Reimagining the Liberal Arts Campus

Reimagining the Liberal Arts Campus

At the start of the 2012-2013 academic year, Davidson College rolled out an ambitious plan to transform the academic heart of its campus. Now underway, the decade-long project will restructure several existing buildings and create new spaces for collaboration and learning.

Leaders envision an academic “neighborhood” with flexible spaces and common areas. Faculty and staff will be grouped in ways that break down conventional academic boundaries and encourage the exchange of ideas. A café, artist studios, learning labs and shared equipment will promote interaction.

Carol Quillen, President, Davidson College. 

One building will be constructed; five will be expanded or renovated.

The Duke Endowment supported the plan in October 2012 with a $45 million grant, the largest gift in Davidson’s history. At the announcement, Davidson President Carol Quillen explained how the grant would help the college “remake the model of liberal arts education.”

“Davidson graduates lead and serve in an increasingly interconnected, rapidly changing world,” she said. “To stay ahead of these changes, we need to shift how we work, both physically and intellectually.”

Quillen, the college’s 18th president, talks more about the project in the following interview.

The announcement about The Duke Endowment grant came just a few days before the one-year anniversary of your inauguration. How did this effort become important to you in your first year?

When I arrived at Davidson, the most urgent capital need was for a new chemistry building.  Modern chemistry can only be taught in the Martin Chemical Laboratory with real difficulty. Many of the chemistry professors would periodically remind me of how many elements had been discovered since 1941 when Martin was constructed.

As we were imagining the location for a new building, I began asking the faculty to think long-term over the next decade or even 20 years. What will be different about how we teach at Davidson?

What began as an urgent need became an opportunity.

How so?

We imagined that our teaching and research will become more collaborative; that our ability to work across the arts and sciences will become a differentiating factor for Davidson; that interesting work will emerge at the borders of new disciplines.

We started asking, how can we create an environment where this could take place without being formalized or forced? Who would we house together and why? How can we best organize ourselves to foster the kind of academic/intellectual environment we wish to create for our faculty and students?

 “Reimagining the academic neighborhood” seems difficult to explain. Where do you begin?

I start with this notion that how we are physically organized shapes what we’re able to do.

“Neighborhood” to me signifies the importance of place, the importance of face-to-face collaboration and contact, the multi-functionality of space. In your neighborhood, that's where you shop, where you play, where you work, where you socialize, where you live.

“Neighborhood” is a metaphor for the kind of intellectual environment we are trying to create. Community really matters at Davidson, and a neighborhood is the material backdrop for building community.

How does that apply specifically to a liberal arts education?

A liberal arts education develops deep talents and capacities within students so that they are well-equipped for whatever challenges and opportunities they take up after they leave. It's less about preparing for a specific job than it is about preparing to become the kind of leader, thinker, doer who can adapt and who has a range of skills and talents.

We want our students to express themselves clearly both in writing and speaking. We want them to learn how to collaborate and work in teams. We want them to do original work while they're here because that’s how they learn how to reframe questions and solve real problems. We want them to engage with the community.

So what kind of academic spaces would allow us to build the kind of curriculum that develops those kinds of qualities? Out of that comes the “academic neighborhood” concept.

Last fall, when Davidson started talking publicly about this idea, what did you hear from other college and university leaders?

The concept of supporting collaboration is pretty familiar. I think the notion of thinking about it in a multi-building kind of way is what’s different.

What seems to resonate with people when they hear you talk about this concept?

People like the idea of collaboration across the arts and sciences. With the idea of a neighborhood, and even within this first new building, we're trying to build that collaboration. What would it mean to have artists, painters, studios within a science building?  How would that shape how we see the world?  What would it mean to have creative writers working side-by-side with Alzheimer's researchers?

When will campus visitors run into construction?

Real construction work on the new building will begin in earnest in May of 2014. It will be completed 24 months after it starts, and the rest of the project will unfold over several years.

When students in the Class of 2017 return for their 10th reunion, what changes will they notice?

When they walk onto the campus, they'll feel a sense of vibrancy and activity. They'll see a place where people are constantly engaged in asking questions. They’ll see a new kind of fluidity between the campus and the town and a sense of commitment to the community. They'll see an institution with lots of collaborative majors.

But the deep sense that students are here to discover their talents in the light of what the world needs from them will be the same. This is a place where the commitment to something larger than oneself is foundational, and the culture of trust that emerges as a consequence of that is precious. Those things will endure as the learning environment changes.

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Susan L. McConnell
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