Sean M. Decatur, the newly named 19th president of Kenyon College, was introduced to an enthusiastic and fulsome audience at Rosse Hall on Monday, March 18, 2013.
Decatur, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College, was introduced by Brackett B. Denniston '69, secretary of the Kenyon College Board of Trustees and chair of the board's Presidential Search Committee. Decatur was welcomed by Barry F. Schwartz '70, chair of the board of trustees and a member of the search committee, and Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent.
Here are Decatur's comments to the Kenyon community:
Thank you, Brackett, for that kind and generous introduction. I wish to extend thanks as well to Aileen Hefferren, vice chair of the search committee, and Barry Schwartz, search committee member and chair of the board of trustees. I cannot imagine more effective ambassadors for the Kenyon community than the trustees, faculty, staff, and students of the presidential search committee; their passion and commitment to the institution are truly infectious. I also want to thank and acknowledge President Georgia Nugent, a remarkable leader who has worked (and continues to work) tirelessly to strengthen and advance Kenyon; she has set a very high bar for presidential leadership. I am delighted that I can share this moment with members of my family, my wife, Renee Romano, our children Sabine and Owen, my mother, Doris Decatur, and my father-in-law, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, Joe, Marcia, and Amara Romano. And many thanks to all of you gathered here for your warm welcome.
It is with a great mix of humility, honor, and excitement that I stand before you prepared to join the Kenyon community as the nineteenth president of Kenyon College. As someone who came of age in the 1980s, immersed in the popular culture and dialect of the time, the first word that comes to my mind this afternoon is awesome. The dictionary defines "awe" as "the overwhelming feeling of reverence and admiration, produced by that which is grand, sublime, or extremely powerful." Grand. Sublime. Extremely powerful. With these words in mind, I have come to recognize Kenyon College as an awesome place. An early morning walk along Middle Path, the mist slowly rising from the ground, the spires of Old Kenyon peeking above, is certainly a grand vision. Sublime performances abound on this campus: performing arts in all forms, exhibitions of visual art in Gund Gallery, athletic excellence on display in the KAC, the daily intellectual gymnastics performed by faculty and students in the classrooms, laboratories, and library. And the educational experience gained from this place, something that stays with alums over the years and propels them to lifelong success, is extremely powerful. Kenyon is awesome, indeed.
The extreme power of Kenyon lies in its function - that of transformation. Colleges are sites for transformations of all types: places where ideas are forged, challenged, and refined; where creativity is nourished and allowed to blossom; where leadership is shaped and developed. As a chemist, transformation has been at the heart of my intellectual interests throughout my career. Driven partially by my natural urge to give a chemistry lecture whenever faced with a friendly, enthusiastic audience, and partially by a desire to test my own hypothesis that there is never an inappropriate moment for discussing thermodynamics, I want to tell you a bit about myself, and about my thoughts on Kenyon, by talking about one of my favorite subjects, protein folding. Much of my research for the past twenty years has focused on this topic; I have also had the pleasure of collaborating with dozens of undergraduate students over the years on experimental studies of protein folding. So, when it comes to academic topics, this one is particularly near and dear to my heart.
Let's start at the beginning. Every process that happens inside the body - movement of muscles, memory, breathing, digestion of food - involves one or more specific and unique proteins. Each protein has a unique, three-dimensional shape, and this is responsible for its function. The shapes of proteins - usually depicted as twisting ribbons, folded upon themselves - are quite beautiful (at least to geeky biochemists like me).
But proteins are made initially into much cruder, simpler shapes - long, floppy strings. In order to turn into the correct, functional shapes, the protein must "fold." This process of "protein folding" is a type of chemical transformation, and a multidisciplinary array of scientists - not only chemists and biochemists, but also physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists - have tried to develop a comprehensive understanding of protein folding for decades, but so far this understanding has been elusive. Biochemists refer to this as the "protein folding problem." But, from one perspective, this is not much of a problem at all. Everyone in this hall is successfully folding many proteins right now, every second, without giving it the least bit of thought. Yet, we biochemists hope that in understanding how this transformation works - being able to articulate a model for folding proteins - we will form new insights into fundamental concepts and principles of all chemical transformations.
Let's switch gears for a moment, and think of the powerful transformations that happen here at Kenyon. Students enter Kenyon bright and eager, with raw creativity and unbridled energy. They graduate as mature leaders, critical thinkers, and outstanding communicators. As with protein folding, there is no problem here. These remarkable transformations happen every year, and they have occurred consistently for nearly 190 years. But, by looking closer at the process and articulating a model for what Kenyon does, we can also articulate fundamental concepts and principles of residential, liberal arts education.
The simplest models of protein folding were called the "random walk" models. Basically, the floppy protein string would move around randomly, changing shape continuously, until it eventually arrived at the "correct" three-dimensional form. No special input is really needed - folding just happens. When analyzing this model, a physicist named Cyrus Levinthal did a simple calculation - given the number of possible shapes that a protein can adopt, it would take nearly the lifetime of the universe for a protein to find the correct form by randomly switching from one shape to another. This observation became known as the Levinthal paradox: it may be possible for a protein to fold without direction, but we will never be able to observe it happen.
Similarly, there are those who would argue that a student provided with correct books and materials and left alone to digest the works can receive the equivalent of a liberal arts college education. In this model, education is not directed or influenced by any outside forces - it will just happen. When confronted with this assertion, I like to invoke what I like to call the liberal-arts-college analogue of the Levinthal paradox: you can take a bright, eager, and motivated 18-year-old, provide unlimited access to all of the books and materials one would typically encounter in four years at Kenyon, and it would take more than the lifetime of the universe for the student to emerge with the equivalent of a Kenyon education. A Kenyon education is greater than mere exposure to a collection of books and materials.
At the next stage of the evolution of protein-folding models, researchers asserted that there must be a specific pathway, a prescribed and directed series of steps, to fold a protein. According to this model, the process then takes on a mechanical feel, like origami: fold tab A onto flap B, and so on. The protein is directed linearly through the series of steps, or follows a recipe. To test this model, biochemists looked for experimental evidence of a pathway, devising creative ways to block certain steps. But, they discovered that proteins are pretty resilient. You can block one step in a pathway, and the protein will find another way to fold. Eventually, the conclusion was that there is no single, prescribed, sequential process for folding a protein.
If an education can't happen with just putting a student in the presence of books and materials, there are those who would argue that a student can be given detailed directions in how to consume the materials. Perhaps, for example, lectures and instructions delivered by a faculty member online, at a distance, maybe even as part of a new trend, such as one of the new massively open online courses (or MOOCs), that have arisen in the past year. Here again, I'd argue that books and materials plus linear, prescribed instruction, delivered impersonally, do not add up to a Kenyon education.
If you read the current literature on protein folding, you'll discover that the contemporary models describe proteins as dynamic objects on a complex energy landscape. Protein molecules navigate their own path on this landscape, but in movements that are shaped or influenced by their surroundings. The movement is not always forward towards the folded state. Sometimes the protein gets stuck in a partially folded state (a "local minimum") and needs to be jostled out of this by some changes or fluctuations in the environment. In other words, the complex and changing interactions between the protein molecule and its surroundings help to drive the molecule towards the correct shape.
This model - the protein folding funnel or protein energy landscape - is a wonderful metaphor for the Kenyon education. The immersive environment of Kenyon and the Kenyon community produces the transformational power of the educational experience: interactions with faculty inside and outside of the classroom; stimulating conversations and discussions with peers from around the country and around the world; connections and networks forged with alumni; support and encouragement from parents and family members. The diversity of the community is essential - for it is in the interactions that arise with people not like ourselves that challenges us out of our comfort zones, just as the proteins need to be jostled to explore different areas of the energy landscape and avoid getting trapped in the local minima. Students make their own paths, sometimes getting stuck, sometimes taking a step or two backwards, but in the end driven forward through the transformation into leaders, themselves poised to transform the world.
This transformational power of the Kenyon experience is exemplary of residential liberal arts education. In a world where there are growing calls for higher education to be prepackaged and delivered at home, we need to continually advocate for the unique and special educational experience offered at places like Kenyon, not just because of the preparation that a Kenyon education gives for career success, but also for the enrichment of all aspects of our lives. This is not something I know merely in the abstract - I have a lifetime of direct experience of being transformed by the liberal arts experience as a student, teacher, and administrator.
I grew up in Cleveland in a home where education and learning were highly valued, thanks primarily to my mother, Doris Decatur, who is here today, and whom I thank profoundly for making it possible for me to be here today. I arrived at college excited and ready to learn, and soon I discovered that I learned as much outside of the classroom, in office hours with my professors, in the research lab, in late night arguments with my housemates, on the ultimate Frisbee field, and in volunteer work with a tutoring program for local elementary school kids. When I started my teaching career, my learning continued in my research collaborations with undergraduate students. While I was now the mentor, my work was greatly influenced by the questions asked and details observed by my student mentees. As an administrator, my daily interactions with faculty and staff, teaming together to shape the larger educational experience of our students, continues to provide me with new opportunities to challenge and develop myself.
Indeed, one of the remarkable features of the transformational machine that is a residential liberal arts college is that all of us are active participants in transforming others, while we ourselves are continually transformed as well. This spirit, this fundamental principle, is deeply ingrained in Kenyon's history and Kenyon's present, and we have the responsibility to preserve this core value into Kenyon's future.
Leadership of this great institution carries with it the responsibility of nurturing and advancing the power of transformation. I am excited about taking on this responsibility. And when I reflect upon that idea, I want to modify my earlier description of what I think about Kenyon this afternoon: not just awesome, but totally awesome.