by President Sean M. Decatur
To the students, trustees, faculty, staff, delegates, distinguished guests, friends, and family.
Thank you, Barry, for your kind words and your support, as well as the support of the membership of the board of trustees. To the faculty, staff, administration, students, and community members here in Gambier: you all have been very warm and welcoming to me and my family, and I thank you for making this such a smooth transition. To Presidents Phil Jordan and Georgia Nugent – your superb leadership advanced Kenyon to its current position of strength, and I thank you for your service and commitment.
I would not be here today if it were not for the love and support of my friends and family. Thanks to those of you who have traveled to celebrate with us here today. My mom, Doris Decatur, has been a bed rock of support for me for 45 years now, and I’m glad that I can share this moment with her. My wife, Renee Romano, has been my best friend for nearly 28 years – my sounding board, strategist, partner, person with whom I can be completely silly. As with everything I do, I do this with you by my side, and I am the better for it. To our children, Sabine and Owen, you are the absolute joys of our lives, and I am thrilled to have you here.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the many trailblazers who have marched before me –people who protested to make the nation a more fair, just, and open place during the struggle for civil rights; African-American students who came to Gambier through all of the years when the number of faces of color on campus could be counted in the single digits; and the faculty, staff, and administrators who have consistently worked to make Kenyon a diverse and inclusive community. You all blazed a trail for me to march onto this Hill today to be installed as the president of Kenyon College. This is not the end of our march; there is work to be done and challenges ahead in building a diverse and inclusive community, and I look forward to working with you as we move forward.
I am very proud to assume the leadership of Kenyon, an institution with a rich history, a vibrant present, and a promising future. Kenyon is fortunate to have a beautiful campus; a faculty of outstanding and dedicated teachers who take a close interest in the work and welfare of individual students, and who excel as creative and productive scholars and artists; students, from around the country and around the world, who bring energy, curiosity, ambition, and determination to campus each year; and alumni whose fierce passion and loyalty to Kenyon leads to the medical condition we commonly call “bleeding purple.” Kenyon is also a community, one with a strong identity, where its members realize that there is no contradiction between passionately asserting your own ideas and intensely listening to opposing views; where students defy labels or stereotypes of “athlete,” “hipster,” “Greek org member,” “artsy,” or “activist,” rather embracing the concept that it is possible to be all of those things at the same time; where all of us see ourselves playing a role in the institution’s mission of learning and education.
Probably the most striking symbol of Kenyon is Middle Path, the one-mile long walkway that stretches from Old Kenyon to Bexley Hall. To the casual passer-by, Middle Path is a mere thoroughfare, a means of traveling the campus, efficiently shuttling students from one place to another. Yet careful observation of Middle Path reveals a lot about the community and its values. In my first days and weeks on campus, I quickly realized that it is rare that one can take a fast walk along Middle Path. Its very structure in the center of the community, and its function as a community gathering space, dictates that one’s rate of movement is slowed. I like to call this the lengthening of my transit time (of course, that is because I am a geek) – the interactions that I have with people along the way slow me down, so that what should be a seven or eight minute walk from Ransom to Eaton Center inevitably takes much longer. At Kenyon, we greet each other on Middle Path; catch up on news from our friends and peers; continue deep discussions about difficult topics; or, dabble in the silly and mundane.
But, there are other factors that slow us down on Middle Path as well. Part of this is the aesthetics of the walk – the trees, the buildings, especially on a glorious fall day. (granted, I haven’t been on campus in February yet – so I will leave the description of that experience to a different day). This is an excellent example of design and beauty shaping behavior – the hold that the designed environment has on us slows us down, makes us take it in, forces us to reflect and contemplate.
And, for this reason, I find it interesting that the very name Middle Path calls to mind the Buddhist notion of the Middle Path -- the path to wisdom, a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The Middle Path gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment. This indeed also captures the spirit and ethos of Kenyon. Here students come to the top of a Hill in rural Ohio, semi-isolated from the world, to immerse themselves in study and the acquisition of knowledge. What they find here is a place of sanity and balance in a world that at times can feel out of balance; a place of civility and respect at a time when both seem to be rare in our national discourse.
At the same time, don’t let the quiet, contemplative environment lead you to believe that this is a passive, docile place. In fact, when I think of Kenyon, the first word that comes to mind is catalyst (confirming yet again my nerdy status). A catalyst increases the rate of a chemical transformation, reducing the barrier (or “transition state”) between the reactant and the product, but it itself is not consumed by the process. In other words, it changes the speed at which the reaction occurs, it does not change the intrinsic direction or outcome of the process; and it remains constant – it is not changed itself.
Catalysts often function by creating an environment that spurs molecules to react, or by bringing together particles that otherwise are unlikely to come into close proximity.
In this sense, Kenyon is a catalytic reactor, attracting people who might not otherwise meet to this Hill in Ohio, and building bonds among students and among students and faculty, transforming the mind and spirit with a powerful educational experience inside and outside of the classroom. Talented students come to Gambier each year from around the world, and the bonds that are formed on this Hill speed up the process by which they reach their full potential. The institution itself endures, not completely unaffected by the changes that occur inside and outside its campus, yet evolving over time to strengthen its function.
Catalysts do not make the molecules upon which they act comfortable. In fact, catalysis works by raising the energy of the molecule to be transformed; this is the thermodynamic equivalent of deliberately making a molecule uncomfortable, challenging it out of its resting state. Indeed, the power of a liberal arts education lies in the ability of ideas to challenge us. Texts and readings may be both inspiring and difficult, requiring students to return to them again and again. Problem sets and homework assignments puzzle and frustrate. Lectures may inspire but also put students on edge, shaking off any morning drowsiness and jolting them in new directions. Seminar discussions, artfully led by faculty, push and challenge students to examine complex problems from multiple perspectives; express their ideas clearly and forcefully in writing and speech; and critique and challenge the ideas of others. The breadth of our requirements prevent students from limiting themselves to their intellectual comfort zones; rather, by studying a range of subjects across the disciplines, from the fine arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, students are constantly challenged.
Sites of transformation occur everywhere. They can be found in the traditional realm of the academic program: classrooms, seminars rooms, laboratories, art studios, and performance spaces. But they also can be found in the pool, on the athletic fields, and in the gym; in the residence halls and the Peirce dining hall, where conversations touch on ideas big and small; in student organizations, where leadership skills are developed and put into practice. They can be seen at the Kenyon Review and Gund Gallery, where students work as associates assisting in the publication of a internationally renowned literary journal or work on curating installations of professional artists; at the Kenyon Farm, where students learn real-world problem solving, putting abstract concepts studied in biology, sociology, or anthropology classes into direct practice. In other words, Kenyon is an immersive experience, where the work in the classroom is complemented by a vast array of life-experiences elsewhere on campus.
Bringing together diverse and talented populations of students and faculty into a dynamic learning community; challenging students with a rigorous broad education; sharpening their creativity and leadership outside of the classroom – these are all mechanisms by which Kenyon acts as a catalyst for transforming student lives.
But what happens after graduation? How do we think about the lasting effects of the transformational power of the Kenyon experience, not just on individual students but on society as a whole?
While Kenyon works to catalyze change in its students, the graduates of Kenyon College are catalysts themselves, transforming the world around them. While on this Hill, Kenyon students form bonds with place and peers. From this Hill, Kenyon graduates engage in a different type of bond formation. They build businesses, create great works of art, generate new knowledge in the laboratory, improve lives through the practice of medicine, reshape national policy, and work to solve global problems. Equipped with the skills from four years at Kenyon, our graduates challenge convention and conventional thinking; ask hard questions; and push their colleagues to succeed. They are capable of approaching scientific and technical problems with an appreciation of the nature of humanity; of bringing rigorous analysis to complex and pressing humanitarian concerns; and of using creative expression in writing, music, drama, dance, the visual arts, and filmmaking to convey ideas, shape opinion, and move the spirit.
The compelling nature of this awesome power of Kenyon – the power to transform individuals who then go on to transform the world – is what brought me here to this Hill in Gambier. The work ahead – not just the work for me, but the work for all of us who care deeply about this place – is to ensure that this powerful institution endures.
We must work together to clearly articulate the value and power of a Kenyon education. We must assert clearly why this education matters; what impact it has not only on the lives of our students and graduates, but also on the world that they transform.
We must work hard to control the rising costs of our education; to make it accessible to high-achieving students of outstanding potential from all backgrounds; and to successfully recruit and retain a talented and diverse student body.
We must build upon our strengths – close student-faculty interactions; a tradition of excellence in liberal education; our beautiful, rural setting; resources such as the Kenyon Review and Gund Gallery – and continue to use effectively these points of distinction to stand out in a competitive academic marketplace.
We must celebrate and preserve our tradition in the liberal arts while embracing new pedagogical techniques, integrating experiences outside of the traditional classroom into the curriculum, and building new connections between our curricular, co-curricular, and residential programs.
We must recognize the imperative to prepare our graduates for careers, launching them successfully after graduation while at the same time reaffirming the value of our education to enrich students’ lives, deepen their understanding of self and the surrounding world, and enhance their sense of citizenship.
If we commit ourselves to these goals, we will ensure that Kenyon’s position and legacy will endure, we will continue to move the institution forward. This is an exciting project, and together we will succeed.