A conversation with outgoing president Sean Decatur about science, higher education and his groundbreaking new role at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City
Story by Elizabeth Weinstein | Photography by Jordan Hollender
When Sean Decatur was growing up in Cleveland, one of his favorite things to do was visit the city’s natural history museum.
He’ll never forget the time his fifth-grade class took a field trip to the museum and met Donald Carl Johanson, a paleoanthropologist who studies human origins. Johanson was one of the lead researchers who literally uncovered the famous skeleton, Lucy, during a dig in Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974. The discovery had been all over the news in what Decatur remembers as “a shared cultural moment of discussing human evolution and archaeology,” so meeting the science-world equivalent of Stevie Wonder (Decatur’s favorite musician) left a big imprint on him.
“The fact that I remember the name of the researcher that I met 40-something years ago has stuck with me,” he said.
Throughout his life, Decatur experienced natural history museums and science centers as “places where I got to imagine myself as a scientist, not only seeing cool things but hearing stories about how those cool things were discovered,” he said. “ Learning about (and sometimes even meeting) the people behind those discoveries gave me a sense of what it would mean to actually do science research myself.”
While in high school, he attended a summer program in New York City and visited the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for the first time. He remembers being amazed by the size and scale of the museum’s collection: The AMNH is the largest natural history museum in the world (spanning four city blocks and 25 interconnected buildings), and is home to more than 34 million specimens and artifacts, including elephant dioramas and giant dinosaur skeletons.
On Dec. 6, in what can best be described as a full-circle moment, Decatur announced that he was leaving Kenyon after nearly a decade as president. The reason: He was offered a new job as president of the AMNH.
“I have spent my career committed to access and opportunity for students and also to an understanding of science,” Decatur told the New York Times, which broke the story. “This feels like a natural evolution.”
Kenyon Alumni Magazine editor Elizabeth Weinstein spoke with Decatur as he prepared for this next stage of his career, and he talked about everything from his new commute (which takes him across Central Park, instead of Middle Path), to what he’s most looking forward to about living in New York City (the ability to walk to more than one late night dining option — “and by late night, I mean after 8 p.m.”), to his hopes for Kenyon’s future.
How does it feel to be on the verge of a big change — the kind of change that makes news headlines?
It still feels very odd. I’m excited about the work to come at the American Museum of Natural History. I’m dizzyingly immersing myself in understanding not only the AMNH world but the natural history museum world in general. And at the same time, Kenyon has been a special and important place to me for the past nine and a half years, so there’s a sadness about what it means to leave an institution that has been important to me.
In an interview with the Kenyon Collegian, you said the jump to museum work isn’t as big as it might initially appear. Can you talk about the parallels between leading a small liberal arts college (with a formidable science program) and leading a museum like the AMNH?
The museum is very much an active research institution, with a large staff of research scientists in fields ranging from astrophysics and invertebrate biology to paleontology and anthropology. There are faculty and students who are enrolled in master’s and doctoral degree programs. In December, the journal Science published a paper (by AMNH biologist Jesse Delia and collaborator Carlos Taboada) about the camouflaging abilities of glass frogs. Their skin is transparent, so under regular light, you can see their internal organs. There’s cool stuff like that happening at the museum all the time. So there are a lot of parallels between the work that happens in the museum and the work that happens at institutions like Kenyon.
Is there a room or area of the AMNH where, even if you spent most of your time there, it would never get old?
The area so far that has captured my attention is the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites, which includes not only artifacts from the Earth, but also a collection of meteorites and other planetary items. It’s a space where my interests in physical sciences and chemistry intersect with planetary science.
Have Kenyon students been knocking down your door asking about internships at the museum?
There have been a few, and there are already alumni who work at the museum. It’s a place where Kenyon folks have gone to do internships in a range of areas, and some folks have stayed on as research assistants.
At Kenyon and the AMNH, news headlines focused on your being the first African American person in the role. How does it feel to carry that title and responsibility from role to role?
This is an area where I have complex and mixed feelings. I take very seriously the idea that being the first African American president of Kenyon, and the first African American president of the AMNH, carries symbolic meaning for a lot of people. African Americans and other minoritized groups are underrepresented among research scientists, and among students who study science. Studies have shown that an underlying reason is a sense of the sciences being not fully inclusive, and unwelcoming, to folks from some groups. At Kenyon, this is a topic we have been working to address, and part of that work is providing role models so that people — especially young people — can see what is possible, and can see themselves reflected in the institutions. It’s not a sufficient step toward making these institutions inclusive, but it’s an important step. From that perspective, there is a responsibility and an honor that comes with being part of that symbolic transformation. The mixed feeling part is that, just in the same way that Kenyon is an institution that is 200 years old, the museum is 153 years old. I long for the moment when I am not the first moving into a role like this because what’s important isn’t being the first who is able to break through or walk through an open door; it’s being able to hold the door open for others to come through, as well.
In what ways is Kenyon different now from when you first arrived, and how are you different?
The demographics of our students have changed over the course of the last 10 years, and the physical campus has changed. The work that we have done around emphasizing career development and internships has grown and evolved. But I think the more interesting changes are the places where Kenyon and the broader world have changed and evolved together. COVID was a disrupter in the ways in which we all operate and connect with one another as a community. There’s the world before 2020 and the world after 2020, and the world after 2020 has some things that have fundamentally shifted. I think we, broadly as a culture, and Kenyon as an institution, are still grappling with what the resolution of some of those impacts will be. Putting COVID aside, the political culture and social discourse in the broader world is more polarized and harsher in tone. Social media 10 years ago felt primarily like a cute way to share information — and cat videos — and it is still that a little bit. But it also amplifies division and polarization, and has an impact on how we interact with each other and with the world.
All of those things have had an impact on Kenyon, as well, and I think there’s a tension in the way it has impacted the institution. It has helped to reify the importance of establishing a community on campus that fights against the forces that pull people apart, to ensure that the campus remains a place where people can build personal relationships across points of difference. But it also has made that work more important — and more difficult.
The thing that is most constant over my time at Kenyon is that every fall you meet a new set of first-year students and they are energetic and curious, bright with lots of ideas, and a little clueless (but in the most charming way). I’ve had the chance to watch those students grow and develop and mature, and then they walk across the stage four years later, still curious, still bright, but you can see how their way of seeing the world has changed. You can see a deepening of their thought. A lot has happened to them because of the experience that they’ve had on campus. Being able to witness that process is just the coolest thing. It’s the thing I have enjoyed the most in my academic career, and it’s the thing I’m going to miss the most about Kenyon.
What do you hope for the Kenyon of the future? And for higher ed in general?
Kenyon is a strong institution with a unique commitment to the concept of education within a tight-knit community. That was something that was present before I arrived, and I hope that will continue to be part of the institution as it moves forward, while also expanding who is brought in to be a member of that community.
My dream for higher education in general is that we get back to a sense of education being part of the solution to making the world a better place, as opposed to educational institutions being considered part of the problem. I do think these things come in cycles and are connected with a sense of broader social turbulence. Moments of social upheaval are moments where all institutions, including colleges and universities, begin to lose trust and confidence. Colleges and universities reflect the world around them. We are at a moment where there is low confidence in our institutions, and that has reduced broader confidence in higher education. My dream is that we will hit an upswing on that cycle and that we can maintain enough strength in our institutions to be able to keep things moving forward.
Any parting thoughts?
I feel a great deal of gratitude to the Kenyon community, broadly: to the students, staff and faculty who I’ve been able to work with over the past nine and a half years, and to the Board of Trustees, which decided to hire me, but also entrusted and supported me. Kenyon as an institution is in a strong position, which I think has very little to do with me, or whoever is the president, and has to do a lot with the people who have a longstanding interest and investment in keeping the institution a strong place.
Besides his presidential duties, Sean Decatur frequently taught seminars in the chemistry department and, like other faculty members, served as an academic advisor to several first-year students each year. A few of them shared memories.
Shane Canfield ’20, biochemistry major:
When first-year advising group details were released, I absolutely did not expect to see Sean Decatur listed as my faculty advisor. As the year began, the notion of the school’s president as my personal mentor felt more like a series of job interviews than a moment to relax and reflect on my student goals. As time went on, Sean’s cordial nature and attentiveness to my concerns helped me settle in and use the time as designed.
Our shared passions for life sciences inspired sessions of discussing Sean’s own time in school and discovering new things about myself through his stories. By the end of our time together, I felt more secure in life’s uncertainty and ultimately left the life-long path I had always known.
A memory I will always cherish with Sean was an exchange we had when my grandmother was visiting Kenyon. While my grandmother and I were walking through campus, we crossed paths with Sean as he was leaving his home. Introducing him as not only the President but also as my advisor was very exciting and still one of my grandmother's favorite memories of my college years.
Jacqueline Hsu ’17, biology major:
To President Decatur: When I was pursuing a degree in biology, you told me about REUs [research experiences for undergraduates]. I ended up applying to one the summer after my sophomore year, and the summer after my junior year — and I got into one both years! Without this knowledge of how to advance my research background, I never would have had the opportunity to dip my toes into research.
From Alumni Magazine - Spring 2023
The Pop Culture President
From the day his selection as the College’s 19th president was announced, Sean Decatur has been part of the cultural fabric of Kenyon. Part of that may have been unavoidable, considering that in a small rural village lacking any sort of conventional celebrity, the chief executive on campus naturally attracts attention, speculation and prestige — especially when the subject is the first African American leader in a predominantly white institution’s almost two centuries of history.
But the effect was magnified by Decatur’s commitment to being a visible president, showing up throughout the years not just at the typical athletic events, concerts and ceremonies, but also “Pizza with the Prez” dinners, the annual “Dancing With the Kenyon Stars” competition and even game nights (especially ones to play Decatur’s favorite, Dungeons & Dragons). Plus, he and his wife, Oberlin College professor Renee Romano, arrived on campus with two young children (now, of course, full-fledged adults) turning Cromwell Cottage into Kenyon’s own mini-Camelot. Most importantly, from his very first Convocation ceremony — during which The Kenyon Thrill blog reported “Decatur Invokes Laws of Thermodynamics” — the chemist president became known for infusing a unique blend of nerdiness and popular culture (perennial favorites: the “Star Wars” and “The Fast and the Furious” franchises) into speeches that might have been dry and forgettable in less capable hands.
While outwardly tranquil in his trademark gray suit and purple necktie, Decatur’s wide-ranging taste in music, which he sometimes shared in curated playlists, provided a glimpse into a more passionate soul. Favorites ranged from anything by The Beatles to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” an upbeat tune that Decatur nonetheless identified with the melancholy feeling known in Portuguese as “saudade”: “I’ve always felt a tinge of sadness or longing there as well, as if the song is recapturing a joy that has been lost.” Kenyon’s Boss also has shared that The Boss is a go-to during moments of both exuberance and sorrow; one can imagine the sounds of Springsteen underscoring a late-night dance party in the darkness of Cromwell Cottage.
Decatur quickly became known as D-Cat thanks to a multi-round elimination bracket organized by The Thrill. (The runner-up, “The Duge,” a reference to past president S. Georgia “The Nuge” Nugent, thankfully was defeated by a 50-point margin.) The blog’s obsession with Decatur continued over the years with stories dedicated to his March Madness bracket, the likelihood of spotting him prepping for a pre-game in the Rite-Aid liquor aisle, a list of “Dogs That Look Like D-Cat” and a truly unhinged series in which a Decatur avatar was created for the popular video game “The Sims” and put through his paces in the “University Life” expansion pack. Throughout it all — and much to the relief of a certain student journalist who would later join the College’s staff — Decatur took every irreverent addition to his popular image in stride.
In 2023, much of this might seem bizarre, quaint, or outdated — a relic of the specific culture of the 2010s. But Sean Decatur’s image as Kenyon’s pop culture president underscored the College’s admiration for him as a leader who almost always managed to balance the nearly impossible demands of being academic yet approachable, a serious leader with a sense of humor, and inspirational while remaining down-to-earth. Whoever comes next better start thinking through potential nicknames now.
—David Hoyt ’14
The Decatur Decade
How our 19th president increased access and opportunity for students.
When her bright son was young, Sean Decatur’s mother, Doris, recognized that he needed to be challenged more. Financial aid helped allow the family to send him to a top private school. Later, as an undergraduate at Swarthmore, Decatur was in the first cohort of a program now known as the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, which encourages students of color and first-generation students to consider careers in academics.
Decatur brought these lessons of educational opportunity with him to Kenyon. In 2017, Kenyon was one of only two liberal arts colleges to receive a 2017 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence grant to increase inclusion of all students who study science at Kenyon. Decatur emphasized the importance of “a learning environment supportive of all students that reduces barriers to success.”
He also remained focused on the ambitious goal of lowering financial barriers to Kenyon. This work took many forms, most recently as the Kenyon Access Initiative (KAI), a $50 million grant partnership with the Schuler Education Foundation to create a new scholarship for high-achieving students whose families have limited resources and those who are ineligible for government aid. Decatur called the initiative “the most important work that I’ve been part of at Kenyon,” because of its ability to accelerate Kenyon’s broader goal of increasing diversity of all kinds.
KAI builds on the goal of the President’s Fund, a scholarship created in 2015 with the leadership of Barry F. Schwartz ’70 H’15, former chair of the Board of Trustees, to allow for the admission of top-tier qualified students, regardless of their family’s ability to pay. In January, the fund was renamed the Sean M. Decatur Endowed Scholarship Fund, “a permanent reminder of his legacy,” as Schwartz put it.
William E. Lowry Jr. ’56 H’99, a longtime member of the Board for whom Kenyon’s athletic center was renamed in 2021, served on the three previous presidential search committees, including the one that brought Decatur to Kenyon. “He was almost perfect to work with,” said Lowry, who was active on the board from 1988 to 2012 and remains in an emeritus capacity. “I saw in Sean a balance … meaning his scientific background produced a methodology many of us don’t have because he was extremely thoughtful, concise and clear.”
“He’ll have a legacy of being a doer, accomplishing things that might never have been accomplished.”
Decatur was at the helm for much of the Our Path Forward to the Bicentennial campaign to grow Kenyon’s endowment. Two record-setting anonymous gifts — of $75 million and $100 million — were powerful catalysts, allowing for the construction of the West Quad and in-progress South Campus residences.
The campaign will conclude in June 2024, the year of the College’s 200th birthday, as the most successful in Kenyon’s history, powered by the momentum of nearly a decade of Decatur’s visionary leadership. Its impact and Decatur’s are inseparable, two sides of the same story about inspiring the Kenyon community to be part of a future for Kenyon in which all students who could thrive here have the opportunity to do just that.