February 11, 1990. I was a senior in college, living in an off-campus house with two housemates and a mildly psychotic cat. Almost all of the streets in the town of Swarthmore are named after colleges; I lived on Kenyon Avenue (one of those strange coincidences that one seems to collect as one gets older), a small, quiet street in a multiracial, working-class neighborhood. I heard the news first via the car horns, then as families began to gather in the street, forming a spontaneous and joyous parade. Nelson Mandela, a hero to many of us, imprisoned for twenty-seven years, had been released from prison.
On the surface, the problem sounds very simple – measuring the return on investment for a college education, at least in economic terms, is a relatively straightforward calculation. But the desired outcomes of a Kenyon education include preparation for career success. They also include lifelong engagement as an educated citizen; a life enriched by appreciation and knowledge of the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences; and the ability to creatively apply the skills learned at Kenyon to solve problems, to produce new and original work, and to lead in a variety of walks of life. These are not measured by salary alone.
Traditions and ceremonies bring a community together, providing an opportunity to renew our connections to each other, the institution, and our shared values. We certainly did that on Saturday, whether by sharing in collective awe and silence during “Amazing Grace” at the formal ceremony, singing “Kokosing Farewell” in the rain in front of a brightly lit Old Kenyon, or screaming the lyrics of “Hey Jude” en masse in a packed Peirce Hall.
The college rankings address a deeper issue, one that colleges themselves have ignored for too long. Families want to make informed decisions about their college choices, and while the “fit” for determining a college is about much more than the statistics, we’d be naïve to suggest that the numbers don’t matter at all. Families are very interested in some measure that can suggest the educational outcomes for students. The After Kenyon pages on the new website are a first start to taking control over our own story, providing useful information to families to assess the value and impact of a Kenyon education.
I am very proud of my life accomplishments, not the least of which is becoming president of Kenyon College. A great deal of my success can be attributed to the support I have been given by my family and mentors throughout my career. But, I also owe a tremendous debt to the large numbers of brave men and women who fought for civil rights, many who risked their jobs, their safety, indeed their lives, in order to change the world. On the anniversary of the March on Washington, each of us should take a moment to reflect upon both how much has changed in the past fifty years in the United States as a whole and here on our Hill in Gambier, and how we can all live our lives with the courage, commitment, and determination that characterized the generation of the civil rights movement.