GAMBIER, Ohio (March 18, 2013)
Sean M. Decatur, an emerging national leader in higher education, has been selected as the 19th president of Kenyon College. The Kenyon College Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Sunday, March 17, to approve the hiring of Decatur after a national search.
Decatur, 44, is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College, where he has served since 2008. He is a former associate dean, department chair, and professor of chemistry at Mount Holyoke College. Decatur is a champion of the liberal arts with an accomplished record of academic leadership. He is a strong supporter of undergraduate research and faculty-and-student collaboration. Decatur begins his work at Kenyon on July 1, 2013.
"I am honored and enthused to accept the presidency of Kenyon College, an institution that I have admired for some time," Decatur said. "Kenyon is among those colleges that form a powerful crucible for the transformation of students. Kenyon is committed to both academic rigor and social engagement and brings together a faculty of outstanding teacher-scholars and a talented, diverse, and active student body."
Decatur is described as an inspiring leader with a collaborative style and a modest touch. And he is a scholar and scientist who has maintained a chemistry laboratory as much for research as revitalization.
Decatur signaled his interest in promoting the importance of the liberal arts. "We are living in an era in which we cannot take for granted a broad recognition of the value of a liberal arts education, and I believe it is essential for academic leaders to be active in national dialogues on critical issues in higher education, including the challenges of costs, accountability, and academic quality," he said. "All evidence points to a liberal arts education as being a successful platform for a full range of careers and that we graduate students who think critically, who communicate well, and who can solve problems."
Barry F. Schwartz '70, chair of the Kenyon College Board of Trustees, a member of the search committee, and executive vice chairman of MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc., said the selection of Decatur puts Kenyon in place to master the challenges facing higher education and to continue to provide the finest liberal arts experience. "In Sean Decatur, Kenyon College has a leader who understands the vital importance of the liberal arts in shaping the leaders, decision-makers, researchers, and creative thinkers who will drive the economy and American culture for coming generations."
Kenyon had launched a national search for its new president in September. Kenyon trustee Brackett B. Denniston '69, secretary of the Kenyon board of trustees and senior vice president and general counsel of General Electric Corporation, served as chair of the search committee and Aileen C. Hefferren '88 H'12, chief executive of Prep for Prep, served as vice chair. Denniston said Decatur emerged from a strong and deep field of candidates. "Sean is a leader of uncommon promise, a highly regarded scientist, and a superb teacher, qualities that have made him a beloved mentor for students and a trusted colleague to those with whom he has worked," Denniston said. "His modest touch and authenticity, as so many with whom we talked said, complement his demonstrated skill in leading collaboratively and with vision. He is a person of remarkable character."
The search committee included voices from all Kenyon constituencies, Hefferren said, and was aided by the national search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates. "Members of our search committee represented the entire Kenyon community and each contributed during a thorough and wide-ranging search with the best interests of the College as our priority. We discovered a deep and richly talented pool of candidates. And we can feel proud that the committee accomplished its goal of finding an outstanding new president to lead Kenyon into the future."
As well as dean, Decatur is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Oberlin. His primary research interest is in the structure and function of proteins and how protein malfunctions are linked to diseases. He has published many papers in the field. And he has a scholarly interest in the field of science studies, in particular the intersection of race and science in the United States.
During his time as dean and under his leadership, Decatur helped lead a review of major curricular requirements at Oberlin with a number of significant changes under way that bring more focus to the academic program. He also helped strengthen the Oberlin faculty and planned a new system for post-tenure faculty review and pushed for a deep curricular connection between Oberlin College and the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Oberlin also established the Oberlin Center for Languages and International Cultures while Decatur was dean.
"We're very sad to see him go," Oberlin President Marvin Krislov said. "It's a great choice for Kenyon. When I and the search committee brought him to Oberlin we recognized him as an incredible talent and a thoughtful person and a leader who has been outstanding in every respect.
"He is very effective, very thoughtful and works well with all parts of the campus. He has many accomplishments in terms of strong faculty hiring and including the curricular revision. He has been involved in every aspect of life here," Krislov said. "Congratulations to Kenyon for recognizing his talent."
Decatur has enjoyed a romance with the liberal arts. He earned a bachelor's degree at Swarthmore College in 1990 and a doctorate in biophysical chemistry at Stanford University in 1995. He joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College in 1995 as an assistant professor of chemistry. As an associate professor of chemistry, he served as department chair from 2001-04. In 2005, he was appointed the Marilyn Dawson Sarles Professor of Life Sciences. He was also an associate dean of faculty for science from 2005-08. Decatur was a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004-05.
On the faculty at Mount Holyoke, he helped establish a top research program in biophysical chemistry. He also developed unique courses, including a race-and-science lecture series, a course exploring ethical, social, and political questions related to scientific topics, and a team-taught course that integrates introductory biology and chemistry.
"Even though he was comparatively young, Sean Decatur was Mount Holyoke's most distinguished scientist," said Joanne V. Creighton, interim president at Haverford College and president emerita at Mount Holyoke College. "He was respected by all for his unparalleled grant record, his cutting edge research, his dedicated teaching, and his spirited and effective service.
"He knows how to get things done. He was an outstanding dean of science, bringing departments together in common cause as they had not been before," Creighton said. "Shaped by his own formative undergraduate education at Swarthmore, Sean has, over his career, deliberately chosen to work in small-college settings, and he will bring to Kenyon a deep conviction about the value of residential undergraduate liberal arts education.
"In short, Kenyon College has made an inspired choice for president."
Decatur has won research grants from the federal National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health and from private foundations including the Alzheimer's Association, Dreyfus Foundation, and Research Corporation for Science Advancement. He has received a number of national awards for his scholarship, including a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 1999 and a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2003. He was named an Emerging Scholar of 2007 by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine. He has contributed to the New York Times Room for Debate commentary forum.
Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College, said Decatur is "incredibly well-prepared" for the Kenyon presidency and has developed a seasoned appreciation for the complexities of the job. "I've been extremely impressed with his knowledge of higher education," she said. "He was a beloved faculty member at Mount Holyoke and was highly regarded as a faculty leader. He's done a fabulous job at Oberlin. This is a great match for Kenyon."
Decatur has, Chopp said, emerged as a national "thought leader" on the issues facing higher education and the liberal arts.
"Sean Decatur's appointment as Kenyon's next president adds a compelling new voice to the critical issues that will shape the nation's higher education conversation," said Eugene M. Tobin, the program officer for higher education at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former president at Hamilton College. "His personal experience and professional expertise will be a positive influence on the simultaneous pursuit of equity and educational opportunity for students from underrepresented, disadvantaged, and first-generation college backgrounds.
"Issues like educational access and accountability and the role of online education will benefit from Sean's insight, equanimity, and wisdom. And, as a graduate, faculty member, and dean at three of the nation's most distinguished liberal arts colleges, Sean will be an articulate champion of the liberal arts."
Royal Rhodes, Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon and a member of the search committee, offered high praise for Decatur and believes he will be a dependable support and guide for the faculty. "He was my top choice from the get go," Rhodes said. "He has a great deal of energy and creativity and insight.
"Every reference I talked to saw him as potentially being an important national spokesman for the liberal arts," Rhodes said. "One of the things I like about him is his very liberal arts background. He went to Swarthmore, and he was at Mount Holyoke, where they absolutely loved him. He's at Oberlin, where they love him even more."
A student representative on the search committee, Amy Schlessman '13, of Sandusky, Ohio, is impressed by Decatur's interest in students and their success. "He has demonstrated strong relationships with students, which is something that I look forward to seeing at Kenyon," Schlessman said. "And that's in the lab, in the classroom, and outside of the classroom.
"I'm really interested in his dedication to the liberal arts and the sciences. I think he'll be a really strong leader for Kenyon, and he'll be able to handle all the different constituencies of the College. I'm really enthusiastic about his ability to be a president."
Kenyon alumni will be pleased with this appointment, said Larae Bush Schraeder '97 of Columbus, Ohio, director of marketing research and analytics at Nationwide Insurance, Alumni Council vice president, and a member of the search committee. "What struck me is his ability to build partnerships across the community." Decatur has a track record as a consensus-builder and is inclusive in his approach to management, she said. The enhancement of the Oberlin College curriculum was a "very substantial" achievement under Decatur.
Kenyon has a proud history of outstanding presidents, dating to 1824, and Decatur takes his place among them as the first African-American president at Kenyon.
He is a native of Cleveland and welcomes the opportunity to continue his career in Ohio. He is the son of a career mathematics and science teacher in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. He is married to Renee Romano, associate professor of history and African American Studies at Oberlin. Romano is a specialist in 20th century American history, with research interests in African American history, civil rights, and historical memory. They have two children, Sabine, 16, and Owen, 11.
Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent announced in August 2012 her decision to step down at the conclusion of the 2012-13 academic year after a decade of distinguished service to Kenyon.
The search committee included:
Joseph L. Klesner, associate provost and professor of political science, was the on-campus coordinator of the search and the academic liaison.
Kenyon College is a distinguished liberal arts institution with a diverse and high-achieving student enrollment of about 1,650. Founded in 1824, Kenyon is the oldest private college in Ohio and is widely known for its superb teaching faculty, close collaboration between faculty and students, and emphasis on critical thinking and personal expression. Kenyon is the home of the international literary journal the Kenyon Review.