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Lost Faith

April 13, 2005

Two leading trustees of Davidson College have quit their positions to protest the board's decision to allow non-Christians to serve on it. One of the trustees -- John Belk -- is Davidson's most generous donor.

Belk and the other trustee, Stephen Smith, were not available for comment Tuesday. The Charlotte Observer (free registration required) disclosed their resignations, which were confirmed by Davidson officials.

The Observer quoted Belk as saying that he did not object to non-Christians teaching or enrolling at the college, but that he thought the board should remain entirely Christian. "I think Davidson ought to be a Christian school," Belk said. "I think that is one reason why Davidson is special, a little different from anyone else," he said.

Davidson announced the change in its policies in February, following a lengthy study of the issue. Faculty, student and alumni leaders all backed the change, with many saying that it was wrong for the college to recruit students of all faiths (and no faith) while limiting who could serve on the board. The change caused relatively little controversy on campus. But there has been strong alumni opposition throughout the debate. The college was founded as a Presbyterian institution.

Meg Kimmel, a spokeswoman for Davidson, said that she didn't know the total that Belk had given, but that the largest single gift from him was a pledge of $28 million to endow a scholarship program for top students. Kimmel said that Belk has indicated that he will keep his pledge, despite his disagreement with the policy.

Smith, the other trustee who quit, is a Dallas businessman who donated $2 million to Davidson in 2003 to support the football program.

Kimmel said that the college has heard from some alumni that they will stop donating because of the change, but she said others have said that they will give more. "We certainly do not feel that the issue is about money, but some alumni express their approval or disapproval through the power of philanthropy," she said.

There have been no trustee appointments since the policy change, so the board remains all-Christian. Kimmel said that the student body remains predominantly Christian, but also includes students of a variety of other beliefs.

Karl Plank, chair of the religion department at Davidson, said that "virtually all faculty support the changes" in the board's policy. "It reflects our diversity more clearly." An Episcopalian who teaches Jewish studies, Plank said that the appointment of non-Christians to the college's board need not take away from the college's religious heritage. "Our own religious identity is nurtured by other expressions of religious identity," he said.

Davidson is not the only college trying to balance its religious roots with the diversity of faith today. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Church of Christ in Yale, a New Haven congregation that meets in a Yale University chapel, has been told that the university will replace its services with non-denominational Protestant services, starting in the fall. The Church of Christ has links to the Congregational faith that founded Yale.

A university report in December recommended the change, along with a variety of other changes designed to help the university meet the spiritual needs of all students.

 

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