Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Living Up to Our Aspirations

Sean Decatur
February 7, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the first in an upcoming series of reflections by President Sean Decatur on race, identity and the role of liberal arts institutions in exploring complex and controversial topics. Read the second installment here.

From its earliest days in Gambier, Kenyon has seen itself in the model of Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” set apart from the world, but with a light others could follow. We speak often of the importance of community at Kenyon, and while we are typically vague in defining community, the general sentiment is that we are an exceptional community, somehow insulated from the world around us and its issues and problems. Here we expect community members to embrace the intellectual power of rigorous, unimpeded discourse; to put reason above emotion; to live together as individuals united by a set of common values that overcome our differences. Our aspiration is to be a community that is truly inclusive, that manages to overcome America’s historic struggles with race and where no one feels pushed to the margins. And we aim to be the model of the power of the liberal arts, a place where the ideas are debated openly, honestly, with no voices silenced or repressed. This is the vision that drew us to Kenyon; it drew me here, too.

Earlier this semester, Professor Wendy MacLeod ’81 shared with the Kenyon community an early draft of a new play, “The Good Samaritan,” and invited feedback from students and faculty. Last Wednesday, Professor MacLeod chose to withdraw her play and canceled its scheduled debut this spring in the Bolton Theater. Members of the community gathered in the Bolton Theater on Thursday to discuss the play, our community’s response to it and where we go from here. Over the past week, members of our community have criticized the play for not representing Latinx culture with sensitivity, nuance and an informed view. Others have defended it as a creative work in progress that offers a valuable opportunity to tackle difficult subjects with input from the entire community. Still others have asserted that it is a test of our commitment to free expression and liberal learning. Further energizing campus conversations has been news of a "whiteness group," created by students to speak openly about what it means to be white, as part of a broader conversation about race and identity — a subject that I will reflect on in a subsequent post this week.

From my observation, and from the voices I have heard, the major effect of the past week has been to remind us that, despite our geography on Gambier’s hill, we are very much one with the world. At times, our discourse can offend and silence; we are humans who are rightly and justifiably guided by emotion as much as reason; and the deep problems that divide the world beyond Gambier divide us here as well. We, like the rest of the nation, are far from finding an effective and successful way to grapple with America’s issues with race (and, for that matter, gender, sexuality and class). And, if this was a test of our commitment to open discourse, I’m not at all sure that we deserve a passing grade.

We must always remember that it is not easy to be a member of an underrepresented group at Kenyon (or, at any college or university — indeed anywhere in America). I cringe whenever I hear anyone use the phrase “snowflake” to describe students who speak out when they feel pushed to the margins by an institution; these students aren’t snowflakes, but rather icebergs, with depths of strength and resilience, and I respect the courage it takes to speak openly and honestly about one’s feelings. Members of our community who identify as Latinx have described powerfully the limitations of the draft of “The Good Samaritan,” including the underdevelopment and lack of agency of the Guatemalan immigrant character and the reliance on stereotypes of Latinos to offer commentary on the political views of white Americans. These critiques were invited by the playwright and answered by students and others in a spirit of dialogue about a work in progress.

Yet the discussion of the play took a turn away from substantive critiques of the work and toward a focus on the playwright; away from raising questions about the play’s content and structure and toward making statements about the playwright’s intent. And this turn has been evident in both some of the critiques (assertions that the playwright was willfully ignorant about the relevant issues) and the defenses (assertions that the intent of the playwright was positive, so the product must be acceptable). And then, the discussion went to where these conversations inevitably go: the question of who owns the pain that it has caused, and who has the right to feel anger and frustration. Is it members of the community from underrepresented groups who feel that once again they have borne the burden of attempting to educate the majority on what constitutes offense and marginalization? Is it those who feel as if they have been silenced out of fear of sounding racist? Is it those who mourn the impact on free expression?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. There is much at stake in these moments, and people on all sides are hurt and angry about the tenor of the conversation. Anger is not something we should repress or shy away from; in fact, moments of anger and challenge are those when communities can learn, advance and improve. I am reminded of an interview in Salon with Toni Morrison when she was asked, “What does Toni Morrison do when she is angry?” Her reply: “I get angry about things, then go on and work.”

We may be angry, and we all have work to do. Building community is the work of everyone on this campus.

I have asked Provost Joe Klesner, Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason, and Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 to gather a group of faculty, staff and students to chart a way forward. This cannot and will not be simply another conversation — we have had conversations on freedom of expression before, and we have had conversations on inclusion before. If we aim to be a community that values and practices inclusion, if we aim to be a community that values and practices honest, rigorous and open discourse, we don’t need another lecture or symposium (or even another blog post from the president). We do need concrete plans and actions on how to move us closer to our aspirations of being a community where free expression is not in opposition to inclusion, but where these two principles work in harmony. We do need to collectively agree on a set of intentions for how we will respond the next time we are tested. The process of generating this specific agenda for action has to involve all of us in order to include a wide range of viewpoints. I’ve asked the group to report back to me within the next two weeks on ideas to move forward, and we will update the community then.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the ultimate measure of an institution or a community is not where it stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where it stands at times of challenge and controversy. While the events of the past week demonstrate how we fall short of our aspirations, in the long term, we will be judged not on the disappointment that many are feeling right now, but on the way we respond and the way we move forward with a direct conversation about difficult issues. Done well, Kenyon will stand apart — not for insulating itself from the world’s struggles, but for lighting a way toward progress.