When first-year students arriving in the fall of 2020 spend their inaugural nights in the residence halls, negotiate the scramble for meals at Peirce and slide into seats in Ascension, Hayes and Higley, they will represent more than the latest group of smart and talented young people to attend Kenyon. They will constitute the College’s bicentennial graduating class: the Class of 2024.

Will their Kenyon differ significantly from the college that educated earlier generations of students on Gambier Hill? President Sean Decatur says yes.

“It is all about the College meeting the external challenges of higher education, how we build on the strengths and the strong foundation that the College has in its core areas of excellence and make sure that we’re extending that into the future,” he said.

In April, the Kenyon College Board of Trustees supported the Kenyon 2020 Strategic Plan, a group of priorities for the future compiled by Decatur after two years of discussions with alumni, faculty, parents, staff and students. While some say the plan represents only a modification in the nature of the College, others believe components of it are a radical departure.

“I think what we’re seeing here is, in every sense of the word, revolutionary for Kenyon,” said Sam Barone ’72, executive director of the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon and Knox County.

“This is a fundamental shift. It takes some bravery,” said Lisa Schott ’80, managing director of the nonprofit land trust Philander Chase Corporation and advisor for sustainability and community initiatives. “It’s going to take a lot to get it right.”

Professor of Humanities Tim Shutt thinks the plan remains in step with the College’s basic mission. “What we sell — and we do as good a job as anybody — is excellent, attentive instruction and fair-mindedness,” he said. “We can put up other snazzy things to look good in front of our peers. But as long as we don’t mess with that, we’re golden.”

Minor variation or grand departure? Here are five things that the Kenyon family should know about Kenyon 2020.

Reason 1: It defends the liberal arts.

With college tuition rising faster than the rate of inflation, fees even at state universities are out of reach for many families. Expectations about the return on investment of a college education have understandably increased. In his critically acclaimed book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria writes that the number of liberal arts majors has declined steadily since the 1970s, with students instead choosing fields such as business and engineering. In short, the liberal arts may be out of favor. Skills-based learning is in.

Kenyon 2020 defends the liberal arts by focusing on the bridge from college to a meaningful postgraduate life — starting with first-year students. As part of the plan, for example, students are now introduced to the Career Development Office (CDO) during their first year, rather than later.

The purpose, says Scott Layson, director of the CDO, is not to funnel first-years immediately down a preprofessional path. “We encourage them to explore the classes they’re interested in, just like the faculty would,” he said. “I want our students to major in what they’re really interested in, because that’s when they’ll do exceptionally well academically, and those who do exceptionally well academically tend to do exceptionally well in the workforce or graduate school.”

And while Kenyon has a good track record of seniors finding jobs or gaining acceptance to graduate schools — in 2015, 176 of 366 students had found places by graduation — Layson says that’s only part of the strategy. The beauty of a liberal arts education isn’t really the first job a student lands after Commencement. “It’s how well prepared they are for that second job, for that promotion, just how well we’ve prepared them intellectually to take on the roles of leadership,” he said. “I think that’s the part that might get lost in conversation when people are talking about return on investment.”

Supporters of the liberal arts have often scorned an overt emphasis on job placement and career development, but leaders in higher education say it’s a necessary conversation.

“We cannot afford to be in our ivory tower and say haughtily this isn’t a means to an end,” said Diane Anci, dean of admissions and vice president of enrollment management. “We can remain completely committed to liberal arts but honor the anxiety of families about cost.”

Reason 2: It takes students out of the classroom.

Many experts believe that a successful college education cannot take place solely in the classroom. A Gallup-Purdue poll measuring overall life satisfaction after graduation showed that students who had jobs or internships that allowed them to apply what they were learning in the classroom were 1.5 times more likely to thrive in all areas of well-being after graduation.

Kenyon 2020 emphasizes experiential learning as one of its priorities, again to help students transfer to a successful postgraduate life. Experiential learning, sometimes called community-based learning, can include everything from jobs or internships to course curricula incorporating activities that take students out of the classroom and into the community in a meaningful way.

Irene López, associate professor of psychology, credits her students with seeing the value of real-world, applied experience. When she taught psychology as part of the study in Rome program, she had students work in soup kitchens and teach English classes to immigrants from northern Africa to give them a more nuanced view than just the city’s beauty. “The idea is that there is knowledge to be gained, outside, from others — the whole idea of bottom-up knowledge instead of top-down.”

But experiential learning is not without its critics. Shutt said, “If you require it, more people will do more, but I don’t think they’ll be more committed. I think the real-life experiential payoff isn’t that much. It’s like getting a good citizenship badge.” And it can’t, Shutt insists, replace coursework. “Is the experience the equivalent of a course in physics or Greek? No.”

Howard Sacks P’08, professor of sociology and the director of the Rural Life Center — and a longtime proponent of community-based learning who stresses the value of developing an appreciation for place — acknowledges that there was a time when doing anything but reading and discussing great works in a classroom was considered a violation of true liberal arts. But he believes that classroom and community learning work together.

“There’s a dynamic between real-world community engagement and intellectual reflection; each requires the other,” said Sacks.

But he, too, is skeptical of too much emphasis being placed on skills. “The critics need to be taken seriously because there is a tendency in higher education today for quantitative accessible outcomes. And skills are a lot easier to measure than, say, connection to place,” he said. “I think places like Kenyon need to actively resist that. I think we can take a more robust view of college education.”

Reason 3: It expands the pool of potential students — and increases diversity.

American demographics are changing. The number of high school graduates is declining, especially in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Only 1.8 percent of all undergraduates attend classic liberal arts colleges such as Kenyon, and the demographic shifts will further complicate recruiting efforts.

Kenyon 2020 maintains the College’s commitment to academic excellence, while also putting a priority on diversity to strengthen the learning environment. This goes hand in hand with expanding the pool of potential students.

“The public understands the economics. There are economies that have grown stronger and faster than the U.S. economy,” Anci said. China and India, for example, continue to increase their numbers of affluent, well-educated students seeking a college education in the United States.

As the College becomes less tuition dependent, a broadening of the pool of potential students will also enable Kenyon to increase socioeconomic diversity.

“You can’t stay so locked up in history that you stop being relevant,” Anci said. In terms of students’ backgrounds, the Kenyon of tomorrow may look quite different from the Kenyon of yesterday.

Reason 4: It improves Kenyon’s standing in the local community and beyond.

Forty or 50 years ago, Kenyon’s reputation in nearby Mount Vernon and in Knox County was neutral at best or negative at worst. “I don’t think that exists any more,” said Richard K. Mavis, who has been mayor of Mount Vernon for the last 20 years. “In more recent years, I think that has greatly improved.”

Schott isn’t so sure. While local business leaders have formed good relationships with the College, many residents still view Kenyon as an elite enclave of wealthy youth. “I don’t think it’s all that positive,” she said. “But 2020 can change that.”

Kenyon 2020 puts a value on building local relationships, partly through experiential learning efforts that will involve students in research and work in the community. The plan also led to the purchase of the Buckeye Candy building in downtown Mount Vernon, elevating the College’s profile in the city. The building will house the new Community Engagement Center and the film program. Barone of the Community Foundation says that kind of presence in the community will go a long way toward dispelling any lingering negativities.

“Some people just haven’t had enough exposure to Kenyon,” he said. “That is in and of itself one of the main benefits Kenyon is going to realize from this initiative. More people are going to get a first-hand experience with Kenyon without having to drive to Gambier.”

From a national perspective, Kenyon’s rural location has always been important in distinguishing it from other colleges. “I think [greater community connection] puts Kenyon on more and more radar screens,” said Schott. “These are things that make us more distinctive — just to finally own our sense of place, being very excited about where we are instead of apologizing about it.”

Reason 5: It connects alumni.

In a broad survey of hundreds of colleges and universities, Gallup found that only 29 percent of college graduates felt their schools prepared them for life after college. In the same survey, the respondents who said that they did feel prepared were nine times more likely to feel bonded to their schools.

Kenyon 2020 embraces the idea of forming lifelong bonds with students, as well as helping students develop attachments with one another. A career is a major focal point for these connections. Layson tells students that the CDO will work with them throughout their careers, not just as they graduate. “Part of what I’ve been doing is a long-term strategy,” he said.

In addition, Kenyon recently launched Switchboard, a digital platform to help students and alumni communicate on everything from job and intern searches to house hunting.

“The more involved you are, the more ownership you have and the more you stay in touch,” said Schott. “[Alumni] develop relationships that personalize the institution for them. They’re going to stay in touch more closely and feel stronger about it if they have a personal connection. We’re giving them more opportunities for personal connection.”

For the latest news on the Kenyon 2020 Strategic Plan, visit kenyon.edu/kenyon-2020.

What Do You Mean By That?

President Sean Decatur answers questions about Kenyon 2020.

It seems there’s a lot in the plan that we already do to some degree — building a diverse student population, for example, and offering high-impact experiences like senior capstone projects. How much more do you want?

To me a lot of this is not about adding on new initiatives or major new things on campus but instead how to take many of the things that we have been doing already and focus on them. An example I come back to often is in the sustainability and environment area. We’re doing a ton in this area if you consider the Brown Family Environmental Center, the Rural Life Center and the Kenyon Farm. But how do we actually take these things that have existed as individual initiatives and give them some coherence and unified direction?

I think this is important for a number of reasons. One is that I think we can get more efficient use of our resources by having more coordinated work happen in these areas instead of a bunch of things happening in a bunch of different areas. That will actually raise the profile of the institution, and I think allows us to better connect students and parents and others to what is going on around campus.

A lot of the work of the plan is really about those concepts, as opposed to recreating new stuff out of old cloth.

How important is growing the endowment to the success of the plan?

I think not just for the success of the plan, but for the success of Kenyon, growing the endowment is our most important financial imperative. It’s the one weak spot when we look at Kenyon in the context of peer institutions.

Across the board, whether we look at financial-aid resources, or support for faculty and academic programs, or support for the cocurriculum and other areas, our endowment is just lagging. So when we think about what Kenyon needs for success moving into its third century, endowment is really central for that.

How will we implement Kenyon 2020?

We’ve been forming some working groups on campus to actually take some of the specific initiatives and move toward implementation. The plan is going to give us a foundation for thinking about the comprehensive campaign. And we will be forming the case of the comprehensive campaign based on the strategic plan.

How will you measure success of the plan?

That is one of the things that I’m really excited about — though excited in this kind of geeky way because it’s the type of thing I really like that bores everyone else to tears.

We have a group of administrators working on a metrics dashboard for the plan. What are the key indicators of where Kenyon is now, based on priorities of the plan? How would we like to see these move over the course of the next few years?

What does success of Kenyon 2020 look like?

In general, I think it’s important for Kenyon to be a place that is attracting an academically excellent, diverse population of students and giving them deeply meaningful experiences inside and outside the classroom. In many ways that’s what Kenyon has been about for some time, but I’d like to see us continue and improve on that.

There is some underlying cultural change I’d like to see at Kenyon that I think might be required for us to push forward. We need to get the various parts of Kenyon to work together.

Kenyon is a place that, for a small institution, can sometimes be very siloed and isolating. I think actually breaking down some of those divisions and barriers around campus — whether we think of those as divisions between the academic part of campus and the student affairs part of campus, or we think of them as divisions between faculty and staff, or students and faculty, or alumni and the campus — breaking down these barriers, through communication and collaboration, is important.

I do think that notion of strengthening and sustaining the community both on and off campus — the third priority of the plan — is the thing which actually allows us to accomplish some of the specific initiatives of the other two priorities.

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