April 23, 2020
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Dear Members of the Kenyon Student Council,
I appreciate your open letter published on the Kenyon Thrill. Over the past several days, listening to students and reading the Collegian in the aftermath of #Sendoffgate2k16 have reminded me of the words of Benjamin Franklin: “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” The importance of speaking out for one’s beliefs, challenging thoughts and ideas regardless of source, and engaging in rigorous dialogue have been themes to which I’ve returned again and again over the past two-and-a-half years. And though I’m fairly certain that Franklin did not have the immortal Beastie Boys line in mind with his statement, it does indeed apply as much to “fight for your right to party” as it might to loftier social justice aims and issues.
As always, I support and encourage everyone to share their concerns about issues on campus. The most important concern I am hearing goes beyond Summer Sendoff to how “the administration” communicates with students, listens to student perspectives and consults with the student body. “The administration” refers to my administration, and, as president, I take full ownership and responsibility for policy decisions and our decision-making process. Having consistently urged students to rigorously debate and challenge ideas and policies, it is my responsibility to respond.
First, I want to state clearly that the changes to Sendoff are reasonable, responsible and, overall, modest in scope. The focus of Sendoff is on celebration, relaxation and community. The changes with respect to alcohol policy preserve those elements and recognize that responsible drinking can be part of the celebratory spirit of the event. At the same time, Sendoff is an official College activity and, as such, the College has the responsibility to respect the law on underage drinking and to encourage safe behavior. The changes will help the College better meet those responsibilities.
While I believe that Student Affairs made the right call on these changes, I also understand the importance of communication with Student Council. I recognize that Student Council this year has been particularly interested in, and effective at, serving as a liaison between administrators and students. You have told me this directly, and Phoebe Roe, as your president, and I have discussed this a number of times.
This has opened up a larger set of questions about how and when student input shapes College decision-making. Not all decisions are the same. As administrators, we are accountable to many constituencies — not just students — and we must comply with external policies and regulations. Yet, I do think there is an overriding principle that should guide us: We can and should be as transparent as possible and work to communicate as clearly as possible. We will not always agree or reach the same conclusion, understanding, of course, that student opinion is often diverse. But, despite the fact that we will sometimes disagree, we should make the best effort possible to listen and respond to student input as a part of the process.
I sincerely want us to do better on this in the future. As a part of this effort, I would like to have an open forum on the topic of student input and administrative decision-making. The goal of such a forum is not merely to hear recent grievances but also to constructively reach a mutual understanding of how to best communicate and work together moving forward. I’d love for this to be a collaboration between my office and Student Council, and I’d like to discuss planning for this soon.
I’m pleased that Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Bonham ’92, who has my full confidence, intends to join you at the Student Council meeting Sunday to share her thoughts and address your concerns. And I look forward to working with you to help host an open forum on these issues.
Sean Decatur, President