Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Continuing the Revolution

Sean Decatur
September 19, 2019

Fifty years ago, about 150 women came to Gambier as students, and though women had been vital drivers of Kenyon’s history from its very beginning (from benefactors Hannah More and Lady Rosse to Kenyon Review co-founder Roberta Teale Swartz Chalmers), the presence of women on campus in this new role marked a revolutionary moment for Kenyon.

That same academic year, a group of African American students (including the first three Black women students) founded the Black Student Union (BSU), gaining official recognition as a student organization. Kenyon had enrolled Black students since 1948, but by spring 1969 the number had grown to only 10. The founding of the BSU gave Black students a voice and presence on campus, and the group pushed for changes in the curriculum, in hiring, and in campus support for students. Through their clear statement that students of color would not be rendered invisible on campus, and through their actions pressing for institutional change, the founders of the BSU heralded another revolution at Kenyon.

In her essay “Learning from the 60s,” the great feminist poet, scholar and activist Audre Lorde wrote, “Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make genuine change in established, outgrown responses.” The arrival of women at Kenyon and the founding of the BSU were, in a sense, one-time events. But the revolution continued — and continues — as members of the Kenyon community identify and act upon opportunities for genuine change.

This past weekend, we launched a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation with three days of presentations and discussions from alumnae, faculty and students. The weekend’s reflections underscore Lorde’s observation about revolution. The revolution ignited by the arrival of women students on campus continued in the daily struggles for respect faced by the pioneering women of the earliest coed classes; in the efforts to broaden the curriculum to include voices of women and other excluded groups; and in the work to include women in the leadership of the institution. Each of these areas presented opportunities to make genuine change, and the vigilant women of Kenyon, and their allies, delivered.

Yet those are not the only pieces of the revolution, only a part of the process that Audre Lorde had in mind. Kenyon alumnae — beginning with the early graduates of 1971, 1972, and of course the historic class of 1973, and stretching all the way to the alumnae who crossed the graduation stage this past May — have all found opportunities, big and small, to make genuine change in their lives, their communities, and indeed the world. It was a pleasure to hear from these alumnae across generations and backgrounds this past weekend.

On Sept. 27, we will officially launch celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the BSU, with visits to campus by the organization’s founders and trailblazers. We celebrate both of these events — the coeducation celebration this past weekend and the BSU events to come — to express our gratitude for those who came before, and as a reminder of the work to be done, both in the groundbreaking moments and all the minutes in between.