Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Kenyon Gets in Formation

Sean Decatur
February 10, 2016

The animated discussion last week surrounding changes to Summer Sendoff presents an opportunity for us to reflect on our campus culture, the role of students in campus governance and communication on campus.

Last week I wrote to Student Council in advance of its Sunday meeting with a proposal for an intentional, comprehensive examination of the question of student input in the making of decisions by College administrators. A copy of this letter is available on a new website, Campus Report, designed for news and announcements of interest to the Kenyon community.  The Sunday Student Council meeting was attended by Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Bonham ’92, Dean of Students Hank Toutain, Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman and more than 60 students. The meeting was spirited but civil, and it resulted in a better understanding of the issues and concerns surrounding Sendoff.  Questions posed later by Student Council and answered by members of my administration can also be found on Campus Report. I believe we are on the right track in establishing well-defined, more transparent means of communication and decision-making.

These discussions are not new to Kenyon, and such discussions are not rare on the campus landscape. Much student activism this fall around the country has been triggered by a desire to build more inclusive communities and address legacies of racism and other biases. These movements have also been about the rights and responsibilities of students. 

As we set out to examine the concept of student rights and responsibilities, we should keep in mind a larger cultural and historical context. A popular narrative tells us that colleges and universities have begun to pamper students and become overprotective of them, failing to recognize their maturity as adults or to challenge them to take on adult responsibilities. Some on this campus have applied this schema to Kenyon, what a Collegian editorial has labeled the rise of “Kenyon, Inc.”

As with many popular narratives, the story becomes more complex as one looks at the facts and the historical record. The statement of “Student Rights and Responsibilities” that opens the Kenyon Student Handbook was written in 1964, with revisions in 1972. And, although 1964 is often associated with the rise of student activism nationally (when U.S. students first decried the rise of the campus as corporation), the statement at Kenyon reads more like Mr. Chips than Mario Savio, with its warnings that “to leave the moral and social standards of college life entirely to the influence of student peer groups is to insure the danger that adult standards will be unrepresented” and that the dangers of “immature and antisocial acts … are the most visible to impressionable students.” This is a direct rebuttal to the notion that institutions being overprotective of students is somehow a new phenomenon. 

And the statement concerning student rights and responsibilities fails to capture the environment on campus — now and historically. Throughout its history Kenyon has been influenced and shaped by student opinion and leadership. Students, working with and supported by faculty and administrators, influenced the acceptance of women as equals as the school adopted co-education, made strong stands on racial integration on campus and in the national Greek system, and created the Black Student Union. Students more recently made sure that issues of class and socioeconomic equity remain on the College agenda. Students have played an important role in the College commitment to a sustainable agenda and the fight against climate change and in promoting political diversity on campus. Students have, as well, been active participants in the healing that takes place at times of tragedy, from the Old Kenyon fire of 1949 to the 2013 death of Andrew Pochter ’15 in Egypt. And, yes, students always play a role in the vibrant social life on campus that helps to nourish the treasured sense of community in Gambier. 

In other words, Kenyon has a long tradition of students speaking their minds, influencing campus decisions and shaping campus culture.

The discussions of the past week provoked by Sendoff are a part of this tradition. In a meeting with the executive committee of Student Council on Monday, we agreed that we should build upon this momentum and define the rights and responsibilities of Kenyon students in a context relevant for 2016, recognizing the shared expectation that we have for students to be active, responsible participants in the community. This Sunday, Feb. 14, Student Council and the Office of the President will co-sponsor a round table and workshop to start a process aimed at gaining clarity on student input and voice, revitalizing an active role for student government and strengthening communication between the administration and the student body.  Let’s get to work on defining the rights and responsibilities of Kenyon students for our time. I hope to see you there Sunday in Peirce Pub from 1-3 p.m.