A drop in prospective student applications this year has been blamed on the contentious 2016 presidential election and the strong rhetoric of President Donald Trump and his supporters. Fewer students from liberal east and west coast states applied to Kenyon this year, likely because the College is located in a majority-Republican state, according to Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Diane Anci. She said visiting students were put off by Trump campaign signs and Confederate flags seen dotting lawns in Knox County. Applications for the class of 2021 were particularly low for women and students of color, two groups perceived to be particularly targeted by the rhetoric and actions of the Trump campaign and administration.
It is understandable that students who have long faced disadvantages in America may be hesitant to consider moving to a place where they may be forced to regularly confront bigotry. But if the 2016 presidential election taught us anything, it is that we should not shy away from confronting those with differing political opinions. After the election, many Kenyon students were quick to write off Trump supporters in Knox County as bigots, using terms like racist, sexist and homophobic. A more nuanced look at Hillary Clinton’s loss suggests there was a significant disconnect between the liberal masses at Kenyon and the College’s more conservative neighbors. If Democrats and other liberal Americans fail to acknowledge that their party and their candidate were unable to connect with conservative Americans, it is to their great detriment. Kenyon students, many of whom lean liberal, have a valuable opportunity here in Gambier to expand their worldview by engaging with opposing political views.
It is completely valid that some students and prospective students may feel especially vulnerable or unsafe due to the hateful rhetoric some Trump supporters propagate, but we feel confident that Kenyon is committed to protecting these students. It is important that any prospective students nervous about enrolling at Kenyon realize there is a lot to learn by attending college in this community. It can be difficult and uncomfortable to come face to face with someone you believe rejects your way of life — even your very identity — but engagement is the only way forward. It is a shame that some high schoolers may have chosen not to apply to Kenyon merely because they did not want to be confronted the conservative political environment that surrounds Gambier. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to challenge our assumptions and learn from that experience.
We urge prospective students who are intimidated by attending college in a conservative area to consider the value of Kenyon’s location. Similarly, we urge current students to take this as a reminder to increase their engagement with Knox County. To refuse to do so would be a shame, and does little to move our political climate forward.