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Twenty years in the making, ENVS major just in time

Earlier this year, the faculty voted to approve an environmental studies major. This marked the end of a road whose length, while frustrating to some, has arguably facilitated the major’s defining asset: the opportunity for hands-on independent projects integrated with the goals of Kenyon’s increasingly vital green initiatives.

I recall about 20 years ago leaving an Intro to Environmental Studies class in Higley. Another student was asking the professor whether she thought Kenyon would ever have an environmental studies (ENVS) major. I did not catch the answer, but I do remember thinking, “Fat chance.” At that time, a major just didn’t seem to be in the cards. Resources were tight, as they always are. Environmental Studies as a concentration, much less a major, was tolerated and scuttled along the curricular periphery of a Kenyon not overly interested in proliferating majors. 

The College was strong in the traditional fields of a liberal arts institution. It was focused on the fundamentals and had a solid reputation for that fact. There simply wasn’t a clear place for a broad interdisciplinary field like ENVS without unacceptable sacrifices or those ever-elusive “additional resources.” I wasn’t privy to department or faculty meetings, but I imagine plenty of people wondered what we could offer to compete with peer institutions’ environmental studies programs. Others likely wondered why we’d want to.

These were reasonable questions then and, to be honest, they are still reasonable today. The difference is what time has done to the answer.

In the 1990s when the debate about a major was initiated (if quietly), the Brown Family Environmental Center was in its infancy, had a different name and one part-time manager.  The Farm was an open field adjacent to a faculty residence, the Kokosing Nature Preserve was an 18-hole golf course, the Philander Chase Conservancy was just a concept, and the ideas of institutional sustainability and climate planning were not. If Kenyon had gone ahead with an ENVS major at that time, we’d have likely wound up with a resource-addled version of what Oberlin College and Middlebury College were already doing quite handily.

Over the last 20 years, however, the College has steadily built the centers and programs that will allow our environmental studies major to stand out amongst our peers. Today Kenyon has a fully staffed, 500-plus acre biological preserve with virtually every type of habitat one could reasonably expect to find in central Ohio. We have perhaps the nation’s only college or university-associated land trust — one that has been wildly successful in preserving the natural and agricultural landscape of Knox County. We also have the Kokosing Nature Preserve, a natural burial ground. The Farm program recently gained professional staff and funding, and the College has embarked on the path of carbon neutrality. Other institutions certainly have some of these things. But all of them? Supported and functioning and ready to engage with students and the curriculum? Requiring students to participate in at least one experiential learning project, in addition to the specific requirements of the ENVS major, means the opportunities at Kenyon are intriguing and numerous. This major is not going to be constrained by the walls of a classroom.

The development of the ENVS major offers exciting ways for students to directly engage with the work of the green centers and programs through the lens of their chosen focus within the major. The Office of Green Initiatives is working to identify programmatic needs that environmental studies majors can use to accomplish both their curricular goals and those of the individual green centers and programs. By nurturing an environment in which students learn by contribution as well as reflection, it is my hope that Kenyon’s environmental studies major will offer a unique experience that will translate into progress for the College and meaningful, practical growth for our prospective majors.

Twenty years is a long time to debate what a Kenyon environmental studies major might look like. I, for one, am glad it took so long.

David Heithaus ’99 is the Director of Green Initiatives. Contact him at heithausd@kenyon.edu.