seemed made for the Jepson School. He shared Morrill’s academic training and his commitment to ethics in public life. He also demonstrated a productive research agenda.

More importantly, Hicks shared Morrill’s belief that every young person contains some potential to lead. They need teachers who cultivate this potential, just as they need teachers to help them think critically and communicate effectively. Hicks joined the Jepson School faculty in 1998.

If Davidson molded Hicks’s character, Richmond—campus and community—cast his career. He wrote four books, edited five others, and wrote at least one peer-reviewed article, book review or conference paper nearly every year during his time there. In good liberal arts college fashion, much of his scholarship reflected his teaching. Two of his books, Religion and the Workplace and With God on All Sides, grew out of a course he developed at the Jepson School.

Hicks also deepened his work in international education. Like many schools in the early 2000s, Richmond expanded international education beyond traditional study abroad. Hicks led students to Spain and incorporated studies of Spanish leaders into his teaching.

More than anything else, civic engagement became the highlight of Hicks’s time at Richmond. In 1993, The Bonner Foundation invited the University of Richmond, along with Davidson, to become one of the first seven schools that received endowments to build Bonner Scholars programs. Richmond quickly developed the largest cohort in the country.

The Bonner Program’s success provided a larger stage. In 2003–04, Hicks led a faculty committee that explored how the university could engage more deeply with the city of Richmond. The Gothic campus in the wealthy, west end of the city would connect with an urban center suffering a history of high homicide rates—and mostly Black victims—along with the lingering effects of Massive Resistance, a policy adopted by Virginia’s government to block the desegregation of the state’s public schools.

At the same time, the chaplain’s office was trying to decide how to use a pool of excess Bonner funds.

Hicks brought these conversations together in a proposal to use the Bonner funds to create a Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. Hicks’s success at building an inclusive faculty coalition and lobbying the administration made him the ideal choice as the center’s founding director.

Under Hicks’s leadership, the Bonner Center developed UniverCity Day, a new component to orientation that introduced students to the city. URDowntown brought students and faculty together with community organizations. The center trained faculty in community-based learning and organized law students who provided free legal aid.

These accomplishments led Hicks to an important realization. As much as he loved teaching, he discovered a taste and talent for administration. The fundamental elements of his leadership strategy had come together: See challenges and opportunities before others see them. Identify and convene all the parties who need to be at the table. Foster a vision that everyone at the table can support. Break the work into achievable tasks. Provide people with the resources they need to get the work done.

Hicks knew how to be consultative and decisive, visionary and pragmatic. His leadership made good things happen at Richmond, and he knew it could work elsewhere. He just needed a challenge.

Champion of New Learning

In 2012, Hicks received the University of Richmond’s Distinguished Educator Award and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Award. That same year, Colgate University searched for a new a provost and dean of the faculty who could help formulate a new strategic plan.

Doug Johnson, dean of academic and curricular affairs and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, chaired the search committee.

Colgate wanted a provost and dean of faculty who understood the mission and challenges of a liberal arts college that plays Division 1 athletics. They also wanted someone who could build community while making the hard choices that strategic planning requires.

For Johnson, Hicks’s leadership of Richmond’s Bonner Center proved that he “puts his money where his mouth is in terms of ethics, civic engagement and leadership.” Hicks demonstrated an ability to “think beyond himself and focus on the welfare of the broader community.”

“It is rare to find a provost as interested in student life as Doug,” says Suzy Nelson, Colgate’s vice president and dean of students at the time. Hicks and Nelson created new living and learning communities and managed a year of intense student activism on campus.

As he had at Richmond, Hicks supported new opportunities for students to connect experiences abroad to their work on campus. It was the classroom, though, where he made his strongest mark. Hicks’s time at Colgate coincided with the advent of new digital technologies and new teaching methods. Hicks pushed Colgate to lean into these changes. He lobbied for resources that expanded digital learning and revitalized the teaching and learning center. He led Colgate to the edX platform. He forged new ties between information technology, communications, the library, and the teaching and learning center.

Building support for these changes “was not an easy sell,” says Johnson. “It took backbone and vision.” He describes Hicks as fiercely, but strategically, competitive. He knows when to push an issue and when to wait. He also describes Hicks as “an ethical, optimistic realist” who “sees the delta between very good and excellent and wants to close the gap.”

“He’s very good at navigating tradition and change,” Hobbs says. “He knows how to help a place be a more expansive version of itself. He can identify what is valuable about the past, what is integral to maintaining a keen sense of identity but making it better.”

Ambassador of Oxford

In 2016, Oxford College of Emory found itself in a similar situation to Colgate in 2012. The school needed a new dean who could formulate a new strategic plan.

Unlike Colgate, Oxford is not an independent institution. Located 35 miles outside Atlanta, Oxford is Emory’s original campus, but now is one of nine schools and colleges that make up the university. Oxford’s dean leads the campus, but the dean also must advocate for the college within the Emory administration.

“We needed a fighter,” says Molly McGehee ’97, associate professor of English and American studies, “not just someone who would go to Atlanta and say, ‘thank you.’”

Over the next six years, Hicks oversaw the development of a strategic plan that modernized the curriculum; added faculty positions; adopted new, high impact teaching methods; increased investment in financial aid; and created new opportunities for experiential learning, travel courses, internships, and leadership education. He partnered with another dean, Michael Elliott, on a new Mellon Humanities Pathway Program that helped students transition to Emory’s Atlanta campus and explore career opportunities. The initiative got a shout out in The New Yorker, and Elliott was named president of his alma mater, Amherst, a few weeks after Hicks was tapped to lead Davidson.

Hicks also oversaw a new master plan for Oxford’s campus that reflected his commitment to community.

“What Oxford looks like today is Doug’s leadership and his work with and within community,” says Jen Hobbs, who served as vice provost and senior advisor to the provost at Emory. “He doesn’t just redo or upgrade spaces. He has a real sense of place. He thinks about how people move around the campus, and he thinks about how spaces and structures can be built to encourage the experiences a community of people want to have.”

Hicks worked hard to marshal the resources that these changes required. He understood a central part of his role to be as Oxford’s ambassador to Atlanta. He sought to shift the relationship from “a zero-sum game to a positive-sum game.”

These accomplishments prepared Oxford for its future, but Hicks’s most meaningful work concerned its past. As an institution built in Georgia in 1836, Emory’s history is deeply entangled with the institutions of slavery and segregation. Hicks made it clear that he would confront this history honestly and honor the enslaved and disenfranchised persons who never appeared in Emory’s narrative.

Reckoning honestly with the past enjoyed broad support at Oxford. How to do it remained less clear. Doug Johnson, Hicks’s Colgate colleague, says Hicks could have appointed a commission or task force to do the work, but he didn’t.

Hicks represented Oxford College on Emory’s Untold Stories Committee, which evolved into the Twin Memorials Committee, which he co-chaired with an Atlanta faculty colleague. They visited other campuses that had confronted similar issues and brought in experts who helped Emory chart its own path.

Hicks understood that he could not drive this process alone. McGehee says he was always aware of his power to do something as a dean, but equally aware of his place as a white man. He did his homework, and shared leadership, she says.

Leading through these transitions required the full range of Hicks’s skills. Shepherding curricular reform, designing a campus master plan and confronting history required Hicks to forge alliances and generate a common vision across diverse constituencies. His former colleagues say he has a way of fostering buy-in and is a builder and sustainer of community.

“He’s very good at navigating tradition and change,” Hobbs says. “He knows how to help a place be a more expansive version of itself. He can identify what is valuable about the past, what is integral to maintaining a keen sense of identity but making it better.”

By 2022, Oxford offered an educational experience that looked more like other top liberal arts colleges. The endowment and the number of applicants doubled. The campus enjoyed physical spaces that fostered community and a more honest understanding of its past.

Hicks looked forward to building on these accomplishments. Then, one day last spring, he received a call from Alison Hall Mauzé ’84, chair of Davidson’s Board of Trustees. Molly McGehee remembers the afternoon Hicks asked if he could visit. Over cocktails in the backyard, Hicks told her, “I’m going home.”

President Douglas Hicks on stage at Campus Block Party event

“Doug just won us over,” Foxx says. “He has a dry wit, and he’s incredibly fluent in articulating the types of things you want a president to articulate: the mission, the role of the liberal arts, the need to continually evolve, and a proven ability to engage with a range of constituencies to shape a vision.”

Realistic Hope

As a former Charlotte mayor and cabinet official, Anthony Foxx ’93 is used to big jobs. As chair of the search committee for Davidson’s 19th president, he knew he had one.

Higher education faced daunting challenges. Changes in Davidson’s bylaws opened the job to an unprecedented range of applicants.

The committee pursued one goal.

“We were committed to finding the best person for the job,” Foxx says. “We wanted someone who understands the value of a liberal arts education and the particular variety of it that Davidson provides. We also wanted someone who will move us forward, not just keep it all together.”

Hicks was simply the best choice in an incredibly impressive pool, he says.

“Doug just won us over,” Foxx says. “He has a dry wit, and he’s incredibly fluent in articulating the types of things you want a president to articulate: the mission, the role of the liberal arts, the need to continually evolve, and a proven ability to engage with a range of constituencies to shape a vision.”

Clark Ross notes that Hicks’s work has always emphasized helping people build meaningful, self-supporting lives with dignity. “Because Davidson transformed Doug’s life,” says Ross, “he’s a good person to lead this transformation for others.”

Hicks’s Harvard mentor, Diana Eck, put it simply: “I can’t imagine you could have done better.”

Hicks now gets to invest three decades of experience into the institution that shaped him more than any other. He does it with visible joy. He is nostalgic about his time as a student, but he has no desire to restore the 1980s. He wants to “pick up the baton” from his predecessors and lead Davidson resolutely into the future.

He does so with a powerful hope. It is not a belief that good things are destined.

“I don’t believe in narratives of inevitable progress,” he says. But he has confidence in what he calls Davidson’s dynamism, Davidson’s ability to stay in conversation about how to live its enduring values in a changing world.

This is where the circle comes full. Doug Hicks has been convening important conversations since his student days. He now convenes the biggest conversation of his career, one that brings together Davidsonians across generations to build community in new ways and to educate young people for the future.

If we conduct this conversation with genuine respect and curiosity, he says, we transform the future into more than time that lies ahead. The future becomes “our common ground.”

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This article 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.