01/13/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

Trust's Legacy: Davidson's Honor Code

Last March, after Davidson lost a first round game of the NCAA tournament to Marquette in the final seconds, our director of media affairs got a note from a man who identified himself simply as Jim: "I am a basketball fan deluxe: I love Minnesota and Duke and Butler -- and yesterday I became a Davidson fan for the rest of my life, too."

"Your coach and all of your players are a credit to sportsmanship," Jim wrote. He went on to celebrate coach Bob McKillop's smile, his behavior on the sidelines, and the adult performance of Davidson's players on and off the court as some of the greatest things in basketball.

Davidson's basketball players are accomplished athletes. They earned Jim's praise on the court that day because they are Davidson students, all of whom live and work in a culture of trust that young people like them have built, generation after generation, since the college was founded in 1837. In sports, trust enables an extraordinary coach to turn talented individuals into a singular team -- one of the greatest things in basketball and a powerful lesson in leadership. On campus, trust cultivates humane instincts, moral courage and generosity of spirit -- essential foundations for a meaningful life in service to something that matters.

A Culture of Trust

Davidson's campus culture can unsettle visitors -- laptops sitting unattended, a $10 bill taped to a tree, and no security in the library? If you visit at the end of each semester, you also see students heading into Chambers Building, our main academic building in the center of campus, where they take self-scheduled exams in any room they want -- no proctors, no timekeepers, no assigned seats. Just some anxiety, and a whole lot of trust.

At the beginning of each academic year, the student honor council leads an Honor Code signing ceremony in which our incoming freshmen promise not to lie, cheat or steal, and not to tolerate such behaviors in others. They join their classmates in signing the pledge, and these signatures line the halls of Chambers. Every day our community sees these signatures, and we strive to live up to the promise they represent. A sacred trust exists among our students, faculty and staff. We hold one another and ourselves accountable; the consequences are serious when we fall short. And, because we know how hard it can be to uphold our highest expectations, Davidson avoids self-righteousness or arrogance. A community built on trust and honesty by definition practices patience, compassion and forgiveness.

Trust has ripple effects. It grants the college community confidence in the words and actions of others, and this confidence creates a heightened sense of connection and mutual obligation that permeates all aspects of campus life. Trust also enriches the widespread collaboration that commonly occurs across disciplines, at every level of college leadership, and between our campus and our community. It deepens the bonds between us and nurtures a sense of responsibility that extends outward, into the societies where our students will live and lead long after graduation.

Most importantly, trust can free our students to see and then to question what they have always taken for granted. Students committed to one religious faith seek out friends from different traditions or no traditions, not to push conversion on others, but to interrogate their own faith. Sophomores who realize their gift is teaching math call home to announce that they are no longer pre-med. A star soccer player stops competing so that he can undertake extensive research in Latin America in preparation for a career in diplomacy and international relations.

Sometimes, one class can make the difference. Before Betsy Gammon, now a senior, took "The Biology of HIV/AIDS," she had not considered a career in health care. That course -- and her courage to trust her choices -- led her to the International AIDS Conference, to an ethics internship at the Mayo Clinic, and to work at an HIV/AIDS clinic in rural Chile, where she redesigned how services were delivered to make them far more accessible, affordable and effective. Betsy is now a global health advocate who is considering medical school.

Trust can leave a powerful legacy. Davidson students educated in a community of trust become graduates unafraid to try what others claim cannot be done. Two examples:

1. When banks assumed that poorer people were a bad credit risk, Martin Eakes ('76) created Self-Help, a credit union that provides fair, responsible loans to those left out of the economic mainstream. Since its founding in 1980, Self-Help has reached out particularly to low-income, low wealth, rural and minority communities, helping to create economic opportunity for all.

2. At a time when many Americans question our investment in public education, Spoken Word Poet Clint Smith <'10), an English teacher at Parkdale High School and recipient of the 2013 Sarbanes Teacher of the Year Award from the Maryland Humanities Council, courageously demonstrates to all of our children that school is the path to a better life.

In his extraordinary 25 years at Davidson, head men's basketball coach McKillop has watched his players -- most famously Stephen Curry now in the NBA -- build on the qualities that he and Davidson nurtured to lead in the world. Bob has followed with equal pride those whose talents and Davidson experience enable them to lead in business, education, finance, medicine and social justice advocacy. Whatever field they choose, Davidson alumni honor the legacy that a culture of trust bequeaths: a life lived courageously and wholeheartedly in service of something that matters.