Sean Decatur, an emerging national leader in higher education, became the nineteenth president of Kenyon College on July 1, 2013. A champion of the liberal arts, President Decatur earned a bachelor's degree at Swarthmore College and a doctorate in biophysical chemistry at Stanford University.
Pre-orientation programs and fall athletics practices are in full swing; orientation for the Class of 2018 begins on Saturday; and the start of classes is less than 10 days away. In other words, summer 2014 is coming to an end.
Last week saw the beginning of construction for the restoration of Middle Path, a project long in planning and discussion. I have written and spoken several times over the course of my first year at Kenyon about the importance of Middle Path; in fact, this was one of the themes echoed in my inauguration comments. The sight of Middle Path is indeed very moving – the long, continuous stretch between Bexley and Old Kenyon, shaped by trees, connecting the many different eras of the institution by providing linear continuity among the contrasting architecture (the Collegiate Gothic of south campus, the modern look of Gund Gallery, the small Ohio community that is the village, and north campus, capped by Bexley Hall). In a practical sense, Middle Path is a central artery, providing cohesion and flow, making it nearly impossible to get lost on what is a large and sprawling campus. But, more importantly, Middle Path is the symbolic heart of Kenyon, a place where people meet and talk, where conversations…
How will the era of big data affect the world of the residential liberal arts college? Kenyon is as a complex network of knowledge resources, expertise, and opportunities. Technology may open the door to tools capable of visualizing the Kenyon knowledge network in order to deepen the learning and intellectual experience of our whole community.
Mr. López has reminded us of the importance of taking a firm stand on one’s principles, even in the face of severe consequences.We often neglect the value of dissent on our campus – the importance of cultivating an atmosphere in which difficult topics are rigorously engaged, where opinions (including those held by people in positions of power) are openly challenged, and where members of the community feel empowered to take strong stands in a press for change. A place such as Kenyon – indeed, any college – should foster and support the spirit of dissent; this is in keeping with our commitment to free exchange and engagement with ideas, as well as with our mission to encourage students to bring ideas from the classroom and library into regular practice.
Imagine discussions of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the context of a nation facing ethnic and religious strife, or reading Thoreau and Emerson in the context of a nation struggling with both existential questions and defining for itself concepts of justice and equality. As the leader of an academic institution, I consider this an excellent example of the potential transformative power of the liberal arts, raising questions and generating discussions that both transcend time and place and also brightly illuminate current issues. Regardless of one’s views on the political solutions to Israeli/Palestinian relations, the cultural transformation needed to find peace in the region will require strong academic institutions with free and unfettered exchange of ideas with scholars from around the world. Collaborations among individual scholars and among institutions have the potential to support and nurture this cultural transformation.