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Not just black and white: a history of diversity at Kenyon

Not just black and white: a history of diversity at Kenyon

By Madeleine Thompson

When Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Ric Sheffield tells people he was born and raised in Mount Vernon, they are shocked. Theyll go, No way. There are no black people in Mount Vernon, Sheffield said, recalling numerous conversations with students over the years. Sheffield and Professor of English Ted Mason were two of Kenyons first African-American faculty members. Since arriving in 1989, they have seen Kenyon grow in both size and diversity.

In the Colleges Bexley Hall Seminary days, the schools Episcopal affiliations provided means for students from missionary schools in Asia and Africa to attend the seminary and accompanying grammar school.

But Kenyons 16th president, Gordon Chalmers, was the first to begin actively recruiting African-American students. Chalmers, I think, had a personal belief in the College being open to everyone and making an effort to establish an African-American presence in the student body, said Tom Stamp, College historian and keeper of Kenyoniana. Chalmers visited schools along the east coast, including Central High School in Philadelphia, Pa., where he met Allen Ballard and Stanley Jackson; in 1952 they became Kenyons first black graduates. At the time, roughly 500 students attended Kenyon at a cost of $300 per year.

Ballards book The Education of Black Folk chronicles the difficulty he experienced as one of two black students. [Jackson and I] had the misfortune to become the first of our race to enter Kenyon College, Ballard writes. We were, in fact, forced to suppress our natural inner selves so as to conform to the mores of a campus dominated by upper-middle-class Americans.

The Class of 1973, the first co-ed graduating class, was the most racially diverse to graduate from Kenyon since the efforts of Chalmers, with six black students. The Black Student Union was established in 1970 by several members of that class. Their Statement of Policy by the Black Students of Kenyon College outlined their desire for a program that would actively seek out qualified Black professors, provide room in the present curriculum for studies in Black culture and rearrange the priorities of scholarship money so that more black students could attend.

The first black professor would not arrive until 1975, when Kenneth Bluford joined the English department. Bluford remained Kenyons only black faculty member until 1989, when Sheffield and Mason arrived. After Blufords departure, the number of African-American professors on campus grew to four with the additions of Professor of History Robert Hinton and Professor of Psychology G. Renoir McDonaugh. But 1996 was a difficult year for the small group. Hinton was denied tenure and McDonaugh was turned down for a second reappointment, sparking a series of heated all-student emails and protests in front of Rosse Hall. In a speech given at the 30th-anniversary celebration of having African-Americans on faculty, Sheffield said he and Mason made a pact.

We told each other: if you go, I go, he said. It wasnt until 2005 that an African-American faculty member Professor of Sociology Marla Kohlman was given tenure.

During his time here, Mason has served on diversity task forces and written for Xenophilia, a literary journal of social issues published briefly in the early 1990s. I was quoted on a poster as saying that one of our problems here at Kenyon was a conspicuous level of comfort, Mason wrote. I meant it when I first said it and still do, because that comfort has a price, as all forms of blindness do.

Mason summarized Kenyons present-day challenges in three parts: How do we diversify the pool, how do we increase the likelihood of getting a more diverse faculty through the hiring of different folks and how do we keep them here?

Several groups have been organized over the years to address these very issues, including the 1991 Committee on the Disadvantaged and two diversity task forces, in 1987 and 2006. The recommendations of the task forces addressed weaknesses in the Colleges approach to recruiting. They suggested a multi-cultural center and recommended the sponsorship of events to heighten awareness of minority issues. They expressed goals such as having minority faculty hired into positions that are specifically related to Afro-American curricular areas and attracting minority candidates for any new tenure-track position. Since then, Snowden Multicultural Center was created, a partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established and the Yarbrough Dissertation Fellowships became available, among many other opportunities.

Programs like the United World Colleges connect U.S. schools with international baccalaureate schools, sending representatives to conferences to meet international students, who are sought by admissions offices across the country. Challenges present in recruiting international students include socio-economic factors as well.

Most of these students often come from countries where there is no private education, Professor of Biology Haruhiko Itagaki said. Nobody has ever saved money to pay $60,000 a year. This year, Kenyon is sending its first representative to China, Africa and Brazil in order to do more dedicated recruiting.

The arrival of President S. Georgia Nugent and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jennifer Delahunty brought more focus to increasing campus diversity. A first-generation college student herself, Nugent was a major contributor to the large steps made toward diversifying the student body. The American population is becoming more and more diverse, Nugent said. It makes sense that a campus should also at least to some extent reflect the diversity of the country.

Nugent and Delahuntys combined efforts proved successful in attracting students with more varied backgrounds, despite the fact that Kenyons faculty is currently more diverse than its student body.

In 2003, [Kenyon was] between eight and nine percent domestic students of color, and this last year was over 18 percent, Delahunty said, referring to the Class of 2016s status as the most diverse to enter Kenyon.

Were hoping that this year will be even more successful.

Admissions is making efforts to foster socio-economic diversity, despite the Colleges limited financial aid resources. Ethnicity is one thing, but socio-economics is another one. At its retreat two weeks ago, the Board of Trustees voted to add $2,092,000 to the financial aid budget for next year, so that Kenyon can continue to meet 100 percent of need something Delahunty called a deeply-held value. Delahunty added that gender and first-generation status are included under the broad umbrella of diversity.

Because Kenyon promises to meet 100 percent of need, it must also be need-aware and take prospective students need for aid into account when deciding whether or not to accept them. Few schools are able to make such a promise, but it would take a herculean effort to make Kenyon need-blind, according to Delahunty.

Compared to similar liberal arts schools, Kenyons relatively small endowment provides a roadblock. [Socioeconomic diversity] is huge challenge for us, Nugent said. You just try and do what you can within the constraints that are immoveable objects.

Today, Kenyon continues to face considerable challenges in trying to attract students of varying backgrounds to a remote hill in the middle of the second-whitest congressional district in the country. It takes a special kind of person to come out in the middle of a cornfield, Itagaki said. But … theres a limit to the amount of time, effort and money that the College can put into getting a diverse applicant pool.

Competition to recruit domestic and international students of color is fierce, and amassing a well-balanced class of first years is a strenuous task. I oftentimes have referred to it as like youre trying to hit a hot tub from 30,000 feet, Delahunty said. You know youre trying to get the right number of students with the right academic credentials from a diversity of backgrounds and a diversity of geography and you want to be able to balance your aid budget. Since Kenyons official vote to accept African-American students in 1949, the College has become significantly more dedicated to making Kenyon look like the rest of the world in all categories. Sheffields one piece of advice? Stay the course.

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