Message from President Decatur

President Decatur shares a message with the Kenyon community regarding recent campus events.


Dear members of the Kenyon College community,

As I am sure you are aware, a group of students has been striking on behalf of the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) for 10 days. We do not know when this strike will end. My understanding is that the primary demand of this strike is to negotiate a recognition agreement for a union of student workers at Kenyon. You may recall that a special committee of the Board of Trustees considered K-SWOC’s request for voluntary recognition last fall, and after broad input and careful deliberation the Board and I concluded that a union is not the appropriate means to fulfill our core educational mission and meet students’ financial needs.

Last Wednesday, as a part of the strike activities, about a dozen students came to my office in Ransom Hall to stage a sit-in. I joined the group for a discussion, explaining my position that a wall-to-wall union of student workers is not right for a liberal arts college such as Kenyon. As I explained then, this is rooted in my belief that the fundamental relationship a college has with its students is educational, and that campus work exists to further that education and make it financially accessible to students across incomes. My perspective has been informed by my experience as both a faculty member and an administrator.

My first experience as a faculty supervisor of student workers was in the laboratory, where I collaborated with students on research and supervised their lab work. Some students worked for credit, some worked for pay, and the roles changed depending on the time of year. But regardless of whether the compensation was in the form of pay or credit, the main objective was clear: This was an opportunity for students to learn — about protein folding, about how to develop research from experimental observation to conclusion, about how to present data to a range of different audiences and about how to collaborate as a group of individuals united in common cause. 

When I became an administrator, I had the opportunity to ensure not only rich learning experiences in the lab and classroom, but also that such experiences would be accessible to students regardless of their financial circumstances. At Kenyon, that has meant strengthening financial aid resources for students. Many Kenyon students receive work-study as a part of their financial aid packages. But the work they perform is tertiary to the aid and the educational experience. There is no clearer evidence of our commitment to that than our decision to continue to pay student workers when the pandemic made it impossible for them to earn their expected income last spring. We did so because the fundamental goal and mission of work-study is to provide financial aid for students. The College has an obligation to meet the financial need of its students, and it has taken meaningful steps to meet that need, including making available emergency funds for students who are not able to work.

Part of a Kenyon education is learning how to advocate for yourself and others, and over the past year Kenyon students have been remarkably effective in advocating for their needs in the wake of the pandemic, through both individual and collective action — payment for work they could not perform remotely or make up at a later date, adjustments to the pass/fail policy, increased wages for Community Advisors, changes to COVID-19 practices in the dining hall. These did not require third-party intervention or a collective bargaining process. All they required was an email and discussion of concerns. This kind of self-advocacy — communicating openly and honestly with faculty, peers, administrators and supervisors, either directly or through existing governance structures — is a powerful and effective skill to master.

The past 14 months have asked more of college communities than any in my career. Staff and faculty members have worked tirelessly to steer the campus through an unprecedented pandemic year, and they have done so with tremendous skill, dedication and passion. I recognize that, while we share a commitment to supporting peaceful protest, a strike is by definition disruptive, and that staff have found themselves in unfamiliar and sometimes difficult positions this semester. As we turn toward the final days of an especially demanding semester, it is important that we recognize the employees who have brought us this far.

The past 14 months have also deeply strained the Kenyon community, opening long-standing wounds and causing fresh injuries. As Kenyon’s president, I own a share of responsibility for the erosion of trust we have experienced in these times. But the responsibility is not mine alone. Neither is the path to community repair. In my eight years at Kenyon, I have repeatedly stated that we are an imperfect institution, sometimes falling short of our aspirations, much as we are all imperfect individuals striving to improve ourselves and others around us. Our work here is neither to accept imperfection nor to celebrate our progress, but to acknowledge the work that needs to be done and then set about on a path of improvement. 

While the strikes this spring are the first I have experienced as Kenyon’s president, they are not the first that have affected me personally. Some of the defining memories of my childhood involve strikes: my mother was a teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools, and she navigated as a single parent two extended strikes in the 1978-79 and 1979-80 school years (and another after I had gone off to college, in 1988-89). I believe in and understand the importance of unions, and at the same time I continue to believe that a wall-to-wall union of student workers is not appropriate for an undergraduate college. I also continue to have faith in the Kenyon community’s capacity to wrestle with complex issues, consider multiple viewpoints and find a way forward.

Yours truly,

Sean Decatur