Eugene M. Tobin, program officer for Higher Education and the Liberal Arts Colleges Program, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation delivered the following remarks on October 26, 2013 at the inauguration of Sean Decatur as the 19th president of Kenyon College
Mr. Chairman, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, Emeriti Presidents Jordan and Nugent, delegates, special guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great privilege to help celebrate Sean Decatur’s inauguration as the 19th President of Kenyon College. This is an auspicious occasion, not just for Sean, Renee, and their family, and not just for Kenyon, but for all of higher education. I choose these words with particular care, especially in an era of high expectations and inflated praise, because I believe that President Decatur’s leadership can set a standard for liberal arts colleges that will have a lasting impact far beyond Middle Path.
Almost two decades ago, the late James Freedman, then recently retired as president of Dartmouth College, published a collection of essays in which he drew on one of Charles Dickens’ most engaging novels, Hard Times (1854), to describe a narrowly utilitarian philosophy of education that is ascendant once again. As the novel opens, the businessman Thomas Gradgrind is haranguing the local schoolmaster on the need for a pedagogical revolution that will prepare students for the new industrial age. “Now, what I want is ‘Facts’,” Gradgrind tells the schoolmaster. “Teach these children nothing but facts.” But, of course, as Freedman reminds us, students attend college “not merely to memorize facts but to question assumptions, not just to absorb information but to awaken their critical capacities and to extend their creative sympathies.”1 Many of these assumptions and values revolve around the meaning of liberal education and its last bastion is the liberal arts college.
Liberal arts colleges embody a currently unfashionable educational philosophy that espouses intellectual wholeness and resists fragmentation and premature specialization. Advocates of liberal education communicate across the disciplines and employ an array of educational practices that have a positive impact on student learning and development. “The College is called liberal,” the young Alexander Meiklejohn proudly proclaimed at his Amherst College inauguration 101 years ago, “because the instruction is dominated by no special interest, is limited to no single human task, but is intended to take human activity as a whole, to understand human endeavors not in . . . isolation, but in their relations to one another and to the total experience which we call the life of our people.”2
This kind of education requires a faculty dedicated to exploring the fundamental ideas and questions that shape human existence, to teaching critical thinking, oral and written communication, visual, quantitative, and digital literacy, and to developing their students’ capacities for compassion, curiosity, empathy, humility, and innovation. Far from being isolated or irrelevant to society’s long-term economic and social needs, Kenyon and her sister institutions fulfill one of liberal education’s most enduring missions. You strengthen our democracy by educating its future leaders. As President John F. Kennedy noted fifty years ago today, “what good is a private college unless it is serving a great national purpose?”3
Justice Felix Frankfurter once observed that a college is defined by four basic questions: “Who shall teach?” “What shall be taught?” “How it shall be taught?” “Who shall be admitted to study?”4 The answers to these questions represent a window into highly contested contemporary debates about the structure of the professoriate, the relationship between liberal and professional education, the implications of online learning, and the importance of access, equity, and diversity on intergenerational mobility. These issues are worthy of a college president’s time even though they frequently compete with concerns about cell phone coverage, course registration, the housing lottery, power outages, and boil-water advisories.
Almost forty years have passed since Michael Cohen and James March published Leadership and Ambiguity, their iconic study of the college presidency. For Cohen and March, the presidency had devolved into a largely symbolic role whose real connection to either success or failure is much like that of the driver of a skidding automobile. “Whether [the president] is convicted of manslaughter or receives a medal for heroism, they observed, is largely outside [his or her] control.”5 According to this point of view, the president is largely irrelevant, except as an arbitrator, bureaucrat, fundraiser, glad-hander, conveyor of bromides, and petty politician.6
One need not be a member of the society of former college presidents to dissent from this cynical view. For all its demands and pressures, serving as a college president is an exceptional privilege. As one of my heroes, Bill Bowen, the former president of both Princeton University and the Mellon Foundation, likes to say, “There is nothing quite like working very hard, with good people, for something in which you believe profoundly.”7 I am confident that all the college presidents with us today, especially Phil Jordan and Georgia Nugent, would agree that it is a privilege to live, work, and study on a college campus, particularly one as beautiful as this, and that with privilege comes responsibility.
We have a good idea of what the Kenyon community expects of President Decatur. You want him to lead with wisdom, compassion, vision and humility; to maintain as much freedom of thought and diversity of expression as possible for faculty and students; to sustain the campus community during moments of crisis, disappointment and sorrow; to celebrate the good ideas, contributions, and accomplishments of all community members; and to promote and defend the intrinsic value of liberal education to the larger society.
Your president brings exceptional assets to these challenges and shared responsibilities. As a gifted teacher, Sean appreciates the commitment of time, energy, and skill that are required to teach well, especially, the unceasing demands of creating, revising, and adopting new pedagogies. As a former dean, he knows that “a carelessly read essay, a poorly conceived assignment and a flatly delivered lecture”8 represent a lost opportunity of reaching impressionable students. As a productive scientist, Sean understands, in James Freedman’s words, that “the identity of the true scholar, no matter how much he or she has already achieved is always at risk.”9 As one of the first participants in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, Sean recognizes that the persistence of racial achievement gaps across all income distributions means that race still matters, that working across differences is a learned skill, and that increasing diversity in higher education is about building communities, cultivating talent, and not allowing the disadvantages of poverty, neighborhood and upbringing to limit students’ dreams and aspirations.10
Having outlined what I believe Kenyon expects of President Decatur, it is fair to ask what the Kenyon community’s responsibilities, especially the faculty’s, are to your new president? I urge the faculty to insist on the centrality of the academic mission over competing institutional priorities; to stay abreast of the accumulating research in cognitive science about how students learn, and to embrace new pedagogies, such as blending technology with traditional face-to-face instruction in ways that reflect a distinguished liberal art college’s thoughtful response to the perennial question -- what does it mean to be an educated person? In the unchartered world of online learning, where everything is described as “revolutionary” and “transformational,” faculty should probe, test, question, challenge, debate, and, when appropriate, dissent. This is a qualitatively different position, however, than the satirical response of early twentieth-century Oxbridge dons to any proposed change in traditional practices: “Nothing should ever be done for the first time.”11
From the outside colleges and universities may seem like radical institutions but the internal reality is that they are unusually conservative. The internal illusion, as Clark Kerr once observed, is that colleges and universities are a law unto themselves; “the external reality is that [they are] governed by history.”12 This college represents a gift from one generation to the next. Kenyon lives on beyond its distinguished presidents, dedicated faculties, staff, and successive student cohorts because its collective historical identity, what sociologist Burton Clark called the “organizational saga,” embodies a unifying coherence that requires the accommodation of competing agendas.13
Inevitably, there will be instances when President Decatur disagrees with a position that seems less straightforward to him than it does to you. On those occasions, I hope you will combine the critical, analytic, and communicative skills that liberal education fosters with a generous measure of good will and understanding. Your president will respond with grace, humility, and a generosity of spirit that reflect Kenyon’s internalized values and expectations, and from such beginnings a beautiful friendship will emerge and a successful presidency will flourish.
Sean, on behalf of the higher education community’s philanthropic supporters and, particularly, my colleagues at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I congratulate you and Kenyon. Godspeed.
1. James O. Freedman, Idealism and Liberal Education (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 145-148.
2. Alexander Meiklejohn, “What the Liberal College Is,” Inaugural Address, Amherst College, reprinted in The Liberal College (Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1920), p. 38.
3.John. F; Kennedy, “Remarks at Amherst College Upon Receiving an Honorary Degree,” October 26, 1963, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, accessed September 6, 2013.
4. Justice Felix Frankfurter, Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), quoted in David M. Rabban, “Academic Freedom, Individual or Institutional?” Academe, 87: 6 (November-December 2001), 17.
5. Michael D. Cohen and James G. March, Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President, A General Report Prepared for the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1974), p. 203.
6. Hanna Holborn Gray, Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012), p. 26
7. William G. Bowen, “The Right Balance: Remarks at the Inauguration of Daniel Weiss as the 16th President of Lafayette,” October 14, 2005, unpublished manuscript, p. 2.
8. Freedman, Idealism and Liberal Education, p. 99.
9. Freedman, pp. 99-100.
10. See Nancy Cantor, “Diversity and Higher Education: Our Communities Need More Than ‘Narrowly Tailored’ Solutions,” Huffington Post, August 5, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-cantor/diversity-higher-education_b_3695503.html, accessed September 17, 2013, and Derek Bok, Higher Education in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 78.
11. Francis M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica (1908), reprinted in Gordon Johnson, University Politics: F. M. Cornford’s Cambridge and His Advice to the Young Academic Politician (1994), quoted in Bok, Higher Education in America, p. 201.
12. Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University, 5th edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 71.
13.Burton R. Clark, The Distinctive College: Antioch, Reed, and Swarthmore (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970), p. 8.