Readers share thoughts, stories and questions regarding diversity, equity and inclusion at Kenyon.
In the Summer 2018 issue of the Alumni Bulletin, I asked readers to write in and share their thoughts, stories and questions regarding diversity, equity and inclusion at Kenyon. To everyone who took the time to respond to my call for letters: Thank you. The (many) notes we received were candid, thoughtful, thought-provoking and moving. Some were deeply personal while others were critical. Exploring these issues, and others, in an honest and meaningful way is central to the mission of this magazine. And we can’t do it without you.
Due to the volume of mail we received, we expanded the “Letters” section in the print edition of the fall 2018 Bulletin to include condensed versions of each letter sent to us. You can read the full-length Letters section below.
Several readers requested more coverage of socioeconomic diversity in the Bulletin, and we’ve answered that call with a feature story in the Fall 2018 Bulletin issue, “The Cost of Kenyon,” where staff writer Mary Keister explores what it would take to bring more socioeconomic diversity to Kenyon — and why doing so matters now more than ever.
As always, we welcome your feedback. Please continue to email your stories, thoughts, questions, concerns and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Elizabeth Weinstein, editor
These letters have been lightly edited for clarity, and they may address sensitive topics.
I’ve just finished reading the excellent stories in the (Summer 2018) Alumni Bulletin. Congratulations to everyone at Kenyon for taking on the diversity issue, and also to the individual authors of the articles in that issue. They were thoughtful and well-written, in true Kenyon tradition. You asked for feedback in your Editor’s Page so, in the spirit of, “Be careful what you wish for,” here are a few comments.
I am a white male, so what possible insights could I have about diversity, equity and inclusion that are relevant to the current discussion about racial and ethnic issues? Perhaps none, but I will offer my thoughts about my four years at Kenyon and my limited experience in these areas. I really hadn’t thought about the subject until I read the articles in this issue but here are some remembrances.
I arrived at Kenyon in 1959 as a freshman, a southern farm boy who had attended a typical small town high school with other white kids. (This was in the years of segregation.) At Kenyon, virtually everyone else in my class was from the north, had either attended a good prep or high school, and seemed to have grown up in a different world than I’d ever experienced. (I am reasonably sure that my acceptance at Kenyon was an attempt at diversity, since I was the only person who seemed to have that background.) I was different, even though my skin was of the same color and my last name was similar in ethnic origin to that of most of my classmates. They were wearing Bass Weejuns and I was not. I was different, even though my skin was of the same color and my last name was similar in ethnic origin to that of most of my classmates.
Was I discriminated against? Not overtly, but in some obtuse and abstruse ways. Conversations among freshmen were often about subjects of which I had little knowledge. The “pairing off” into groups by people who seemed to have similar interests did not seem to include me. I realized that I was an outsider. So I decided to try and show them who I thought I really was while trying to assimilate myself into their social world.
I was partially successful in that regard until, fortunately, something happened that gave me a great opportunity. A couple of us were walking from Norton to Peirce in the evening when a car pulled up and some upperclassmen asked if we wanted a ride. Of course we said yes, but we quickly found out that we were being “taken for a ride.” They drove us about five or so miles out of town, told us to get out and make our way back to Kenyon on our own, and, if we didn’t get out quickly, they were going to take our shoes and clothes so we’d have to walk back naked. I was sitting in the middle of the front seat so as I departed the car, I took the car keys out of the ignition and we started running! By the time they realized the problem we were well away; we quickly hitchhiked a ride back to Gambier and were there quite a while before they arrived and had to ashamedly ask for their car keys. News of this little adventure quickly spread around the campus and I was no longer the “hick from Kissimmee, Florida” but somewhat of a hero among not only the Freshman but some of the upperclassmen as well. Fraternity pledging was underway and I got invited to my first party.
The point here is that I had to make a conscious effort to join the group, and for them to see me as myself. I graduated from Kenyon, then spent 24 years in the Air Force and saw many similar situations. As an ROTC graduate I had to compete against Air Force Academy grads. And I watched people of color who had to work even harder to be accepted and I saw that they were recognized for their achievements, regardless of their skin color.
The old bromide, “You play the hand that’s dealt you” certainly applies. Life is never fair. As hard as we try to be inclusive, sometimes one just has to try and work harder than others who seem to be favored. It worked for me and I hope that those who have even greater challenges to overcome will do the same.
— Les Alford ’63
After reading the summer 2018 Alumni Bulletin, the opening sentence of Joan Didion’s collection of essays came to mind — “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (“The White Album,” 1979). In this same collection, Didion likens shopping malls to — “an aqueous suspension not only of light but of judgment, not only of judgment but of personality.” I applaud Kenyon’s willingness to shed light on aspects of its story that reveals the ugliness of intolerance and fear. I also applaud the College’s courage in reporting the especially egregious threads that have surfaced in recent months. The Bulletin’s evenhanded treatment of diversity and inclusion issues that extend from these threads and the call for discernment seem right and long overdue.
I have dedicated my work life to promoting public understanding of educational change as an economic, social and political phenomenon that has the potential to improve individual lives, community engagement and cultural regeneration. I want to believe I am sympathetic. I think the College is walking a fine line. The College’s place in national and market currents is particularly noteworthy.
I appreciated Richard Baehr’s summary of “Privilege, Relativity and Narratives.” I write with his perspective in mind. I agree. Every student who attends Kenyon is privileged. When “fewer than a third of college-age students [in the U.S.] enrolls full-time at residential, four-year colleges, let alone at elite private colleges,” the economic realities of this phenomenon should not be ignored. Elite private colleges charge designer prices. The “real costs...exceed what students pay in tuition and fees.” The point: “A significant share of the cost of a [luxury good] is borne by others.”
My overarching questions are:
Last, but not least, the limitations of language (diversity and inclusion) rub up against ideas about the value of club membership — a subject Baehr dances around but hints at in his concluding paragraph. The language is politically correct. The College acknowledges some of the effects that language has to silence and marginalize people. I assume the College uses these terms to convey its economic, social and political stance. Language can fuel and sustain hard conversations. As long as reactions to it are not suppressed, resistance can suggest hope is on the horizon.
I am not convinced.
Hard conversations with and reactions that are not suppressed from this constituency need to be aired clearly and publicly as part of an educational process. We are, after all, among those who have paid, are paying, and may continue to pay for diversity and inclusion.
I agree with the College’s muted acknowledgment of the pickle in which this country finds itself. The pickle is, indeed, evidence of a broader and increasingly divisive movement, one that has been swelling for the past 50 years. A nation driven by markets does lead to dislocating disparities in individual, corporate and public efforts to distribute income and do right by people.
From where I am sitting, the market economy and attendant and gross income disparities are the new normal. Diversity and inclusion for a place like Kenyon are ideals worth pondering, but I think the College needs to be extremely careful about raising expectations about how successful it can be at solving problems that are way beyond its control. Perhaps the wisest course at this point is the one that it is taking: keeping conversations going and calling out instances of ugliness.
Options not mentioned move to the demand side of the equation: reduce the cost of tuition and fees; downsize; lower and freeze salaries and wages for 25 years; layoff people and hire part-time workers with no benefits; charge the public rental fees to generate income for short- or long-term use of state-of-the-art facilities and swish housing options, to name just a few. These are also possibilities no one wants to discuss out loud.
— Anne G. Campos ’75
It is dismaying to see the College prolong the controversy over Wendy MacLeod’s play “The Good Samaritan” in the latest issue of the Alumni Bulletin, devoting a full four pages to the matter, with no comment from the playwright herself. MacLeod is an alum, a former scholarship student, a Kenyon parent twice over, an internationally produced playwright and a politically active liberal. She and her husband, Read, are beloved professors who have spent their careers at Kenyon — yet the Bulletin makes no mention of any of this.
One may argue the merits of the critique leveled at the play by the student group Adelante and their faculty advisers. But to characterize their bullying methods of protest as “open, challenging, rigorous discourse” and “the very essence of liberal education,” as President Decatur does in his accompanying essay, is a gross distortion of events. The College let mob dynamics drive the discussion and did nothing meaningful to preserve civility. It failed to defend MacLeod against the insults thrown at her by misinformed, emotionally charged students and faculty who had no knowledge of how a play is developed.
All of this reveals a shallow and impermanent sense of community and signals to prospective applicants and faculty members that Kenyon is a contentious, factious place that sacrifices reputations to moral preening. Who would want to work at or attend such a school? What donors would direct their philanthropy to a place like the one the college has chosen to put on display?
In our household, shaped by the college to such an extent that Kenyon is in our DNA, the answer is no one. Indeed, this year our college-bound child chose not to apply.
— Clara Church Cohen ’81 and Jonathan R. Cohen ’81
I am a 1998 graduate of Kenyon. I am also a white, conservative male who serves as a deacon at the local Church of Christ. After reading the Summer 2018 Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, I learned the following about myself: I am privileged because I am white. I am responsible for racism because I am white. I should feel guilty because I am responsible for racism.
President Decatur says that “all voices must be heard…,” so I am sure that you will take the time to continue reading. The articles presented in the Alumni Bulletin call for inclusion, sensitivity and honesty. In my opinion, the viewpoints are everything but those things.
Meera White ’18 assumed the worst about white people (and Kenyon). She assumed that the white people at Kenyon would not share her perspective and this “could lead to discrimination.” She was worried that she would be “forced to face students who were either subconsciously or consciously racist.” Ms. White was expecting to experience racism simply because there were white people at Kenyon. This infuriates me. I have never participated in racism, nor has anyone in my family ancestry owned slaves or supported segregation. I don’t understand what “subconscious racism” is. Is it a part of the genetic makeup of white people? I am very offended at the very notion that Ms. White has determined that I am racist simply because I am white, when she has never met me (or all the white students she judged at Kenyon on her visit).
Ms. White also attacks men when she claims that students “openly roll their eyes at women professors who offered critiques.” Basically, she (argues) that female professors are looked down upon simply because they are women. This is a blanket statement that is completely void of any substance. Does this mean that we should always adhere to what our superiors say? Are the female professors at Kenyon correct with their thoughts 100 percent of the time? Is it possible that the professor was incorrect with their critique and the student’s unhappiness had nothing to do with gender? And while we are on the subject of professor/student relationships, I am disgusted with Professor Jené Schoenfeld’s implication that white faculty grade minority students differently than with white students. Does this only happen with white professors, or can minority professors exercise the same kind of power over white students? And back to Ms. White’s claim on female professors: What if the female professor is white and the student in question is a minority? Is it okay to dismiss their critique then?
Sara Carminati ’13 states that “white privilege is largely the privilege of feeling normal.” I do not know or understand what “white privilege” is. My family has worked hard from one generation to the next to make life better for their children. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and were not given anything, even though they were white. My maternal grandfather built a general store from nothing and worked as a mail carrier to provide a better life for his children (his father committed suicide on the day of his graduation, leaving my grandfather and his brother nothing). My paternal grandfather managed a dairy farm for his entire life to put his three children through college. My father was a teacher and farmer for 38 years (and he stills run the family farm). Now that I have children, I am doing everything I can to promote hard work to a point that my 7, 10 and 11-year-old sons spend entire days in the field bailing hay with me. My family and I have not received anything in life because we were white. We have earned our lot in life by the grace of God, not the color of our skin. This concept of “white privilege” is so over the top that Ben Hunkler ’19 thinks he is “part of the cause.” Mr. Hunkler is 20 years old and did not own slaves, participate in segregation, or anything else. Yet he now believes that he somehow has contributed to the race problem in America. Your “Scripting Change” identity politics has shamed him in believing that he is racist when he had nothing to do with any form of racism. I guess the white racist gene is just now manifesting itself in his life.
Having said all that, I don’t have any idea what minorities want from white people. I assumed that minorities wanted to be judged on their character, not the color of their skin. Ms. Carminati relates the story of her friend looking at her as just “Sara” and how he thinks of her as just a normal person. But Ms. Carminati doesn’t want that. She wants to be judged based on her skin color. And Ms. White plans her life around fearing others (who are presumably white), but readily admits that she has “been lucky to not feel the intense weight of these fears” (of discrimination). I’m not sure how to interact with people when they assume (and plan) that I will be racist and want to be evaluated based on their race and not on their character. That is a foreign concept to me. But it seems to be the mentality of minority students at Kenyon.
The writers in the Bulletin call for all voices to be heard. Richard Baehr ’69 (with whom I completely agree) states that students avoid challenging the narrative “for fear of being called a racist or bigot.” This belief is proven true when Professor Jené Schoenfeld states that there are “misperceptions” when students think they might get in trouble for what they say or produce. Anyone who dares to challenge the ideas presented in (these Bulletin essays) is totally dismissed, even though the writers claim that everyone should be heard.
Is not the hypocrisy of the entire Bulletin not blatantly clear? You don’t really want diversity at Kenyon. You want a group of people of different races, ethnicities and genders to have the same political beliefs. That’s not intellectual diversity; that’s identity politics. Instead of allowing students to experience different cultures and ethnicities and then drawing conclusions about others, Kenyon (at least based on the opinions of your chosen writers) is promoting the belief that white people are racist and privileged. I am very disappointed in the academic integrity of Kenyon College and the Alumni Bulletin.
— Mark Faust ’98
I’d like to express my admiration of your recent editorial: “Still Processing.” It’s long overdue. Although I have great respect and affection for Kenyon, its past record on diversity has long disappointed me. Thus, I applaud your decision to focus on diversity issues at the College.
Your editorial reminded me of a somewhat comparable piece written by Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of National Geographic (April 2018). Her editorial appeared in a special issue of the National Geographic titled “Black and White” and addressed the absence of any scientific basis for racial distinctions in the human population.
Goldberg’s editorial was quite brave, for National Geographic has had a terrible record of supporting the pseudo-science of human racial distinctions. That issue of National Geographic should be required reading for every student in the U.S. but it also has relevance to the topics you may address in future issues of the Bulletin.
Keep up the good work.
— Don Fischman ’57
I think one comment in Richard Baehr’s essay is very helpful. Another one I find troubling. The helpful one first, paraphrased: Let’s not focus on what makes us different. Which seems to mean we ought not write off each other.
Yes to that.
I’ll use myself at 19 as an example: An irascible, insecure biracial student ought not condemn at first glance the white student in polo and sunglasses passing him on Middle Path. That student is my neighbor. We might have something in common. We might teach each other something during these 4 years. Or, no less valuable, we might despise much of what the other thinks and says. We might offend each other. In such a case, the student is still my neighbor. Because that’s how it works, here and everywhere else. And you deal with it.
Now for what I found troubling, and again I paraphrase: Identity politicians are power-grabbing sowers of discord and create in an unfriendly, threatening campus culture.
A word about culture outside of Gambier, Ohio: America is divided and divided by many lines. I won’t list them — you know the ones you care about. But mainly, America is divided by one line, and it's the one that separates those who enjoy, and those who are barred from, power, representation, and access. Kenyon College is located in America. That claim will shock certain members of the Kenyon community, so I’ll say it again. Kenyon is an American college. And America is a country of redlining and blockbusting, de jure and de facto segregation, slow to change, quick to boast, quicker to dismiss and demonize, mighty in force and short of patience. America is unrepentant and unreconciled. And no matter how merry we make where and when Kenyon alumni congregate, we are all Americans when you get right down to it — and I hope we’re brave enough to go there and be honest about it.
The thing is, by equipping me to think intelligently about this divided country, by using identity politics as a teaching instrument, my professors took seriously their role. I’m extremely grateful for that. I’m largely able to breathe in the moral vacuum of 2018 because of that. I feel it’s important to recognize that for many Kenyon students, America has worked grave damage on them before they matriculate. For others, that damage will come after they graduate.
Which brings me to the privilege of attending Kenyon: I attended the May 10 panel discussion on diversity mentioned in the Alumni Bulletin. The event was hosted at the Fairmont Copley Hotel in Back Bay, a location that can only be described as high-class and, for me and other guests, a preposterous, contradictory and saddening backdrop for an event in which we craved moral authenticity. Emboldened by an open bar, we listened as professors and administrators bolstered our expectations that Kenyon was doing right by important issues. My overwhelming thought: Something’s wrong. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that. Nobody was brave enough to comment on it audibly. The question I was too afraid to submit: What costs — financial, academic, whatever — is Kenyon willing to shoulder to defend its commitment to diversity? How far will we go for the common good? Will Kenyon choose against itself, its prestige, its reputation, its Fairmont Copley event fees, because we need something better?
Privilege is individual and relative, Baehr says. I most definitely agree. However, not all privilege is equal. Not all privilege is consistent, from me to you. What you do with that diploma, what that diploma buys you, isn’t the same for each graduate. And I’m not referring to your major or whether you got honors. I’m referring to your options before and after graduation.
For some, going to Kenyon will be your first and last so-called privilege. My point is privilege is just another word for opportunity. Opportunity means a door is open. You can do more or you can do less. You can go forward or you can go back. You can help yourself or you can help somebody else. And regardless of who you are and where you’re from, that’s what opportunity means, I think. If you’re of the mind that opportunity ought to lead to responsibility — i.e., awareness of and actions for those needs outside your own—it may be that privilege starts individual and relative but then, in your hands, after you’ve earned it, it suddenly becomes corporate and concrete. The choice may stare you in the face: I could have this for myself or I could give it away. I could speak my mind. Or I could hear somebody else speak hers. Not because you need to. Because you want to. I think that’s maturity. I think that’s commitment to a community. I think that’s voluntary costliness for another’s benefit — aka, love.
When you get down to it, Baehr and I likely want the same thing. We want a Kenyon community — and an American citizenship — that searches for meaningful common ground. Common ground for its own sake, for the country’s sake. We want a society of cooperative diversity, not combative diversity. I believe in that goal. I also believe that talking about who we are and where we come from helps us reach the goal equitably and fairly. (Perfectly? No.) It offers a starting point for the work of surrendering the microphone, so to speak, and not regarding the lament of somebody else as a threat or an irritant but a blessing.
— James Flaherty ’09
I laughed to myself when I read the alumni profile “Compounding Interest,” and Doug Wang’s suggestion that people in their 20s should save $5,000 annually. I could not do that in my 20s and I’m certainly not doing that in my 40s. I wish it were otherwise, but with two teenagers, two boatloads of graduate school student loans, credit card debt and modest incomes at a state university, I’m still scraping along.
I mean no disrespect to Mr. Wang, his wisdom and his philanthropy, but this small article in the Alumni Bulletin (Summer 2018) seems really out of step with the overarching theme in this publication — that of diversity and widening Kenyon’s student base to include a larger variety of students from different backgrounds. But, on second thought, is it?
However, my own personal economic status shaped my life as a student at Kenyon and still continues to shape my life as I head toward retirement. I felt like I was in the minority at Kenyon because I was a student who relied upon a generous financial aid package and worked on campus as a federal work-study student. Not only was I surrounded by students for whom money was not a concern, but I still feel like Kenyon speaks to a certain class of people who have that financial cushion. Thus, while I find Mr. Wang’s financial advice to be unattainable, it feels like the majority of Kenyon alums have no real problem socking away $5,000 annually into a retirement fund.
This is problematic to me and it feels like Kenyon needs to look more closely at the topic of class. Economic standing and the challenges to find financial security are issues that cut across American society, and are closely intertwined with identities within that exclusivity-inclusivity dynamic. (For example, some of my post-Kenyon experiences and career path were shaped by a gender role, that of motherhood.) By all means, a critical look at race, ethnicity and gender at Kenyon and in higher education is much needed and overdue, but the elephant in the room seems to be the topic of class, "privilege" (I much prefer saying that I was "fortunate" to attend Kenyon) and financial expectations.
— Anne Grevstad-Nordbrock ’91
After reading the Alumni Bulletin and each of the very interesting and well-written articles regarding diversity and recent events on campus, I was inspired to write a poem that looks at some of these issues in a different light.
The earth is color blind
Love and hate do not exist
Among the branches of the oak tree
The wind does not carry
on its wings
even a hint of fear
When I lie down in the grass prejudice
does not rise up
to greet me
to reject me
The water of the sea
accepts my form
and the dirt of the fields
receives my footprints
And the flower
And all of nature
in its humility
— Kathryn Lane Berschback ’92
After reading the articles on diversity at Kenyon in the Summer 2018 edition of the Alumni Bulletin, I must admit that I was shocked. I acknowledge that I should not be. But my Kenyon? Hard for me to believe that the norm of “difference” is not embraced by all as part of the “Kenyon Experience” that makes you more prepared to face the world after Kenyon.
In my 35-year career as a businessperson, I found that my experience at Kenyon of encountering and engaging with people who were different than I prepared me for what I faced as a global business executive. The power of being able to listen and understand different perspectives on how to solve problems and create real opportunities is one of the gifts that Kenyon gives if you are open and willing to embrace it.
Students: Take every opportunity to discuss the issues of race, discrimination, sexual harassment and income inequality with others on campus who are actually different than you, have different thoughts on the topics and spend that time really listening. Academic forums are not the only place to embrace, discuss and learn about difference. How many social events take place on campus where people across various spectrums are actually invited? If invited, do you attend? Student body and class leaders, be proactive and create these opportunities. You all will be better for it! Then take what you have learned and go out in the world and practice tolerance and inclusion. One more thing: Never walk by or witness anything you know is intolerant, non-inclusive or discriminatory and do nothing. Speak up and you will be heard.
Alumni: Why are more alumni not involved in helping with this diversity discussion? President Decatur says that he hears from alumni that think increasing diversity on campus is just capitulation to political correctness. I say this thinking is 100 percent wrong and not the Kenyon way, either now or when I was there in the ’70s. Don’t get me wrong, everyone who comes to Kenyon should be invited based on their personal merits. I am for finding a way to get those that deserve the opportunity to go to Kenyon but cannot afford to do so because of their socio-economic situation, providing a pathway to come and contribute meaningfully as well as feel welcomed by all to the “Kenyon Experience.”
Faculty: It is not enough to just write an article about diversity and embracing difference on campus. Some of you are actually engaged in illustrating and leading the discussion. All of you are to some degree are seen as leaders by the students. Therefore, actively lead in and out of the classroom, fostering discussion that incorporates all aspects and opinions. There should NEVER be a situation in YOUR classroom, as one student describes, where he or she feels marginalized by the other students in presentations or discussions.
Leadership: Strive to bring in people who come from different backgrounds. Does it make sense to start a specific scholarship fund that would assist minorities who meet or exceed the rigid entry qualifications of Kenyon? Continue to drive the discussion through forums, both academic and social. Students are expected to make a difference in the world when they leave Kenyon. Make certain that they are properly prepared to deal with the diversity of thought and culture that they will encounter in their lives after Kenyon. By doing so, the impact they make will be a positive one.
Students of color and different socio-economic status: I saw in one article that “all we want is respect.” Respect should be extended to all students, no matter their race, culture, sex, religion or social status. You have the right to expect at Kenyon to be one of equals with your fellow students. You should feel welcome and your opinion should be heard. You should also listen to others as their perspective on your situation will be insightful, whether you agree or not. Seek out opportunities for discourse and interaction from those that are different than you. Learn how to handle and respond to both the positive and negative. One thing I can say for sure is that these unfortunate truths of harassment, discrimination and intolerance are going to be issues you will always have to deal with in both society and your chosen career. Don’t let that stop you from forging ahead in the world like so many before you have. But most importantly, while at Kenyon, your “difference” should not make a difference in how you are treated or in the opportunity provided to learn and grow.
— Warren Martin ’78
I applaud the Summer 2018 issue of the Alumni Bulletin. The issue of diversity and inclusion is timely at all levels of education, not just higher ed. I am a longtime elementary teacher who has worked in public schools with students from diverse racial, linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. President Decatur’s point about a diverse student body enhancing learning for all students is spot on. In elementary literacy recently we have been embracing the need for diverse books in order to serve as “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors” (1990, Nadine Sims Bishop). Literature serves as a window into other worlds, as a sliding glass door that allows us to enter those worlds and develop empathy and understanding, and as a mirror in whose “reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” Mirrors can be both sources of affirmation and sources of self-reflection.
Thank you for including the thoughtful perspectives of students and faculty in this issue and for the “Seminar from Your Sofa” lists of books and films. As a student at Kenyon, I learned how to learn and it has never stopped. It feels more timely than ever that we seek out diverse perspectives and examine our own positions of privilege in the world in order to help society as a whole become more enlightened, more inclusive and more just.
— Amy Miller Keane ’88
If anything was learned by the agitation which stopped the production of Professor MacLeod’s play “The Good Samaritan,” it is, as Richard Baehr ’69 tells us in his article in the Summer 2018 Alumni Bulletin, that identity politics is toxic to the campus environment. Ironically, a play about cultural insensitivity was censured for being culturally insensitive.
The nastiness displayed by some students and faculty did not create a comfortable place for anyone of any identity. As Baehr also argues, everyone attending or teaching at Kenyon College is necessarily privileged just by being there. The bemoaning of the white student from Appalachia who identifies with the pain suffered by the Kenyon’s Latinx students over the play’s Latino character is stridently off-key. Which students even cared enough to watch the Frontline report that inspired the play?
No one can feel good about an outcome that grew out of impugning horrible motives to a professor who has shown unselfish dedication to her students, excelled in her playwriting career and demonstrated exceeding loyalty to her alma mater. “The Good Samaritan” should have gone on to production. Those acting in or watching the play would have been led to think about kindness toward others of a different sect and the cruelty of our society’s rules. These are the same timeless issues explored in the biblical story that gave the play its name.
— Florence L. Short, Gambier resident from 1968–2016
When I arrived on campus in September 1948, we had been given advance information — warning? — that the College was admitting the first people of color. There had been a search for the most outstanding high school graduate in America and the most outstanding in the state of Ohio. Al Ballard from Philadelphia was the national best; Stanley Jackson was Ohio’s best. The choices were very good.
Both were academically sound and were good athletes. Not much has been written about their experiences but it is a subject worth exploring. Unhappily, Stan died last year, but Al is still active and of quick mind.
In general, my class and others and the upperclassmen (there were still quite a number of WWII vets and since I had just turned 17 I felt very, very young) welcomed Al and Stan and, if anything, were perhaps too eager to treat them well. But fraternities had the best living quarters on campus and pledging a person of color was a definite no, no. And, while Ohio is a Northern state, Mount Vernon had a lot in common with Southern towns. The choice bar in Mount Vernon was the Dan Emmett Grill in the Hotel and authorship of Dixie was an item of civic pride. We could socialize with Stan and Al on campus, but not in town. There was a black community there but it was a separate community. It would be a service to persuade Al to put the experience on record.
— Paul Spehr ’52
Kenyon’s reaction to Wendy MacLeod’s play, “The Good Samaritan,” was an embarrassing low-point in our school’s history. There was little evidence of the “open, challenging and rigorous” debate mentioned in your coverage. Things got heated and vicious so quickly that most faculty were caught flat-footed. This should not be mistaken for approval, however, of the unkind and heavy-handed effort to vilify and silence a long-serving and respected playwright and colleague. The Bulletin’s characterization of the unfortunate spring events bears very little relationship to what I experienced, which I sincerely hope is never repeated. We can and must do better in the future — no one should be patting themselves on the back right now.
— Tim Spiekerman, professor of political science
The Dramatists Guild feels an urgent need to respond to the campus controversy surrounding Wendy MacLeod’s play “The Good Samaritan.” We understand and support students who are vigilant against racist elements in art and who feel the sting of centuries of cultural appropriation. We in no way wish to further their distress; their concerns are rooted in a long, unfortunate history of seeing their own voices both appropriated and marginalized. In the current political climate – as toxic as it is – these anxieties have all been heightened. The Guild recognizes that the problem is a large one. Through the Lilly Awards Foundation, our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and other entities, we’ve been working to increase representation of all cultures on American stages by a diverse range of writers, so our national theater better reflects the country’s demographics.
Nevertheless, we urgently need to teach students that there are appropriate ways to protest, challenge and question art without pre-emptively censoring it. Historically, thanks to the first amendment, writers have always been free to write about whatever their curiosities or consciences dictate, regardless of their own gender or heritage. The work is subsequently judged in the public square. When George Gershwin composed “Porgy and Bess,” he was widely derided for tackling a culture that wasn't his own and was accused of perpetuating stereotypes.
When Arthur Golden wrote “Memoirs of a Geisha,” he was lauded for writing with unflinching verisimilitude about a Japanese woman painfully making her way through the early 20th century. Both writers were allowed to bring their works to completion; one was rebuked and the other celebrated but only after their works were finished. Neither were prematurely judged. Even today, “Porgy and Bess” invites controversy whenever it is produced, and “Memoirs of a Geisha” has quietly entered the canon.
Artists must always be allowed to "walk in the shoes of another" in hopes of illuminating core truths about the human experience. Sometimes they will fail; sometimes they will succeed. But this is fundamental to the great experiment of art and its underlying precept that empathy can bridge chasms of difference and illustrate the full scope of the family of man.
The initial draft of a play is a delicate document. Throughout the rehearsal process, the writer reconsiders her text, integrates insights from the actors, the director, the producer and the dramaturg and revises accordingly. Writers fond of incendiary material need this time arguably more than any others to calibrate humor, test-fly provocative jokes and ensure their satire is always hitting its intended target. To judge a play before its first production is rash and destructive to the work and its Potential.
Wendy MacLeod is a writer of abundant heart and scabrous wit who creates work that titillates, shocks and — yes — sometimes offends in its quest for truth. It is a shame that certain voices condemned her play before she completed it. Increasingly across college campuses, students have confused identity politics with literary criticism.
Ms. MacLeod's work is just the latest casualty. Let writers follow their respective Muses, and then hold them accountable. Offer criticism. Promote discussion. Refute the work, or shower it with praise. But to censor outright or to encourage self-censorship isn't fostering art; it's endangering it.
— Doug Wright, president of the Dramatists Guild of America