Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

No, Things Must Not Stay the Same

Sean Decatur
February 28, 2018

I spent some time marking Black History Month by reading about the trailblazers for Kenyon’s African American community. One of the standout graduates is Barbara Lee Johnson ’73, one of the co-founders of the Black Student Union (BSU) at Kenyon, who had a recurring column in the Collegian titled “That Which is Me.” Last night, I re-read one of her pieces from Feb. 3, 1972, that concludes:

“I am writing this article in an attempt to ‘educate’ the white Kenyon community, not to humiliate it. Blacks are human beings, not freaks in a freak show. Believe me, we know where we are. We don’t need daily reminders.”

I then re-read the open letter sent by the BSU to the Kenyon community on Feb. 25, 2018, titled “I am not your N-Word.” The resonance after 46 years is profound. It reminds me of the old saying that begins, “The more things change...” Must we accept the second half of that saying? Do things have to stay the same?

As I’ve said before, Kenyon is of the world, not separate from it, so we should not be surprised to find evidence of racism here on the Hill. But we must not let our lack of surprise turn into acceptance of racism; complacency is no fuel for change. When I was younger, I was told by the generations that came before me that racism is a reality, and that if I wanted to change the world, I needed to learn how to deal with it (and if that meant I had to work twice as hard or demonstrate twice the skill, so be it). Now I am not so young and, as president of one of America’s best colleges, I am in a position to effect change. Yet, it is perhaps a commentary on the power of societal racism to wear us down that when I hear about racist incidents happening on campus (what some would call microaggressions, though I reject the use of that term — whether nano, micro or macro, it is still just racism, and we should not be afraid to use that word), the first thoughts that come to my mind are “that doesn’t surprise me,” “that is a piece of the real world,” and “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” That may be a first thought, but it cannot be the last. Complacency is the same as complicity, and Kenyon should neither be complacent about the behavior that runs counter to our values nor should we be complicit in the continuation of racism. The open letter powerfully reminded us of this basic truth.

Liberal arts education is rooted in preparation for citizenship; in the 21st century, we should aim toward a vision of inclusive citizenship, where everyone in the community shares equal rights to and responsibility for ensuring civility, respect for difference and a sense of belonging. Expression of racial epithets, either casually or to target particular individuals, undermines the sense of inclusive community we aim to create. (And, for those who wonder about whether casual use of the N-word by those who are not African American is deeply troubling, please watch this powerful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates.) As the BSU has urged us, it is time for us to hold ourselves and our community accountable, and to take clear and affirmative steps toward educating for inclusive citizenship and building the inclusive community that we aspire to be

In conversations with many members of the campus community, I have heard that rhetoric about the importance of diversity and inclusion does little to effect change on campus. I’m not sure I agree with that. Institutions define their mission and values by making such statements; in other words, rhetoric does matter. But I agree wholeheartedly that rhetoric is not sufficient. We will effect change in our culture only when rhetoric is coupled with concrete, specific policies and actions. Actions and next steps for Kenyon include strengthening systems of accountability on campus for incidents of racial bias and harassment; expanding education efforts; providing mechanisms of support for all community members; and advancing the community dialogues that began earlier this month.

Strengthening systems of accountability.

One of the key points of the open letter, and a theme in conversations I’ve had over the past week, is a frustration in understanding how reports of discriminatory behavior should be made. This is something that the College is in the process of changing: harassment or verbal abuse of others is not acceptable within our community, and we must hold those who violate this community standard accountable for their behavior.

New Discriminatory Harassment policy. The Office for Civil Rights has drafted a new Discriminatory Harassment Policy for all instances when a member of the community feels they have been targeted for harassment based on race, ethnicity or religion. The policy is parallel to the policies for harassment and misconduct based on gender, sexuality and gender identity, and it ensures that those who report discriminatory harassment will follow the same reporting process and receive the same support and accommodations as those who report sexual misconduct. Drafted earlier this academic year, the policy has been approved by Campus Senate and Staff Council, and it is currently under review by Student Council and the faculty. I encourage members of the community to learn more about it.

Reporting. An essential component of accountability is tracking the occurrence of incidents. Please pass on any information you may have about incidents you or others have experienced to Samantha Hughes in the Office for Civil Rights. Even if you do not wish to file a complaint, or you do not have complete information, the report gives us valuable information about the climate on campus. You may file an online complaint here. As we collect and compile reports, we will be able to publish Kenyon’s aggregate data on all reports of discriminatory harassment.

Expanding education efforts.

The new Discriminatory Harassment Policy will incorporate a comprehensive education effort on racial bias.

Orientation and beyond. The Division of Student Affairs, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and the Office for Civil Rights are partnering to review and revise New Student Orientation activities around diversity and inclusion, and to develop programming for all new students on racial bias. These will be implemented by fall of 2018. Moreover, programming on recognizing and understanding racial bias and the Discriminatory Harassment Policy will be developed for student organizations, athletic teams, and (working with the Provost’s Office) faculty and staff.

Bystander intervention training. The Division of Student Affairs and Office for Civil Rights is introducing Green Dot bystander intervention training across campus. In addition to their use for addressing sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse, these skills can also be used to intervene when racial bias or harassment is identified.

Providing support.

Kenyon has many resources to support students who have experienced or been affected by racial bias or discriminatory harassment. I encourage students to seek help in the Office for Civil Rights, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and the Dean of Students Office, among others. In addition, a new Racial Trauma group, led by Counselor Peter Oduwole, meets weekly on Thursdays at 11:10 a.m. to “explore, process through and discuss the many stressors that come with living in the U.S. as a racial minority as well as developing radical self-care techniques as acts of resistance against the many oppressive systems at play in our daily lives.”

Advancing community dialogue.

The Community Planning Group, which I convened in the wake of “The Good Samaritan” controversy, has met several times in the past two weeks and recently presented to me a draft action plan for moving forward. Among its recommendations for the short term is a campus Common Hour event, set for April 3, to involve members of the community in addressing how we might engage in difficult conversations in the future. More details will come after spring break. In the medium term, groups are discussing plans for programming, both during New Student Orientation as well as recurrent throughout the academic year, to strengthen our collective skills at engaging in difficult conversations.

These are concrete steps, but not the final word. Where do we go from here? While 2018 has been a trying year so far for our community, I call on all of us to refuse to accept that things will remain the same. Institutional change, no less than cultural change, is hard. Even at a place designed and dedicated to building intentional communities. Even at a place fiercely committed to free and open discussion of the subjects that divide us as much as those that unite us. Even at a place ready to embrace the messiness of change, the discomfort of trying and failing and trying again, the roar and the silence. This is work that was begun years ago, continues today and will continue into the future. We will continue to make progress, to learn from each episode and to use the lessons to make the institution a better place. Not just a better place — a model for how institutions build upon the synergy of free speech, inclusion and civil discourse.