‘This Work Has Never Been More Important’

In her inaugural address, President Julie Kornfeld pledged to bring optimism, integrity and community to the work of championing Kenyon’s legacy of excellence in liberal arts education.


The following is the prepared text of the inaugural address delivered by Julie Kornfeld during her installation ceremony as the 20th president of Kenyon on April 13, 2024.

Watch a recording of the ceremony.

Thank you. I’m so grateful to be here with you all today, and to have the great honor of leading this amazing institution.

Thank you, Aileen, for your kind words and for your unending support. To the Board of Trustees, I want to thank you for your commitment to this very special place and for trusting me to lead this institution that you hold so dear. To the faculty, staff, administration, students and community members here in Gambier and Mount Vernon — thank you for the warm welcome that you have extended to me and to my family. You have made this transition a truly wonderful one. In big and small ways, you have shown me why Kenyon is such a great institution and the right place for me and my family to call home. Milo — our family dog — was unable to join us this afternoon but has insisted that I share his gratitude for all the love that he has received on Middle Path since we arrived.

My predecessors in this role have powerfully shepherded Kenyon’s legacy of excellence in liberal education. Because of their leadership, our community has held strong for more than 200 years and is well poised to begin its third century. I am grateful to those who are here today, including Provost and former Acting President Jeff Bowman, whose wise counsel and guidance helped ease my transition to the College, and President Emeritus Georgia Nugent, who carved a path for me as Kenyon’s first female president. Thank you.

To the Inauguration Committee and everyone on campus who helped bring your vision to life, I want to thank you for all that you have done to make this week a very special one for the College. All of you have worked tirelessly and I am grateful for the many, many hours you have put in to ensure that this weekend is flawless and that no stone on Middle Path is out of place. Thank you.

I cannot envision today without the tremendous love and support of my family and friends.

My parents, Morris Kornfeld and Rose Stein, set me on an educational journey when I was young that has led me here. Although my father passed away when I was eleven, he infused in me a love of reading and learning that has lighted my way. My father was discouraged from going to college by his parents who felt that his ability to enter a trade and earn wages would be more useful to his family. But my father had a hunger to learn and a brilliant mind. After serving in the military and with the support of his brother and the GI bill, he became an electrical engineer. Without his courage and perseverance, I would not be standing here today.

My mother, Rose Stein, never had the opportunity to get a college degree. As a Holocaust survivor who was a witness to some of the worst moments of humanity, she knew the power of education and understands to this day that while so much can be stripped away from someone, their education can never be lost. She encouraged me to pursue opportunities that were not open to her. Both she and my father instilled in me a love for education and a strong belief that a road to a meaningful life and career was within my reach.

I want to acknowledge my husband, Fred Silverman, who has been my steadfast partner and the love of my life for 30 years. You have showed up for me each and every day — sometimes with a tuna fish sandwich when I have forgotten to eat and more times than I could ever possibly count with a wise word, a calm and steady hand and a corny Dad joke when it is most needed. I could not have this life and do this work without you by my side. And to our children, Dylan, Morgan and Ely — you are the sunshine of our lives and we are in awe of the amazing young adults that you have become. You make us proud. More importantly you make us giggle and be silly and you continually remind us that the future is bright. I love you so very much. And to Olivia — welcome to our family. 

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the lifelong friends and colleagues that have traveled to be here today. Some of you have been in my life since Woodcrest Elementary School, and all of you have been by my side for the adventures — and twists and turns — that this life has brought to us. Your friendship and support are among the greatest gifts in my life.

To all of you here — I have seen the transformative power of a liberal arts education up close with my own three children. And I am deeply honored to champion this education as Kenyon’s 20th president.

Stepping into a presidency is an awesome responsibility at any time, but it feels especially daunting at this moment. Higher education has received an extraordinary amount of public attention. As a sector we face increasingly potent — even dangerous — headwinds. The rising temperature in state legislatures leading to interference with classrooms and curricula, the politicization of campuses leading to disruption and, in some cases, violence — have contributed to a growing mistrust and diminishing confidence in higher education.

It’s no wonder people keep asking me: “Why on earth would you want to be a college president?”

To this question, my answer is unequivocal. This work has never been more important. Full stop.

With higher education under scrutiny, we need to firmly demonstrate the value not just of a college education but a liberal arts education. We are the ones that can train the leaders we need to solve the complex societal problems we face. We need to show up for the liberal arts now more than ever, because if we don’t, this vital model of education will fall by the wayside.

We need to show up and prove our significance to society.

I have always lived my life guided by that simple principle: SHOW. UP.

“We need to show up for the liberal arts now more than ever, because if we don’t, this vital model of education will fall by the wayside. We need to show up and prove our significance to society.”

Julie Kornfeld

I learned about the power of this principle when I was young and lost my father. In the Jewish tradition we sit shiva — people come and literally sit with you in your pain. They SHOW UP. They show up even if the grief or the sorrow may scare them or make them feel vulnerable. They show up even if they know they can’t fix your broken heart. They say with their presence that “you don’t have to do this alone. I am here with you.”

This principle of SHOWING UP is one that I have tried to live by and one that I have shared with my children as they have grown into young adults. Life is complicated and busy. It can be all too easy to focus on the immediate, and to prioritize one’s own needs — but when you are needed to celebrate, or to grieve, or to just sit with a friend or a colleague — you show up.

“SHOWING UP” has guided me in my professional life as well. As an epidemiologist, I have spent my career examining and questioning the ways in which individual choices, societal factors, biases and assumptions shape our health and well-being. To be successful in this work, and to solve complex public health problems, we SHOW UP. We show up in communities, partnering to learn about their unique circumstances and collaborating across differences and disciplines. We are present. We listen to understand, to empathize, and to discover what might be possible when we work together. 

I recently read a piece by Rabbi Sharon Brous, the author of the book “The Amen Effect.” Her words resonated deeply with me: “Reach out in your strength, step forward in your vulnerability. Err on the side of presence.”

Brous writes about the value and beauty of showing up for friends and chosen family. Most of us experience this necessary and fulfilling joy in ways both big and simple. We take friends to dinner, we dance at a cousins’ weddings, we bask in the sunshine on a springtime walk with colleagues after a long February spent indoors. As Brous writes, our people “can uplift us, order our lives, give them meaning and purpose, direction and pride.” When we need hope, and inspiration, we know we can turn to those people who are always there for us.

But Brous also warns of the peril of becoming too insular — of closing ourselves off from empathy for those not in our circles, and from the imagination that is necessary to understand how others might feel, where they might experience pain and where they might find joy. In the process, we run the risk of losing our curiosity and our compassion. Even worse, we can become ever more stubborn, holding fast in our own worldviews and refusing to let other ideas influence our thinking. This tendency to hunker down, to surround ourselves with what is comfortable, what is safe, becomes even more tempting when we are confronted with trauma.

We see on our campus, and on campuses across the country, a confirmation of what Brous warns us against. In the midst of traumatizing and polarizing events, so many of us turn to people whose ideological persuasions are like our own, who can affirm our pain and confirm our views in ways that are comforting. We risk being unwilling to question and confront that which has always felt familiar. This is natural. It is understandable. But on a college campus, we must work for more, and we must rise to the occasion that these times demand of us.

There is no better corrective to this dangerous insularity than a liberal arts education. In fact, A Kenyon Liberal Arts Education.

Most of us in this audience know this in our core. A liberal arts education teaches us how to gather and synthesize information and consider it critically. It trains us to examine all sides of a question, seek out different views, and understand context.

It also demands we SHOW UP and embrace the discomfort of constant learning and growth, of not always being right, of being moved in unexpected ways.

That this happens every day at Kenyon is no accident. I have discovered this simply by walking down Middle Path and talking to faculty and students on their way to class, to the lab or to their office or dorm room. I have seen this at a recent visit to The Gund — our treasured campus museum. Students from a science class were viewing artwork by Salvador Dali — and stepping out of their comfort zone in the science quad — as a means to hone their observational skills, think differently and strengthen their work in physics.

There is a power within the residential liberal arts model that is not replicated anywhere else in higher education. Trust me — I know. I have studied, lived and worked at larger research and pre-professional institutions. I’ve taken a class that is little more than a line on the resume. What happens at Kenyon is special. Our students immerse themselves in an educational community in which every moment, every turn, is designed to broaden intellectual horizons. This type of education does not narrowly focus on a specific skill set or profession. And at the end of a day of classes, our students sit side-by-side at Peirce for dinner or return to their houses and halls with others who are also expanding their knowledge and making sense of a world of new experiences. What an incredibly powerful way to train one’s brain to continually learn and grow.

Over the course of the past few months, I have had the privilege of traveling to different cities to celebrate the College’s Bicentennial. Regardless of their city, regardless of their class year, regardless of their field of study, alumni share a common refrain: it was Kenyon that prepared me for my next chapter. I hear it from alumni who tell me that, in law school, they were more ready for the rigor of the work than any of their peers — because of Kenyon. I hear it from alumni who speak of their ability to communicate effectively, think critically to solve complex problems, reach across the aisle — figuratively of course — whether they are working on Capitol Hill or for a global non-governmental organization or in tech and finance. I hear it from alumni who, when making a hire, seek Kenyon graduates, because they know they will show up ready for whatever may come their way. 

It is stories like those I hear from our alumni that prove our necessity. And, I want to share those powerful stories with every student, every faculty member, every trustee and every prospective employer. Now more than at any other time in its cherished and brilliant history, we must make noise about the ways in which a liberal arts education, A Kenyon Education, contains the DNA to create leaders who show up in the most important ways. Leaders who draw us out of our insular or partisan perspectives training us to reach both wide and deep. This world has never been in greater need of people with the intellectual courage and capacity to lean in and hear one another, to be open to new ideas, to be ready to work towards solutions.

A place like Kenyon is the perfect incubator for developing this mindset. Our students come from all around the world, from all backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Over the last few months, I have been hosting a series of small dinners with our graduating seniors. At a recent dinner, I sat with students from Nepal, Vietnam, Ohio, Utah and New York and listened to them describe their crosscutting studies at Kenyon — neuroscience and studio arts, math and international studies, English and environmental studies. Their Kenyon career is marked by their ability to approach questions from multiple angles, drawing insights from the humanities, arts, social sciences and the physical sciences. I am excited to see them take their discoveries into the world, where they will test their assumptions and themselves in less familiar, often uncomfortable, territory.

It is critical that Kenyon always prioritizes opening doors for talented students from all over the globe to access this education — because without a diversity of experience we can’t ensure a diversity of thought. This has always been Kenyon’s ethos, from its founding as a college on the edge of the frontier. We need to carry forth that pioneering spirit into our next 200 years.

We need to push for more — for Kenyon and from Kenyon — because when you love an institution, you want it to be the best it can possibly be. And when that institution has the answer for what is most needed now, it becomes even more imperative.

“We need to push for more — for Kenyon and from Kenyon — because when you love an institution, you want it to be the best it can possibly be. And when that institution has the answer for what is most needed now, it becomes even more imperative.”

Julie Kornfeld

Times of societal upheaval are also times of opportunity to consider what higher education, and specifically what Kenyon, is for. Certainly, it is our job to teach our students so that they can navigate the world effectively. At Kenyon, we have an exceptionally brilliant and dedicated faculty who teach complicated concepts to our students every day. But our faculty do so much more than impart knowledge or inculcate skills needed for a job in the workforce. They train our students to be intellectually curious, to seek knowledge, and to yearn for argument and debate — not for the sake of disagreement, but for the sake of discovery, even if what they discover challenges a long-held conviction. Colleges must continue to commit to this critical work. 

Higher education’s value for society is tied to our ability to teach our students to evolve with the world, to wrestle with the unknown, to learn and unlearn and relearn. We must ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can to encourage the kind of deliberate dialogue that moves society forward. Are we cultivating environments where students, faculty, and staff can not only SHOW UP, but do the much harder work of opening themselves to the possibility of being changed?

This is not a skill that is learned overnight. Too often, instances in which these conversations go sideways grab national headlines and distract from the everyday reality of college campuses. But here in Gambier, we recognize the reality of the messiness that comes with learning. And we keep our humanity in easy reach when things get messy.

So why do I want to be a college president — and not just a college president, but Kenyon’s president? 

Because we are ready to put in the work and to SHOW UP. Where so many in our society retreat from argument and recoil from interrogation of ideas, Kenyon is open to more — more partnerships, more constructive conversation, more transformation of ourselves and of the world around us. I see my role as shepherding this work, opening doors to ensuring its possibility, and challenging not just those within our institution to being open to change, but driving the institution itself to be responsive to the changing world around it.

This moment demands that we show up for one another. It demands that Kenyon show up for the world.

“This moment demands that we show up for one another. It demands that Kenyon show up for the world."

Julie Kornfeld

It can be hard to believe in the positive right now. But here, today, with all of you, my co-collaborators, I am filled with clear-eyed optimism. I see the promise of our future, the dedication we all hold to building it together. To continuing our rigorous interrogation of ideas in pursuit of solutions. To making room for dialogue, and to leaning into the strength of our community as we engage in this work.

Through it all, we will continue to stay true to our values, and to the mission that has unified our community for centuries.

My promise to you is that I will SHOW UP with my optimism to lead as Kenyon’s 20th president, knowing that I do not do this work alone.

To our faculty, I promise to join you in showing up with excellence every day — your scholarly intellect awes me and your commitment inspires me.

To our staff, I promise to join you in showing up with integrity every day — even during hail and tornado warnings — your tireless efforts enrich this community.

To our students, I promise to join you in community every day — your intellectual curiosity, your energy, and your relentless commitment to make sense of a complicated world give all us hope for the future.

And finally to all of us who believe in the power of higher education to transform lives and improve the world — keep SHOWING UP.

This work has never been more important or more needed.

Thank you!