Boiling Points

by Shawn Presley

Heartfelt. Irreverent. Meaningful. Silly. Historic. I'm talking about campus protests and controversies. For better, for worse, all campuses have them.

When I put out a call for Kenyon alumni to recount the squabbles of their era, several wrote to mention the uproar over the "catwalk" in Peirce Hall (see "Family Squabbles," page 18). Some women hated walking down the center aisle of the dining hall to the stares of men so much that they proposed rearranging the tables to force traffic flow down the sides. In hindsight, one alumna quipped, "If only I had such trivial things to worry about now." Indeed.

When the controversy pot no longer simmers but begins to boil on any college campus, officials meet behind closed doors to assess potential damage. Kenyon is no exception. While controversy might harm Kenyon, it often indicates our campus is thriving. Giving young adults the freedom to advocate for change on their campus prepares them for life off the Hill. I secretly cheer when students engage in a meaningful way.

It's probably because of my own apathy as a student.

When I was in college at a southern liberal-arts institution not much bigger than Kenyon, we had our own issue involving women. They were literally locked inside their dorms at night. A bizarre and complex curfew system included bankable "late minutes." Some women learned to hustle the system. Some didn't mind it. As for the men? No locks. No curfews. Nothing. Just normal college guys finding their way in the world.

This was the mid 1980s, not the 1950s. Most of us, including the men, knew this situation was wrong. I wrote a paper for an English class arguing how unfair it was. My reading of the issue was met with a tepid round of applause. But I never thought to do anything.

Years later I heard that a first-year female student began tossing around terms like gender discrimination, lawsuit, sexism, and American Civil Liberties Union. She was ready for change.

I never heard the facts, so recently I sought confirmation that one woman had put up a fight at my college. Google searches revealed nothing. My alma mater's Web site turned up empty, although I did learn that student rallies and demonstrations require approval by the college. Kind of misses the point of a protest, doesn't it? Finally, I did what any journalist would do and turned to America's most reliable source of information: Facebook. I posted my query, and within minutes a friend from my college days gave me the scoop, including names and dates. (Her affinity for gossip means she seldom gets the details wrong.)

The first-year student was prepared to fight but my alma mater wasn't. The college caved before the matter reached the courts.

Students often mistakenly think colleges are a democracy. They aren't, but members of the administration try to respect individual voices. Sometimes that leads to change as catwalks are eliminated and curfews are lifted. At my alma mater, one first-year student became the Susan B. Anthony of curfew inequality. She wanted to change the system. And she did. I'm still cheering inside.

-Shawn Presley, as Kenyon's director of public affairs, has attended numerous College meetings during moments of controversy. He is the editor of the Bulletin.

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