Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

The Power of Dissent

Sean Decatur
November 13, 2019

This past weekend, I traveled to Tokyo for a meeting of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, a consortium of institutions from five continents committed to the values of liberal education. Among the topics discussed was the activism of our students — perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the experiences at Lingnan University, which has a direct view of the political protest and turmoil in Hong Kong. A few days before I left, a group of Kenyon students traveled to New York to support Kenyon graduate and noted immigrants’ rights activist Marco Saavedra ’11 at his deportation hearing. Saavedra was arrested at the border in an act of civil disobedience while wearing his Kenyon graduation robe, a choice that made a powerful link between his education and his public action. 

Student activism on college campuses has a history as old as colleges themselves. Activism was an important part of my undergraduate experience; it helped me connect with my surrounding community and shape the world I wanted to pass down to the next generation. Nearly 30 years have passed since my Swarthmore days, and while the issues that concern students today have evolved, the underlying energy and enthusiasm that drive student advocacy endure, as they have for generations. 

Kenyon in particular enjoys a long tradition of students speaking out and influencing not only the culture of Kenyon, but the institution itself. As Kenyon adopted coeducation, students pushed for the acceptance of women as equals. In 1969, a group of African American students founded the Black Student Union, which not only gave black students a stronger campus presence, but also raised awareness of needed changes to hiring practices and curriculum development. Just this semester, I’ve heard directly from students concerned about mental health resources on campus; the College’s level of advocacy and action regarding climate change; and issues regarding inclusion and equity. 

It makes sense that college campuses would generate robust activism. Colleges and universities are dedicated to the pursuit of truth through intellectual inquiry; at Kenyon, the commitment to discourse is at the core of our educational mission, and our liberal arts curriculum cultivates in our students a multidimensional approach to thinking about society’s most complex issues. At a place devoted to the interrogation of ideas, it’s natural to extend that spirit to action, and to apply that critical lens to the policies and interactions that shape our daily lives.

Nourishing an environment where activism is not only accepted, but encouraged, only serves to bolster the educational experience at Kenyon. With that in mind, the College recently adopted revisions to its protest policy to affirm the College’s commitment to free expression, protect the right to peaceful demonstration and provide clear guidance to all members of our Kenyon community. 

These revisions were informed by a yearlong Campus Senate review of the existing policy and policies at our peer institutions, as well as input from Student Council, Staff Council and the faculty. They make clear that acts of civil disobedience and the voicing of one’s opinion are not actions that would result in disciplinary measures. As the revised policy states, only infractions of the student or employee handbooks — such as acts of violence, property damage, or violations of Kenyon’s discrimination and sexual harassment policies — would lead to sanctions.

We must not underestimate the power of dissent to shape a community. Kenyon students have long committed to the work of correcting injustices here in Gambier and around the world, and we should continue to cultivate an atmosphere that makes this work possible. A clear definition of rights and responsibilities can be a potent tool in empowering our students to take strong stands. I encourage all students and employees to read the revised policy in their respective handbooks, and to continue their advocacy and action in pursuit of meaningful change.