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Kenyon announces 19th president: Sean M. Decatur

Kenyon announces 19th president: Sean M. Decatur

By Madeleine Thompson

Sean M. Decatur, a chemist and a fierce proponent of liberal arts education, was introduced to the Kenyon community at a ceremony in a packed Rosse Hall. He is currently dean of Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences. Decatur, 44, will be Kenyon’s first African-American president, and the first scientist to assume the role since Theodore Sterling (1891-1896).

He will inherit from current president S. Georgia Nugent a college that is, in her words, “in good shape.” Nugent announced last August that she would retire after 10 years in the position. Though her announcement came in the middle of protests against the possible outsourcing of maintenance management, Nugent said stepping down had been on her mind for several years. “Now it’s time for the next thing,” Nugent told the Collegian in September.

Decatur is first and foremost an accomplished scholar. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 1990, earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University in 1995, and became an assistant professor of chemistry at Mount Holyoke College that same year. In 2008 he joined Oberlin’s faculty as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a year after Diverse Magazine named him an Emerging Scholar. At Oberlin, Decatur maintained a lab even as dean, mentored over 55 undergraduate students on their research projects, and led a curricular overhaul. His area of specialty is proteins, though he cites chemistry in general as an interest, especially the connection between race and science.

To begin the process of selecting a new president, a Presidential Search Committee consisting of 15 members ラ including trustees, faculty members, students, administrators and alumni ラ was established soon after Nugent expressed her intent to leave, and search firm Storbeck/Pimentel was hired to select a preliminary list of candidates.

The Search Begins

As the school year began, the committee tackled the monumental job of deciding who would be Kenyon’s 19th president. Should he be a scholar or a businessman? An academic or an expert in fundraising? Storbeck/Pimentel helped collect resum?s and suggest candidates, lending their knowledge of global trends in education. The committee published a prospectus on Nov. 5, 2012, outlining their ideal characteristics in an applicant: effective and visionary leadership, ability to manage the College’s financial operations and creatively set priorities and capacity to strengthen Kenyon’s reputation. “I think what I heard the community say is that they wanted someone who understands the holistic nature of the experience,” said Dean of Students Hank Toutain about the widespread desire for an academic president. “Yes, part of it is in the classroom.”

Committee chair Brackett Denniston ’69 and the Board of Trustees saw the winningest qualities in Decatur. “He’s an excellent leader [and] he has a great student orientation, students have loved him, he has managed extremely well with faculties in the places that he’s worked, all the while working extremely well with the Board of Trustees and the administrations of the places he’s worked,” Denniston said.

A Man with a Plan

In addition to the committee’s and Board’s hopes for the new president, Decatur himself has big plans. Priority one on his agenda is “to get to know the institution and all of its constituencies: students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents.” Next up: a strategic planning process. “I would like to see us, as a community, articulate clear priorities for the future of Kenyon, keeping in mind that initiatives should contribute holistically to advancing academic excellence and student learning … and strengthening our financial sustainability,” Decatur said.

Denniston is also enthusiastic about the attention Decatur’s field of specialization will bring to the sciences. “While I’m confident [that] as president he’ll continue to strengthen and promote humanities and the rest of the Kenyon curriculum, I think the science part is a nice plus for Kenyon’s profile,” Denniston said.

Decatur called science an “overlooked” part of the Kenyon curriculum, saying that the scientific education offered by liberal arts colleges “regularly outperforms” that provided by big research universities.. “If nationally we do not pay attention to the diversity of the scientific workforce, we will eventually fall behind in producing the engineers and researchers we need to stay economically competitive,” Decatur said.

A Traditional President

Considering his background in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, Decatur has more experience as a teacher than as a fundraiser, and is classified in the world of higher education as a “traditional” president. But his charisma and ability to connect with people gave the committee confidence that Decatur would be fully able to continue Nugent’s precedent attracting donations. “All that we’ve heard from his [employers] … are that his ability to speak in front of people … is outstanding,” committee member Amy Schlessman ’13 said. “He hasn’t had as much experience with fundraising but we saw in him a lot of potential to make public presentations … and to be a positive presence.”12

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