Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 said one challenge of her new job is taking time to learn about the Kenyon of today before planning new initiatives. The commitment to learning that she internalized as a Kenyon student helps her stay focused on gathering as much information as possible about the College’s needs in this early stage of her job, she said. Bonham talked with Office of Communications intern Elana Spivack ’17 about her first months working at Kenyon, coming from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where she was senior associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator.
Which aspects of student life are you most eager to oversee and improve?
Since arriving in July, or I should say returning to Kenyon in July, I’ve just been trying to learn and soak up as much as I possibly can about every aspect of student affairs. Our division comprises 11 departments and 116 people, so it’s much bigger than what I think people initially think.
We have a few initiatives we’ve been focusing on. For example, there are some facility needs in athletics. There have been a couple of studies that identified the need to pay closer attention to our outside fields. I put together a working group on athletic facilities, and now we are figuring out what can be acted upon right away, what might need more planning, where the funding is going to come from.
Another priority has to do with a set of goals for student wellness — making sure that students are sleeping, eating healthfully and taking care of themselves so that they can be as successful as possible. Another area is acknowledging that our community is more diverse now, and therefore we need to ensure that we work on campus climate and promote a community that is as welcoming as possible to people from all backgrounds. All of our work is being done within the context of the Kenyon 2020 (strategic) plan and the larger goals of the College.
Are there any initiatives you hope to implement in the near future?
(Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Ted Mason and I are co-chairing a first-year experience group that includes administrators, students and faculty. We’re looking to see how we can ensure that students are provided the best possible foundation to be successful at Kenyon and then beyond. There’s a lot of good stuff that happens here, but I don’t think it’s necessarily well-coordinated, and we have a charge from President (Sean) Decatur to come up with at least an initial plan in the spring. I’m optimistic that we’re going to move forward quickly.
What are some valuable experiences that you had working at Hamilton? How might they prove useful here?
I also chaired a first-year experience committee at Hamilton, and part of what emanated from that process was a universal pre-orientation program. At Kenyon, we might grow our own pre-orientation programs because the bonds developed when students are backpacking together or when they’re participating in a community service project together or working on some type of communal experience, that has a tremendous impact on their ability to acclimate and feel connected to the College right away.
Also, I served as Title IX Coordinator at Hamilton, and my experience working with students around sexual assault awareness and prevention is very useful in my current position given the current climate and conversations nationally around sexual misconduct.
What’s your opinion of the Title IX policy that Kenyon just adopted?
I’m a huge, huge fan of it. I led the effort at Hamilton to move from a hearing board process to an investigator model, and I was so pleased that Kenyon likewise moved in that direction. I think that it makes a tremendous difference, in terms of students’ willingness to report because the fear of having to defend yourself to a panel of individuals, no matter how compassionate and wonderful and committed those individuals are, can be intimidating. I think there’s better decision-making that takes place when all of the information is gathered in advance and can be reviewed by both parties, and then have an incredibly thorough process looking at texts and emails and having really in-depth conversations with everyone involved. For both of those reasons, the investigator model is, I think, far superior to a hearing board model.
How did your time at Kenyon provide you with a solid foundation for your professional life?
First of all, I never in a million years imagined as a Kenyon student that I would be back sitting in an office in the basement of Gund Commons looking out over Mather (Residence Hall) as the vice president for Student Affairs! But then again, there are these little glimmers of realization that in fact my Kenyon experience did prepare me very well for my current position. For example, I was involved with volunteering for New Directions in Mount Vernon, and that experience of working with families impacted by domestic violence was the beginning of my commitment to Title IX issues around relationship and sexual violence.
I am a true believer in the residential liberal arts experience for undergraduates. I think it’s by far the best way to learn, when you have an opportunity to be immersed in a place where life of the mind and intellectual rigor are valued. It was an incredibly formative experience for me at Kenyon. I also have a healthy respect for Kenyon students who are really committed to learning and they’re remarkably smart, but they’re not pretentious about it. That’s something that I’ve always admired about Kenyon students. … I never would’ve expected this career path, but in the end it all makes sense.