At Davidson College, board members are preparing to spend the next several months studying a question of identity: whether a Presbyterian college needs a Presbyterian president.
Right now, Davidson requires its president to be an active member of a Presbyterian church -- and recently hired a new president who is. During that search, the college agreed to study that requirement, in April appointing a committee of trustees to examine the college’s “church-relatedness” and make recommendations. Administrators at the college, which faced a high-profile fight recently over allowing non-Christians to serve on its board, stress that the study may result in no policy change at all.
But if the requirement for presidents does change, aligning Davidson’s requirements with most other Presbyterian colleges, the college will confront a challenge common to church-affiliated but largely secular Protestant institutions: how to honor historical ties to a denomination, even if the denomination has little to do with the college’s day-to-day functions.
As Davidson was searching for a new president in 2010, students, faculty and alumni at meetings with stakeholders frequently asked one question, said Stacey Schmeidel, associate vice president of college communications: Does the president have to be Presbyterian? According to college bylaws, the president must be a member of a Presbyterian church, or willing to join one. Davidson has little outward Christian affiliation otherwise -- the college does not have a seminary or religious studies requirement, and admits students and hires faculty regardless of their religious beliefs. Presbyterians make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, narrowing the pool of potential presidents drastically. Many colleges that are church-affiliated but otherwise secular abandoned religious requirements for their leadership decades ago.
The college eventually hired a Presbyterian, Carol Quillen, then a vice president at Rice University. But the board members also decided to study the question, Schmeidel said. The committee of 10 trustees has so far met only twice and plans to study other Presbyterian colleges, as well as meet with students and alumni, before coming to a decision, probably sometime next year.
“The trustees take the bylaws seriously and they don’t just change a bylaw at the drop of a hat,” Schmeidel said.
For Davidson, this bylaw is especially significant because it is one of two that require Presbyterian involvement with the college’s governance. The board is required to be 80 percent Christian, and 24 of the 44 members must also be Presbyterian. Until 2005, all board members were required to be Presbyterians -- a requirement that changed in a contentious decision  that led to two members’ resignations, including that of the college’s most generous donor.
Since the announcement of the panel to study the college's relationship with the church, a battle over the requirement has played out on the pages of the campus newspaper, The Davidsonian. One alumnus has argued, in e-mails to students and administrators, that the requirement is discriminatory and should be struck down, perhaps by courts. Some students pushed back -- "Davidson has chosen to be an elite college that values its Reformed heritage," one senior wrote . "These choices entail certain institutional arrangements." -- while others, while they argued against a possible lawsuit, agreed that the requirement was outdated .
Even under the new rules, Davidson has among the strictest requirements for presidents and trustees of the nation’s Presbyterian colleges, said Gary Luhr, executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. Luhr said that at most a “small handful” of the 60 Presbyterian institutions in the association require that the president be an active member of the denomination, and about 10 percent require that some board members belong to the church.
“The trend is away from those kinds of prescriptive requirements,” Luhr said. “Church-related colleges, like everybody else, want to find the best people to serve as presidents and to serve as trustees.”
Religious requirements for prospective presidents can complicate presidential searches, said Susan Resneck Pierce, a former president of the University of Puget Sound and Inside Higher Ed contributor who has written on the challenges  of choosing new presidents at faith-based institutions.
“It’s a pretty complicated issue, actually,” Pierce said. “On the one hand, it is certainly understandable why faith-based institutions might wish to have a president who genuinely embraces that faith.” But on the other hand, she said, while some colleges find qualified candidates who are also already active members of the denomination (as Davidson did), the requirement can make identifying presidential prospects even more difficult.
Pierce was the first non-Methodist president of Puget Sound, since the university, formerly affiliated with the denomination, broke its ties with the Methodist Church during her predecessor’s tenure. Disaffiliating and then choosing a non-Methodist (and non-Christian) president sent a strong message that while the college’s historical ties to the church were still important, they no longer dominated, said Pierce, who is Jewish.
“I have worked with any number of institutions that take great pride in their historical affiliation with their founding denomination, and yet at the same time have no requirements for their presidents,” Pierce said. In some ways, the move away from denominationally affiliated presidencies at Protestant colleges mirrors the shift at Catholic colleges from priests to members of the laity taking the lead, she said.
Few Presbyterian colleges now require presidents to be members of the denomination, but in many cases the change was made a decade or more ago, Luhr said. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when church-affiliated colleges largely broke free of denominational control, religious requirements for trustees and leadership have slowly evaporated, he said. “In a sense the trend has been evolving since then,” he said. “Certainly, not requiring presidents to be of the denomination is not a real recent phenomenon.”
At Davidson, Schmeidel stressed that the college is not considering dropping its ties to the Presbyterian Church entirely, merely studying the requirement for the presidency. If that requirement falls, the college will have to consider other ways to reflect its Presbyterian values. Some colleges focus on their core values -- such as service or diversity or sustainability -- and ask potential presidents to reflect on how their past actions have reflected those values, Pierce said.
The Presbyterian Church views the move toward greater religious diversity among presidents and board members as altogether appropriate, said Luhr. Telling students that they are welcome to attend the college and contribute generously to donation campaigns, but will never be able to rise to its presidency or sit on governing boards, no longer sits well with many students or faculty -- and many in the church.
“That’s just not appropriate in this day and time,” Luhr said. “Being open to that kind of diversity is a reflection of what it means to be Presbyterian.”