Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, Kenyon’s new dean of students, and Dean of Academic Advising Hoi Ning Ngai, who is departing from her role as dean, both cite Kenyon’s environment as an influential factor in their recent employment decisions. The small-town experience Hart Ruthenbeck is attracted to is the very atmosphere Ngai wants to leave behind.
New Dean of Students
On June 1, Hart Ruthenbeck, previously the assistant dean of students at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., was named Kenyon’s new dean of students. She replaced Janet Lohmann, who returned to Bowdoin College after a yearlong stint at Kenyon. The College’s rural nature and relative isolation appealed to Hart Ruthenbeck, who wants to help students find the balance between exploring the greater world and focusing on the classroom.
“Being in this urban setting [Macalester], there were people that were really focused on their academics but also equally focused on … engaging in the broader community and using the world as lab,” Hart Ruthenbeck said. “I really felt like after the election, students felt like they could not fully do either.” Macalester students, in essence, were torn between their studies and the opportunities a city like St. Paul provided to engage in activism and civic involvement.
While Hart Ruthenbeck said she did not want to think about “people going through their entire Kenyon experience only engaging in the classroom,” she does feel that Kenyon’s setting provided the relatively isolated atmosphere she had found at Carleton College, in the small town of Northfield, Minn., where she worked before Macalester.
At Macalester, Hart Ruthenbeck dealt with many students struggling academically; she expressed concern about bright students who “add one more thing” only to find it unmanageable.
Hart Ruthenbeck said she helped students make sense of the college experience. At Macalester, every day looked a little bit different and because of that, Hart Ruthenbeck believes she is bringing a generalist perspective to the campus when it comes to student affairs.
Hart Ruthenbeck said she has acquired a wide-ranging skill set from her years as an administrator. The rubber mallet, bubble wand and magic wand sitting on her windowsill serve as “reminders that you have to use the right tool for the right job,” she said.
For now, she is focused on listening to students explain what Kenyon means to them. “I don’t believe in change just for the sake of change,” she said. “‘I’m here now and ‘I’m going to make my mark’ is not how I operate.”
Her shortest-term goal is “making sure that people know that they can call me Robin, and that my last name is Hart Ruthenbeck.”
Ngai Departs, Professor Hawks becomes Interim Dean of Academic Advising
Ngai will depart on Aug. 31 to assume the role of Associate Dean of Graduate Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is leaving Kenyon for a busier town, a shorter commute and a larger, more diverse institution.
Ngai has worked at Kenyon for four years. For the first two years, she lived in Gambier but said “it is really quite small for a young professional.” For the past two years she has had to carpool to work from her home in Columbus because she does not have a driver’s license.
Those who commute to Kenyon from Columbus do so because there are some aspects of life that a village like Gambier cannot offer, Ngai said.
“But we commute here every day because we believe in the student population and we believe in the community and we believe in the kind of environment and education that Kenyon has to offer,” Ngai said.
She is looking forward to the challenges and opportunities for career development provided by a large institution and a role in the graduate school.
While Ngai said she found Kenyon’s students, faculty and staff amazing, she emphasized that life needs to be about a balance between work and not work, a balance that was hard to strike at Kenyon.
Ngai finds urban centers to be more comfortable than rural Ohio and, specifically, Kenyon itself. “There’s simply more diversity in urban environments,” she said.
“There is limited diversity at this juncture,” she said of Kenyon. “In terms of the student body, that is being worked on, and in terms of faculty and staff, that … should be worked on more.”
“I think I am the only Asian person — Asian administrative staff person — that’s student-facing on a regular basis, and I don’t count myself along with Asian faculty because they are Asian faculty,” Ngai said. “What might I be feeling, and what might students be seeing or noticing?”
For her, the problem of diversity does not stop with Kenyon, but extends to those who live in the surrounding community.
“When you see Confederate flags and when you see certain symbols in your community, one can understand why some people would simply want to live further away,” Ngai said. “And that’s something that, again, Kenyon cannot change in a direct fashion but what can it do as an institution?”
For Ngai, this is a question for all predominately white institutions, including her alma mater, Dartmouth College. She says this critical examination is something she was looking for.
UNC-Chapel Hill also experiences tension regarding diversity and inclusion, particularly when it comes to the university’s Confederate symbols and monuments. The most infamous of these is Silent Sam, a Confederate memorial that sits on the same lawn as UNC’s iconic Old Well. The past week has been marked by peaceful protests, sometimes met with counter-protesters waving Confederate flags and other symbols. Protests last Wednesday over this controversial symbol on UNC’s campus led to three arrests.
“I think that when you go into any particular region or environment … you’ll run into some significant challenges,” Ngai said in reference to UNC’s legacy of issues with Confederate monuments and academic buildings named for slave owners.
Ngai is looking forward to the opportunity to work with graduate students and fellow associate deans. She will be replaced by Professor of English Thomas Hawks, who currently serves as the Director of National Fellowships and Scholarships.
Hawks’ tenure as interim dean of academic advising will last one semester with the option to expand to a year depending on how the search process goes. He will remain in his director position.
“The greatest attraction to the job is the chance to work with students and to help them make the most of their time at Kenyon,” Hawks said, “which I think is probably not all that different than what I hope my legacy will be more broadly.”
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