RALEIGH, N.C.–A coalition of college and university presidents across North Carolina today honored Davidson College President Carol Quillen for leadership that fosters student engagement and community impact.
The Leo M. Lambert Engaged Leader Award that Quillen received reflects her leadership at Davidson, and those who know them say that the Quillen family's history and upbringing ring through those accolades.
The North Carolina Campus Compact, a network of colleges and universities committed to civic and community engagement, honored Quillen at the group's annual president's forum, held this year at Meredith College, in Raleigh. The award is named for Elon University's president, who helped create the compact.
The higher education leaders highlighted how, since she assumed the presidency at Davidson in 2011, Quillen has championed the college's civic mission and focused on preparing students to lead and innovate in the service of something larger than themselves. Those in the Davidson community quickly recognize the list of accomplishments that includes, among others: strengthening interdisciplinary learning, underscored by the creation of the E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center, launching the Education Scholars program and Davidson Impact Fellows, and providing national leadership in access to education.
Less familiar to those in and around the college is a central force that helped lead to this moment–a commitment to public engagement that spans the generations in the Quillen family.
That family ethos stuck with Quillen, the emphasis on obligation to others and to the institutions that support civic life. It helped steer her education and her career. And it helps shape how she leads Davidson today.
Quillen grew up in New Castle, Del., where the nearly 300-year-old courthouse, also the state's first capitol, anchors rows of historic buildings whose appearances have changed little since their colonial or federal era construction.
Small-town connectedness also endured. People took care of their neighbors, watched out for each other's children, made arrangements to care for people when they were sick, Quillen said. Her grandfather thought of his business, a car dealership, as obliged to the well-being of the town.
"My grandfather died in 1968. For a long time after, people who lived in the town would say things like, ‘Your grandfather basically gave me a car on no credit so I could start my business after the war,'" Quillen said. "Or ‘Your grandfather helped me get back on my feet after a tragedy struck our family.'''
Quillen's sister, Tracey, now Delaware's First Lady, felt that family influence, sometimes as pressure but more often as perspective that allowed her to see opportunities to get involved.
"Our family instilled a belief that you can make a difference if you care, make a good case by measures of both intellect and integrity, and work hard," she said. "It was not as much stated philosophy as teaching by example."
The Quillen sisters attended the Wilmington Friends school, immersed in Quakerism's basic tenet of a pluralistic environment, "that there is that of God in everybody," Carol Quillen said, "and it's your job to find it and try to nurture it."
At Davidson, Quillen drives, and emphasizes at every opportunity, the college's mission, built on its foundational principles of assisting students "in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service."
Quillen's father was oriented toward helping the stranger, such as picking up hitchhikers, even if it meant the Quillen sisters and their mother had to cram into the backseat of a hatchback.
"I'm sure it was exasperating for my mother, at times," Quillen said.
William "Bill" Quillen's father never went to college, but Bill graduated from law school.
"My grandfather would say, ‘From Dover High School to Harvard Law [School] in one generation,'" Carol Quillen said. "‘That's an American story.'"
Her father was a lawyer, judge at every level in the state courts, secretary of state and, in his only run at elected office, won the Democratic nomination for governor but did not prevail in the general election. The mourners at his funeral included then-Vice President Joe Biden.
"Bill would talk about ‘usefulness,'" said Dr. Nancy Rowland, former pastor of New Castle Presbyterian Church, where the Quillens worshipped. "That is our call here on earth–to be useful (a blessing to others as God has blessed us). Carol and Tracey were taught that from an early age."
He most enjoyed his days as a judge, Carol Quillen said, especially the Court of Chancery.
"It's a court grounded in a sense of equity and justice, what's right and what's wrong," she said. "He liked having the responsibility for being fair, and he liked the idea of a court where what he called common-sense equity mattered. He recognized that the law had its shortcomings and that equality before the law was an aspiration, not a fact."
At Davidson, the lessons of equity and fairness seem woven into the many moments when Quillen highlights how the community is strengthened by drawing students from all backgrounds. The N.C. Campus Compact, in presenting the leadership award, praised her strengthening of The Davidson Trust, which helps sustain access and affordability by ensuring that the college meets all demonstrated financial need. The university and college presidents praised her role as a national leader on access in education, including making Davidson a founding member of the American Talent Initiative (ATI), one of 30 distinguished colleges and universities seeking to expand the number of talented low- and moderate-income students at America's top-performing institutions.
Quillen's family devoted much of their careers and efforts to institutions that support public communal life: school, church, government or courts. And those institutions require attention, she said. They thrive only if people attend to them. The family's public service extends beyond Bill Quillen's public offices to Quillen's sister, Tracey, who served as an aide to Biden, when he was a U.S. Senator.
At the Delaware Governor's Prayer Breakfast last year, the program promised that Gov. John Carney would introduce the keynote speaker. He confessed to the crowd, though, that he and Tracey changed the plans. She would introduce the speaker, her sister.
Tracey Quillen's chosen Bible verse? From Psalm 25: "Do not remember the sins of my youth."
It was only a few months after the divisive 2016 election. When Carol Quillen stepped to the podium, she proceeded to challenge a civic center full of faith leaders, soldiers, lawmakers, firefighters, cops and state cabinet secretaries not to be afraid–to extend a hand and have faith in finding a common hope with those whose views sharply conflict with their own.
Unlike her father and sister, Carol Quillen's career path veered away from government.
"The institutions that have mattered most to me have been educational institutions," she said. "Teaching allows you to have very deep relationships with individual students, mentor them, and it also allows you to work with others to build an institution's capacity. The opportunity to learn for me was a gift like no other–learning from my parents, learning in school, understanding these universities I attended as eye-opening places where no question is out of bounds. That drive to learn and the knowledge that comes with it, even when painful, brings freedom and a voice."
She taught and held several administrative positions at Rice University before joining Davidson.
Quillen doesn't view any of those roles as public service but sees education as a public good. So even as a private institution, she said, Davidson is answerable to the public. Academic institutions need to be civically engaged and publicly accountable.
The Lambert Award from the N.C. Campus Compact praised Quillen's support for collaborative research that gives Davidson students opportunities to produce new knowledge, whether working with faculty in the classroom or entrepreneurs in the community. The higher education leaders noted that, under Quillen, Davidson launched:
Tracey Quillen said she and her sister are "Quakerterians." Their Quaker school taught that each person possesses a unique and immeasurable dignity that commands the respect of all. Add that to the Presbyterian idea of unearned grace and the community tenor of New Castle, and you get a powerful message: No one is better than you. You are no better than anyone else. And life is a team sport.
"Small schools can have a big influence," Tracey Quillen said, "especially when they prepare an inclusive population of students to lead and serve with a deep sense of community responsibility, with what our dad called ‘confidence without arrogance' that they can make a difference, and with the intellectual and moral inclination to develop the best in themselves. I think Carol's determination that Davidson be ‘a force for good in the world' has largely defined her leadership at the college."
Two days after the 2016 election, a crowd of students, faculty and staff gathered in the Alvarez College Union. The crowd lined the railings one and two stories above Carol Quillen in the atrium and displayed the raw anxiety that followed an especially contentious and divisive campaign. Some were hesitant to speak their political views.
Quillen's words echoed the notions that crossed the decades, from New Castle to North Carolina, from nurturing to fairness to obligation.
"We at Davidson cultivate humane instincts," she said to the crowd, quoting the college's mission statement. "Compassion. Empathy. Humility. Courage. Qualities that help you stand in discomfort. Qualities that help you to honor the vulnerability of others because you are comfortable with your own... And I invite each of you to consider what, at this moment, you can do to rebuild our fractured community. What are you now being called to do, here at Davidson and in the world?"