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“When the peculiar circumstances of a community demand it, and their benevolence will justify it, the establishment of a College having the Bible for its first charter, and the prosperity of the Church and our country for its great design, ought to be regarded as an enterprise of no common grandeur.” —Davidson’s first president, Robert Hall Morrison, in his inaugural address, August 2, 1838
Founded by Concord Presbytery, Davidson College opened as a manual labor institute in 1837. The college’s name memorializes General William Lee Davidson, who died at the nearby Revolutionary War battle of Cowan’s Ford in 1781. General Davidson’s son provided the initial acreage for the campus.
The college seal and the college motto, Alenda Lux Ubi Orta Libertas (“Let Learning Be Cherished Where Liberty Has Arisen”), recall the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence; both seal and motto resulted from the suggestion of Peter Stuart Ney, an elusive Frenchman believed by some to have been Napoleon’s Marshal Ney.
Original academic subjects included moral and natural philosophy, evidences of Christianity, classical languages, logic, and mathematics. Three professors, including Morrison, taught this curriculum to Davidson’s sixty-five students.
Although Presbyterian-originated, the college maintained from the beginning its intent to educate students without regard to their denominational affiliation. Students came from a variety of religious and regional backgrounds. By 1860, Davidson alumni lived in twelve states and two foreign countries.
A bequest in 1856 from Maxwell Chambers of Salisbury, North Carolina, provided the college with the means to strengthen its base and expand its influence. The gift of a quarter of a million dollars made the institution, for a time, the richest college south of Princeton and helped the college survive through the Civil War years. It also provided for the construction of a central academic building that was named in honor of the college’s first substantial benefactor. The present Chambers Building, which replaced the one burned in 1921, also bears his name.
While the college had a student body of only twenty-four men in 1866, during the post-war recovery period there was a gradual expansion of curriculum, faculty, and students. Newly added academic disciplines included chemistry, English, history, and physics. By 1890 the teaching faculty included its first Ph.D.-holding professors. Increasing growth in enrollment gave the college a student body of over 300 by 1910.
In 1911, the college offered the A.B. and the B.S. degrees, with the former requiring study of Greek and Latin, the latter allowing substitution of a modern foreign language in place of Latin. There were fifteen departments, though majors were not part of the curriculum until the 1920s. A strengthened financial base was augmented by the generosity of the Rockefellers who provided funds for replacing the original Chambers building and by annual support from the Duke Endowment which continues today.
The 1920s and 1930s saw courses in accounting, business, economics, and music added to the curriculum, as well as honors programs and seminars. In 1923, Davidson was selected as the third college in North Carolina to be chartered for a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Curricular revisions in the 1960s and 1980s altered the academic calendar and degree requirements, but retained Davidson’s emphasis on a broad liberal arts education along with increasing opportunities for specialization, independent academic work, study abroad, and interdisciplinary programs.
First admitting women as degree candidates in 1973, the college has grown to over 1,600 students on campus. The teaching faculty numbers nearly 160. Changes in physical plant begun during the 1990s have supported the college’s growth with new and renovated facilities for athletics, the visual arts, the sciences, residential housing, student and community activities, and the performing arts.
Recent academic program changes include the expansion of concentrations and the options for a second major or minor in many departments. Special attention is given to writing across the curriculum and includes small classes designed to help first-year students make the transition to college-level work and writing.
Davidson’s underlying philosophy appears in the college’s official statement of purpose.
Statement of Purpose
Davidson College is an institution of higher learning established in 1837 by Presbyterians of North Carolina. Since its founding, the ties that bind the college to its Presbyterian heritage, including the historic understanding of Christian faith called The Reformed Tradition, have remained close and strong. The college is committed to continuing this vital relationship.
The primary purpose of Davidson College is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service. In fulfilling its purpose, Davidson has chosen to be a liberal arts college, to maintain itself as a residential community of scholars, to emphasize the teaching responsibility of all professors, and to ensure the opportunity for personal relationships between students and teachers. Further, Davidson believes it is vital that all students in every class know and study under mature and scholarly teachers who are able and eager to provide for each of them stimulation, instruction, and guidance.
The Christian tradition to which Davidson remains committed recognizes God as the source of all truth, and believes that Jesus Christ is the revelation of that God, a God bound by no church or creed. The loyalty of the college thus extends beyond the Christian community to the whole of humanity and necessarily includes openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions. Davidson dedicates itself to the quest for truth and encourages teachers and students to explore the whole of reality, whether physical or spiritual, with unlimited employment of their intellectual powers. At Davidson, faith and reason work together in mutual respect and benefit toward growth in learning, understanding, and wisdom.
As a college that welcomes students, faculty and staff from a variety of nationalities, ethnic groups, and traditions, Davidson values diversity, recognizing the dignity and worth of every person. Therefore, Davidson provides a range of opportunities for worship, civil debate, and teaching that enrich mind and spirit. Further, Davidson challenges students to engage in service to prepare themselves for lives of growth and giving.
Davidson seeks students of good character and high academic ability, irrespective of economic circumstances, who share its values and show promise for usefulness to society. In the selection of faculty, the college seeks men and women who respect the purpose of the college, who are outstanding intellectually, who have the best training available in their fields of study, and whose interest in students and teaching is unfeigned and profound. The Trustees commit to being faithful stewards of the traditions of the college. They are charged with governing under the Constitution and By-laws and with providing the financial resources necessary for adequate student aid and appropriate facilities and programs, including furnishing the faculty with the time and opportunity for creative scholarship fundamental to the best teaching.
As a liberal arts college, Davidson emphasizes those studies, disciplines, and activities that are mentally, spiritually, and physically liberating. Thus, the college concentrates upon the study of history, literature and languages, philosophy and religion, music, drama and the visual arts, the natural and social sciences, and mathematics. The college encourages student engagement with other cultures through domestic and international studies. The college also requires physical education, provides for competitive athletics, and encourages a variety of social, cultural, and service activities. While Davidson prepares many of its students for graduate and professional study, it intends to teach all students to think clearly, to make relevant and valid judgments, to discriminate among values, and to communicate freely with others in the realm of ideas.
Davidson holds a priceless heritage bequeathed by those who have dedicated their lives and their possessions for its welfare. To it much has been entrusted, and of it much is required.
Robert Hall Morrison (1836-1840); Samuel Williamson (1841-1854); Drury Lacy (1855-1860); John Lycan Kirkpatrick (1860-1866); George Wilson McPhail (1866-1871); John Rennie Blake, chair of the faculty (1871-1877); Andrew Dousa Hepburn (1877-1885); Luther McKinnon (1885-1888); William Joseph Martin, vice president and acting president (1887-1888); John Bunyan Shearer (1888-1901); Henry Louis Smith (1901-1912); William Joseph Martin (1912-1929); Walter Lee Lingle (1929-1941); John Rood Cunningham (1941-1957); Clarence John Pietenpol, acting president (1957-1958); David Grier Martin (1958-1968); Frontis Withers Johnston, acting president (1968); Samuel Reid Spencer, Jr. (1968-1983); Frontis Withers Johnston, interim president (1983-1984); John Wells Kuykendall (1984-1997); Robert Fredrick Vagt (1997-).