Campus Work Update: College declines request for union recognition

On Dec. 11, 2020, President Decatur and the Board of Trustees announced the College would not voluntarily recognize a union of student workers.


Dear members of the Kenyon College community:

As I shared in September, a special committee of the Board of Trustees has been examining the various ways the College provides financial support to students, including work-study and other work experiences. As a part of this review, the committee analyzed the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee’s (K-SWOC) Aug. 31, 2020, request for voluntary recognition of a union of all student workers. The committee spent more than three months examining the issues, meeting 23 times, including twice with K-SWOC to hear its members’ perspectives. The Board takes all students’ concerns seriously, and the special committee approached their review of this request for recognition of a campus-wide union of undergraduate students, which would be unprecedented in this country, in that spirit.

Based on the committee’s and my recommendation, the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to decline K-SWOC’s request for recognition. The committee communicated the College’s decision to K-SWOC today. 

I want to share the primary reasons for this conclusion: 

  • Kenyon College is an educational institution above all else. The College’s responsibility to students — all students — is to provide an excellent education over four years. To provide financial support for that education, the College creates a variety of campus work experiences, many designed to be educational in nature, where students develop skills that complement their studies and further their life goals. Education is the primary objective and focus of students’ time at Kenyon. While unions can serve important roles in some workplaces in some industries, that model does not fit our undergraduate academic setting, where the education of students is paramount.

  • To the extent that our existing systems and structures present challenges to students seeking financial support through work-study opportunities, those concerns go to the core of the College’s educational mission, including its commitment to meeting 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. We do not believe that it is appropriate to cede these educational responsibilities to a process that involves bargaining with a third party that represents only a small part of the interests at stake for only a segment of all Kenyon students.

  • By definition, unions act collectively on behalf of employees who share similar interests in a common workplace. That model is not workable for undergraduate students in an academic setting like Kenyon, where students engage in a wide range of projects in different departments across campus. Some students engage in grant-related research projects, some assume advising roles, some choose campus experiences that align with their degrees, some participate in work-study programs, some use campus work to defray the costs of books, and some choose not to work at all. Students’ motivations for working on campus are likewise diverse, highly personal, and based on their individual needs. We do not believe these needs are appropriately addressed on a one-size-fits-all basis through collective bargaining with a union.

  • We believe Kenyon’s culture of openness and accessibility would be materially compromised by introducing a union of student workers. Kenyon has a strong, inclusive, and caring faculty and staff, who remain committed to working individually with students to achieve their educational goals, create experiential learning opportunities, and mentor them to succeed in their lives during and after college. We believe that putting a union in the middle of these important relationships would dramatically change Kenyon’s educational experience, in ways that would not serve the interests of students, the College, or its faculty and staff.

  • The College has a number of existing governance structures, including Student Council and Campus Senate, that provide students with a voice and a forum to raise and consider issues of campus-wide concern through elected representatives who serve the entire Kenyon community. We are concerned that having a union for a segment of students could limit the open expression of voices in that long-standing system of shared governance, which could undermine the democratic process for the community as a whole.

  • Recognizing a union would effectively tie future generations of students to union representation, without their having a say in that outcome. Binding future generations of students to a decision made by a segment of students here today, no matter how devoted and well-intentioned, disenfranchises future students and, in our view, is neither democratic nor fair. 

Kenyon’s values — particularly the value of engaging a wide range of viewpoints — have been the foundation of our decisions. The Board and I are confident that the College can best fulfill its educational mission, preserve Kenyon’s collaborative environment, and meet students’ financial needs without students having to bargain to address these needs through a third party. One of Kenyon’s strengths is its open and supportive faculty and staff, who listen to students and work hard to ensure that they have what they need to thrive. Kenyon also has a shared governance structure that recognizes the value of bringing the perspectives of students, faculty and staff to bear on important issues. 

For example, when the pandemic required that students complete the semester remotely this spring, Kenyon responded quickly with additional support: emergency relief funds, more flexible grading policies, online mental health services, and continued payment of student workers through the remainder of the semester whether or not their duties could be performed at a distance. This academic year, Kenyon extended a 10 percent tuition credit to all students, added a $2,000 personal allowance to need-based financial aid packages to offset the indirect costs of studying remotely, converted work-study awards to need-based grants during the remote semester, and provided supplemental aid and emergency funds to those facing financial hardship. 

Some of these steps were taken in response to student advocacy; some were decisions made by the faculty; some were proactive measures taken by the administration. All of us, working together through existing processes, have played an important role in adapting our practices in changing and uncertain times.

We have more work to do. As I indicated in September, two separate reviews of work-study and campus work were undertaken this fall. In addition to the work of the special Board committee, the Campus Senate, which includes representatives of students, faculty and staff, reviewed the state of campus work at Kenyon. Over the course of the semester, it held two listening forums, met with numerous individuals and small groups, and gathered extensive data as a part of its research. The Campus Senate submitted its findings to me yesterday, and I will share them with the community in the coming weeks. The work of both the Campus Senate and the special Board committee will inform what steps the College takes to improve its campus work practices and financial aid programs, including work-study, to ensure that the College continues to fulfill its educational mission.

Kenyon is fortunate to have a strong community of students, faculty and staff committed to the mission and values of the College. We want every Kenyon student to be able to afford their education, have equitable access to the educational and social opportunities offered at Kenyon, and go on to achieve their life goals. We respect and consider opposing views, and take action where there is opportunity for improvement. While we disagree with the proposal brought forward by K-SWOC, we appreciate the effort invested in the ideas presented. I am confident that our community’s success will continue to come from working together.


Sean Decatur
Kenyon College

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