Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Work to Do

Sean Decatur
April 28, 2016

How can this happen in the Kenyon community?  And when will it stop? 

Those are the questions I receive often — with more intensity this week, but far too many times over the course of the past three years. I hear these questions from survivors of sexual assault and their families and friends, who endure pain. And I have heard from the accused and their families and friends, many who believe that no system of campus adjudication is fair. When a complaint involving allegations of sexual misconduct comes to the institution, I have heard from both complainants and respondents that in the course of the process, Kenyon has somehow failed them.

I’ve learned that all of us here on the Hill, and those who have spent time on the Hill, use the word “Kenyon” to mean two different things. Kenyon is an institution — one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country — and Kenyon is a community —diverse people with a common bond, thriving in a deep network of relationships. As an institution, we are governed by specific regulations, policies and procedures, agreed upon and communicated to students, faculty and staff. The regulations, policies and procedures are often dictated by local, state and federal law and must also reflect the fundamental values and principles that are woven into the mission of the College. A community, on the other hand, is bound by deeper obligations of support, respect and empathy. 

Kenyon has congruent but distinct obligations to combat sexual assault as an institution and as a community. As an institution, we rely on our policies and procedures and our preventive education efforts. In matters of sexual assault, our policies and procedures follow the law and are designed to treat all students fairly. And we must work tirelessly to educate the campus on prevention, not just once, not just with an orientation session, not just with an online video, but as a yearlong effort that involves everyone. These are the things we will evaluate with the independent, comprehensive audit of our Title IX policy and procedures, our practices, and our education program. We will gain a clearer view of the effectiveness of our policies and procedures, evaluate our practices when misconduct occurs, and understand whether and how our education efforts help prevent assault. 

As a community, however, Kenyon’s obligations run deeper and far beyond what is dictated by the law. Respect, support and empathy are the hallmarks of the Kenyon community, and these factors are fundamentally at odds with sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind. Sexual violence in our community should be unimaginable. It is antithetical to who we are and who we aspire to be.

As president, I see myself in two roles: leader of Kenyon the institution and leader of the Kenyon community.

My responsibility to the institution is focused on education and the policies and procedures intended to ensure student safety, with fair and equitable treatment of all parties. The audit we are taking on is directed at this function. This is essential for us to do as an institution. 

But as leader of the Kenyon community, I’ve heard loud and clear that a focus on “policy and procedures” does not heal the injuries suffered by survivors of sexual assault or soften the pain felt by those who have gone through an adjudication process, regardless of the outcome. The signs in bathrooms, cups with definitions of sexual consent, table tents in Peirce Hall, community advisor sessions, mandatory training, panel discussions — we do all of this and are constantly looking for ways to do more. And I know that our education efforts may feel entirely inadequate to survivors. What I want as a community is for us to keep respect, support and empathy first in mind; to take care of each other; and to think about our actions in the context of the community values we embrace.

We need to recognize that being free from sexual violence is not just a legal or institutional obligation, it is a fundamental human right. We must not resort to unfair stereotypes and labels, attaching them to groups or individuals as potential sexual predators.

We have some difficult conversations ahead of us in Gambier. Over the coming months you will hear some difficult things from me. We cannot address the community issues surrounding sexual misconduct on campus without having open, honest and candid discussions about the party and alcohol culture on campus. We cannot isolate issues of sexual assault and perceptions of survivors and the accused without engaging in difficult discussions about how gender identity, race and class intersect and play roles in shaping how we see each other and ourselves. We must respect the privacy of all involved in any case or incident, but at the same time we must find ways to talk openly about how these issues affect so many of us.

How will we do this? I don’t have all the answers. What I can say is that it will be challenging, daunting and difficult. It will be hard work. It will take time. Kenyon is at its best when we use all we know about critical thinking and all we are as human beings to devise a path forward through difficult issues. What I ask is that you join me in shaping a Kenyon culture based on respect and the freedom to thrive.