How far has Kenyon come in welcoming a diverse, inclusive community — and what hard work lies ahead?
Story by Alumni Bulletin staff
The articles in this special feature of the Bulletin were curated with the goal of inspiring meaningful conversations about diversity across generations of alumni — and in future issues of the magazine. While the term "diversity" encompasses many identifiers — class, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation and more — racial and ethnic diversity are the focus of this first series of stories.
Below you will find a timeline of events that placed diversity and race in the spotlight this year, a primer on why diversity matters by President Decatur, and an overview of diversity, equity and inclusion programming at Kenyon.
These are challenging times for higher education, as controversial speakers and debates over free speech and inclusion rattle campuses everywhere. You’ve likely seen stories about Amherst, Berkeley, Middlebury, Arizona State, the University of Virginia and Auburn in the news. Earlier this year, you might have seen stories about Kenyon, as well, when a series of events on campus caused discord among faculty, staff, students and alumni.
Campus discord is not new, nor does it occur in a vacuum. Versions of the events that stirred debate at Kenyon this year occur every year, though they often remain under the surface. Considered together, they bring into relief some of the deep divisions present within our community — divisions that mirror those found in our nation as a whole.
Here’s some of what got people talking on and off campus this year.
Speakers representing diverse perspectives came together at Kenyon to discuss an important and timely topic for both higher education and American politics — “Free Speech, Civil Discourse” — at the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD)’s biennial conference.
A new Whiteness Group, which had been in the works for months, held its first meeting. Led by Juniper Cruz ’19, the group, which is open to everyone, was billed as a space to “learn about and discuss whiteness, its implications in America, what (it means) to be white, and how to engage with both the historical and contemporary state of whiteness — both on a personal level and a more academic level,” according to Cruz.
James Michael Playwright-in-Residence and Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod ’81 sent a campus-wide email about an upcoming production of her new satire, “The Good Samaritan,” sharing an early draft of the play, announcing a forum for discussion to be held one week later, and inviting questions and feedback. The play was based on a true story of an Ohio egg farm, where underage Guatemalan workers were smuggled in and forced to work long hours. After reading the script, a group of students expressed their concerns about the play to faculty and administrators. Their criticism centered on the representation of Héctor, the Guatemalan character. Several faculty members shared their critiques of the play and their views of the criticism as well.
President Sean Decatur emailed the campus community, reminding everyone of the College’s commitment to free expression, which includes the rights of both the playwright to produce the play and those who criticize the play. He encouraged everyone to attend a community forum on the issues raised by the play later in the week.
MacLeod announced her decision to withdraw the play from spring production and not to participate in the community forum. In her email, she wrote, “The circulated script raises important issues, and tomorrow’s panel will still take place at Common Hour. However, I will not be participating, in the hopes that the community can get to issues larger than a single play.”
More than 150 people attended the forum. It was moderated by Associate Provost Jeff Bowman and included a panel with Professors Balinda Craig-Quijada and Jonathan Tazewell in Dance, Drama and Film; and Associate Professor of English Ivonne García, founding faculty member of the Latino/a Studies concentration.
Inside Higher Ed published a news story about the withdrawal of the play, which kicked off a flurry of media attention about events at Kenyon. The College Fix, a right-leaning publication, covered the Whiteness Group in an article titled, “In white privilege discussion group, white students can’t ask black students questions.” Breitbart also covered the Whiteness Group, stating: “The Whiteness Group exemplifies the school’s quest for a certain sort of diversity typical of modern liberal arts colleges in America, where all opinions and viewpoints are welcome as long as they do not challenge the liberal Zeitgeist.” The conservative publication “The Weekly Standard” ran an article by Adam Rubenstein ’17 that was critical of both the Whiteness Group and the protests that led to the cancellation of “The Good Samaritan.” The Drudge Report piggybacked on the Weekly Standard story, as did Fox News and other outlets. These stories cited Kenyon Collegian articles as source material, but they contained some inaccuracies.
President Decatur asked Joe Klesner, Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason P’10 and Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 to gather a group of faculty, staff and students — a Community Planning Committee — to chart a way forward.
An open letter was circulated by members of the Black Student Union. The first sentence read, “To every Black student who has ever felt targeted, hurt, and silenced: you are not alone.” The letter was prompted by “recent and recurring” instances of non-black students using the n-word on campus.
Around 60 students held a sit-in in Peirce Dining Hall, according to the Collegian, under a banner that read, “The black man did not invent the n-word. It is time for the inventor to fix the problems the word has caused. #NotSoLiberalArts.” Following the sit-in, a Collegian editorial declared, “It is one thing to say that we are committed to diversity on this campus, but it is an entirely different thing to proactively and consistently work to build a campus culture that provides support for each and every student, not just those who are white students. We have failed to do so.”
Members of the Kenyon community (nearly 240 faculty, staff and students) gathered in small groups across campus to discuss inclusion and free expression as part of the Community Planning Committee’s inaugural “Community Conversations” series. Each group sent a report on its conversation to the committee’s co-chairs, who compiled and distributed them to the campus community. The report identified 13 key threads that emerged from the discussions, including a desire to “find a way of valuing the different experiences represented by all members of the community,” through more “open and candid conversations about diversity and inclusion.”
The mural inside the Caples residence elevator was defaced. According to the Collegian, a student hung a poster in the elevator advertising staged readings of the play “Baltimore,” and a character from the play was pictured wearing a “#BLM” (Black Lives Matter) T-shirt. Someone ripped the hashtag off the poster; residents rewrote #BLM and #BlackLivesMatter on the art-covered elevator walls; someone then crossed out those hashtags. Following meetings with community advisors and residents, Student Affairs staff decided to repaint the inside of the Caples elevator and to treat future markings as vandalism.
Kenyon’s progress on diversity and inclusion was the focus of a panel discussion with two dozen alumni in Boston. Alumni Council Vice President James Greenwood ’02 moderated the discussion, which featured Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason; Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92; and Assistant Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Jacky Neri Arias ’13. A video of the event is available on YouTube.
By President Sean Decatur
Few topic generate as many letters, emails and questions from alumni to me as the issue of diversity. Some express concerns that the College’s emphasis on increasing the diversity of campus is merely a capitulation to a culture of political correctness at the expense of academic and intellectual rigor; that an increase in racial or ethnic diversity of the student body comes at the expense of academic standards for admission; or that while the College has become more diverse with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, geography and gender, it has become more homogeneous with respect to diversity of thought.
On the opposite end of the issue, I also hear alumni concerns that we are not doing enough to increase diversity on campus; that some groups, such as African Americans, are still woefully under-represented in the student body; that our socioeconomic diversity on campus increasingly reflects the growing economic inequality of our society, with more students on campus from families in the top 1 percent of income than in the bottom 60 percent; that our progress to make the campus more inclusive to students with disabilities is moving far too slowly; that we do not live up to our bold statements of a community where everyone feels welcomed and respected.
So it came as no surprise that the events of the spring semester (see pages 16–17) — and the media headlines that amplified and distorted them — prompted calls, emails and letters from concerned community members on all sides of the debate. To some, those who critiqued the spring play were failing to understand the nature of satire and humor; or were judging a work-in-progress prematurely; or were confusing identity politics with literary criticism. Others expressed shock upon reading in the open letter circulated by the Black Student Union that racial epithets are spoken and heard on the Kenyon campus. The divisions expressed on campus reflect the tensions we feel as a society. Our nation still struggles with deep cultural divides on issues of race and identity, and we should not be surprised to find this struggle at Kenyon.
The events of the spring semester cannot be understood without acknowledging the differences among the lived experiences of people on our campus. The concepts of racism, sexism, homophobia and bias are not abstract concepts for some members of our community. International students and students of color have been harassed in the village by people in passing cars and trucks. They have navigated racial slurs, including from peers. These experiences contribute to a feeling of not belonging — that they are not welcome, that this is not a place they can call their own, that they are still outsiders to the Kenyon community. Kenyon will achieve its educational aspirations when diverse groups are not only represented on campus but also granted the same opportunities to belong, to be included as integral members of the Kenyon family.
Colleges were once thought to be places where only one type of student could fit — generally male, white, affluent. We then moved toward a model where a broader range of students was welcome, but students were expected to conform to the rigid environment of the institution. The ultimate stage of a diverse and inclusive college is where a range of students is brought in, and all — including the institution itself — are challenged and changed in the process.
Throughout the controversy, there were voices reminding us that while diversity and inclusion are essential for Kenyon to achieve its educational aspirations, so is an atmosphere of free expression. And, to some, the withdrawal of the play seemed to be a failure of artistic and academic freedom, the lifeblood of any academic institution. Was this an instance where the College let the calls for inclusion drown out the voices in support of free speech? Or, to put it more cynically, did so-called political correctness trump artistic freedom?
Open, challenging and rigorous discourse still stand at the center of the Kenyon educational experience. Last year, the faculty unanimously passed a resolution re-affirming Kenyon’s commitment to embrace rigorous, open discourse, which includes this statement:
By listening to and challenging those with whom we disagree, we open ourselves to the possibility of learning. And even when debates and arguments don’t change our opinions, they may help us understand their grounds more fully and improve our ability to defend them rationally and persuasively.
At the core, “listening to and challenging” is precisely what ignited the conversations on campus last spring. A group of students and faculty read something with which they did not agree, and they challenged it. In my view, that challenge — and the debate it stirred — is the very essence of liberal education. And it is the only way to make progress on matters of consequence.
Open, rigorous discourse is not simple and clean, but rather complex and messy. Kenyon as an institution must defend the right of a controversial play to be produced and the rights of those who choose to critique it or even protest it. All voices must be heard, and everyone must belong.
Our aspirations for Kenyon are as high as ever: to bring together students of high academic potential from around the country and around the world into an environment where their lives will be transformed by the power of the liberal arts; where faculty push and challenge students in the classroom with academic rigor and individualized care; and where students also learn from each other, both in formal settings and in what Toni Morrison once described as “sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be.”
The Kenyon of 2018, while stronger, more diverse and more inclusive than ever, has not yet reached its full aspirational potential. Our vision for Kenyon’s best future is what drives us forward.
By President Sean Decatur
What do we mean by “diversity”? Why is it an institutional priority for Kenyon? And, what are we doing to move closer to our aspirations? This issue of the Bulletin scratches the surface of these topics, and here is some further context to consider.
We take a very broad definition of diversity at Kenyon. The default assumption is often that “diversity” refers to racial and ethnic composition. While race and ethnicity are important categories of diversity, they are not the only ones: Diversity at Kenyon includes socioeconomic diversity (i.e., representation from a range of family income groups); geographic diversity (both within the U.S. and from around the world); religion; gender and sexuality; disability; and political viewpoints. And, an individual may hold multiple identities, and not all of these conform to stereotypical preconceptions: There are students of color who are politically conservative members of the College Republicans; low-income students who are white; first-generation students who are not low-income; etc.
Diversity is essential for Kenyon’s long-term success. Kenyon is first and foremost a place for academic and intellectual rigor, where excellence in teaching is at the center, and where all students are challenged by each other as well as by an outstanding faculty. Diverse classrooms enhance learning by challenging ideas and generating discussions that include multiple perspectives; collaboration within diverse groups can produce more innovative solutions to problems; and engaging people from different backgrounds and perspectives can enhance empathy and understanding across difference. In other words, learning in a diverse environment produces better thinkers, more creative problem-solvers and more empathetic citizens. For Kenyon to meet its mission — to provide an excellent environment for liberal arts education in the 21st century and beyond — and to continue to produce graduates who lead, innovate and excel far beyond the Hill in Gambier, it needs to provide a diverse learning environment.
Increasing diversity enhances the academic profile of the student body. The data are clear and irrefutable: As the diversity of Kenyon’s student body has increased, the academic credentials of entering students have also increased (high school grades, exam scores, etc.), as have the retention and graduation rates. Admission to top-ranked graduate and professional schools remains as high as ever, and our graduates report success on the job market. By any measure, at Kenyon, a more diverse student body has meant a stronger student profile. This should not be surprising: Academic talent is not concentrated in any one group, and making academic potential a top priority will inevitably lead to an increase in our campus diversity.
Low socioeconomic diversity actually decreases the academic profile of the student body. Because Kenyon commits to meet the full demonstrated financial need of every student we admit, and because our resources for financial aid funds are limited, we are not able to admit students to Kenyon in a “need-blind” process. Each year, Kenyon denies admission to talented students, who more than meet our academic standards, because we lack the funds to offer adequate financial aid. In other words, Kenyon’s limited resources restrict the ability to prioritize academic potential over financial considerations, and this is why the current fundraising campaign aiming to raise $100 million in endowment for financial aid is so critical for our future.
Diversity in admissions is only part of the story; creating an inclusive environment on campus is important as well. Time and again, I hear alumni describe the special environment that exists on the Hill, one in which people feel respected and heard, and where all members of the community form a connection that lasts far beyond the four years at Kenyon. Despite the moniker of the Magic Mountain, such a culture of respect and inclusion does not emerge spontaneously, but rather develops and sustains through intention in building the campus culture. As the population on campus becomes more diverse, inevitably we will face more moments of tension between different perspectives. Fundamentally, this tension fuels the educational experience, creating moments when one can question or challenge one’s own viewpoints. Yet while we cannot shirk away from these moments of tension, we also cannot be blind to the observation that there are moments when the burden of this tension is felt disproportionately by underrepresented students. The weight of feeling as if you are representing a larger group, the pressure of demonstrating your individuality beyond stereotypes that others may hold — these have significant impact on the experiences of underrepresented students on campus. This not only impacts students of color on campus, but also rural and working-class students, international students and Muslim students. We will not achieve a community where all feel welcome, respected and included until we all recognize and work to overcome these phenomena.
Conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion can be fraught. Kenyon is embracing the tension — and working toward progress.
By Brittany King
Benjamin Adekunle-Raji ’16 did not want to attend Kenyon. His two sisters are Kenyon alumnae and Kenyon was his family’s first choice for him, as well. Still, Adekunle-Raji fought against it and applied to 16 additional schools.
When he visited Kenyon’s campus as a prospective student, the spark he felt was undeniable, but he had one major concern: “Put briefly, Kenyon is very white,” he said. Then, he got an email inviting him to be part of the highly selective bridge program, Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP). “I don’t remember what the email said, but the message I went away with was that I had been preselected to take classes and be groomed to be a leader on campus,” he recalled. Flattered, he chose Kenyon after all.
Adekunle-Raji said he ultimately loved his time on the Hill. But he wasn’t wrong about the College: students of color make up 20 percent of the domestic student population. Comparatively, according to a 2016 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, domestic students of color make up 24 percent of the student body at peer schools Oberlin and Denison.
On college campuses around the country, critical conversations about race, ethnicity and identity — and the steps needed to make campuses more inclusive — are taking center stage. As a liberal arts institution, part of Kenyon’s mission is to ensure that “students learn to understand a wide diversity of cultures.”
The journey to creating a more diverse campus is layered and complicated, and
Kenyon has come a long way in recent years. Still, there is much more work to be done.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a majority of the country will consist of minorities by 2044, and 2012 was the first year that non-white births exceeded white births nationwide. President Sean Decatur and his team spend a lot of time thinking and talking about statistics like these — and what they mean for Kenyon. “We either become an institution that keeps on talking about these issues, and becomes more diverse and inclusive, or we become irrelevant,” Decatur said.
Kenyon was founded in 1824 as a school for white Episcopalian men. Today, the demographics of campus are a far cry from where they began. Women make up more than half of the student body, and, since 2010, the percentage of domestic students of color has increased by 5 percent. The College welcomed Decatur, Kenyon’s first African American president, in 2013, and opened the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) shortly after, replacing Kenyon’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and enhancing its programming.
Conversations around diversity and inclusion on campus are ever-evolving, and while the College offers an abundance of programs to recruit diverse students to campus, a comprehensive culture shift is much harder to achieve — and even more difficult to measure.
Decatur is the first to admit that he doesn’t have all of the answers — no one does — but he has made it a point to speak extensively with students and alumni of color so he can better understand these barriers.
Efforts to recruit more students of color are well underway at Kenyon. For example, an Admissions travel grant program offers students a plane ticket to visit the campus in person. And Dean of Admissions Diane Anci and her staff consider diversity when choosing which high schools to visit. “We are picking schools that are incredibly diverse so that we can meet talented students of all backgrounds,” she said.
But challenges remain. The class of 2020, for instance, has 478 students, but only one of those students identified as a black male, and he transferred to another college after his first year. In total, Kenyon has about 400 students who identify as minorities, but when those numbers are categorized into different racial and ethnic groups, percentages quickly whittle down to the single digits. Therefore, losing even one student (for any reason) can feel personal for an entire community and impact their overall experience, from the residence hall to the classroom. In other words, reaching a critical mass of diverse students is an important step, but only the first step.
Enter ODEI, which plays a central role in leading the College’s diversity initiatives. Founded in 2014 (at the direction of President Decatur), it was first headed by Associate Professor of English Ivonne M. García and then-Associate Dean of Students and Director of Multicultural Affairs Chris Kennerly. ODEI’s mission is to create a more welcoming environment for all students.
KEEP Coordinator and Assistant Director of ODEI Jacky Neri Arias ’13 described her office as a safe and comfortable place for all students, but acknowledged that most of its foot traffic comes from students of color. Arias and her colleagues plan to be more intentional about including white students in future programming. “We want to educate them to be productive and effective allies,” she said. “I think a lot of white students are interested in this. Finding avenues to channel those students’ interests is a new goal of this office.”
Elsewhere on campus, Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 and other administrators are working together to empower coaches, students and faculty to initiate conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion on a day-to-day basis — and they aspire to do so in a way that feels genuine, rather than forced. To accomplish this, community advisors in residential life and campus security officers are receiving the necessary tools and language to facilitate healthy dialogues about race relations.
According to García, progress is rarely linear, but the key is to constantly move forward — even when the narrative surrounding the state of race relations is a negative one. “There is no going back,” she said. “Change is happening so fast and [a more diverse country] is where we’re headed. So, Kenyon has to keep up.”
Brittany King is an Indianapolis-based writer whose stories uplift marginalized voices. Her bylines have appeared in MIZZOU Magazine, The Establishment and Pacific Standard.