About this photo: Middle Path looking south from Bexley Hall, ca. 1875. Photo by Baker Studios in Columbus
Last week saw the beginning of construction for the restoration of Middle Path, a project long in planning and discussion. I have written and spoken several times over the course of my first year at Kenyon about the importance of Middle Path; in fact, this was one of the themes echoed in my inauguration comments. The sight of Middle Path is indeed very moving – the long, continuous stretch between Bexley and Old Kenyon, shaped by trees, connecting the many different eras of the institution by providing linear continuity among the contrasting architecture (the Collegiate Gothic of south campus, the modern look of Gund Gallery, the small Ohio community that is the village, and north campus, capped by Bexley Hall). In a practical sense, Middle Path is a central artery, providing cohesion and flow, making it nearly impossible to get lost on what is a large and sprawling campus. But, more importantly, Middle Path is the symbolic heart of Kenyon, a place where people meet and talk, where conversations linger, where experiences are shared. Many college campuses have as their symbol a building – stoic, lasting, imposing. How special that Kenyon’s stirring campus symbol is a path – outdoors, changing with the seasons, a place that unites campus and village, a feature that literally guides the way.
At the same time, living on campus (with a front door on Middle Path), I have at times been saddened by the state of the path: potholes and divots that become small ponds after the rain; uneven surfaces that turn into a smooth luge run in the depth of winter; some trees that have been battered by road salt, soil compression and improper drainage, and the gradual “creep” of the path into the tree line over the course of more than 150 years.
I have also seen students, faculty, staff, and community members fall, some suffering injuries. I have heard from students on campus with mobility challenges. These are not just students with long-term mobility issues, but the many who find themselves disabled for a semester or a part of a semester due to injury – on one weekend in the early winter we had more than 35 students trying to navigate an icy Middle Path on crutches. I have heard from prospective parents who believe that their son or daughter would be a good match for Kenyon, but that the current state of Middle Path is untenable. Our faculty has voted several times over the course of the past few years on a resolution demanding action from the administration on the condition of Middle Path, and this past spring this sentiment was unanimously reaffirmed at the last faculty meeting. Our students have been similarly vocal, with representatives from the Student Council presenting to the Board of Trustees during the April meeting on the importance of restoring Middle Path.
I am not, of course, the first to observe this. This has been a debate that has continued on this campus for many years, and the construction that began last week is a result of years of careful study and planning. In 2011, the trustees decided to take this on as a part of developing a plan to preserve and enhance Kenyon’s landscape. The plan to address this was open (with involvement from trustees, students, faculty, alumni, and community members). The resulting report was shared with the community in 2012 and endorsed by the trustees. Work began at that time to come up with a solution that would accomplish three things: (1) fix the structural and aesthetic problems of Middle Path that were detracting from its beauty (and the beauty of the campus); (2) make Middle Path more accessible to community members with mobility challenges; and (3) find a way to preserve the features of Middle Path that are essential to the tradition of the College and the memories of the alumni, while at the same time creating an accessible artery, true to its symbolic meaning and that will last for years to come. Test patches of a new material were tried in the summer of 2012 but proved unsatisfactory in performance. New test patches were installed south of Bexley Hall last summer (July 2013). These performed well over the winter, enough to proceed with the first phase of the project, which began last week.
When complete, the project will have a surface that wears well in the challenging Ohio climate, is more accessible and navigable, is true to tradition, and will restore the beauty of this important campus marker.
Yes, the project began with the removal of distressed and dying trees from Brooklyn Street north to Bexley Hall, and seeing that part of the path laid bare was a jolt to me and will be to anyone who encounters it for the first time. I take comfort in the fact that those trees will be replaced (and more added) with sturdier species.
Though this planning began years before my arrival at Kenyon, I firmly support our efforts to move forward. The board and the administration have acted in a very deliberate fashion (in a process that has stretched over years), included many voices from the Kenyon community in the discussions, and worked to get the details correct. Though the decision to move forward with this may seem sudden to some, to others it has proceeded at a snail’s pace that has been very frustrating. In the long term, this project will prove important in maintaining the physical and symbolic place of Middle Path to Kenyon well into the future, providing a link between past tradition, current values, and future needs.
As the restoration of Middle Path goes forward, the College will make every effort to communicate in full all aspects of the project. I believe that transparency is essential for the work of the Kenyon leadership team. The full Kenyon community won’t always agree with me or the decisions of my administration – but we will not hide or obfuscate, and we will not back away from taking responsibility for the hard decisions necessary to advance Kenyon.
We see this as an opportunity to guide us to share more fully what occurs at the College, what is planned (with the help of the entire Kenyon community), and what the future holds.
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