By Ian Round
Interim Provost Joe Klesner had to get out of his hometown.
“I enjoyed reading, thinking about life and the rest of the world from pretty early on, and you couldn’t live the life of a mind where I grew up,” he said.
Raised in a small farming town in southeast Iowa where, Klesner said, about half of his high-school class went to college, Klesner is the son of a farm implement mechanic and a grocery store employee. Klesner was a produce manager at a rural grocery store for three years in high school.
“I’m a first-generation college student,” Klesner said. In order to pay his way through Central College in Pella, Iowa, he flipped burgers, worked at a factory and did other odd jobs.
“The only thing I haven’t done is wait tables,” he said with a laugh.
The cost of college made early graduation especially appealing to Klesner. He graduated from Central in 1980 after only three years with degrees in economics and political science.
“It was one of those things where some people thrive on being busy,” he said.
But despite his academic success, Klesner said he regrets double-majoring and graduating early from Central.
“I guess it formed me, but I wouldn’t regard it as the most important life experience either,” he said.
“At the time, I thought I had good reasons to do what I did,” he said. “There are times when I think it would have been much wiser to not do that.” His main regret is not studying abroad as an undergraduate.
“It cost a little less to do it,” he added.
Before graduation, Klesner first considered continuing his education in law school.
“[Law school is] just a track that a first-generation college student is likely to take. … I thought I might go to law school, but the closer I got to graduation the more I liked the idea of an academic career and becoming a professor,” Klesner said.
Ultimately, he decided to pursue a master’s and doctorate degree in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I was interested in politics of developing countries and decided to do Latin America as my region of focus,” he said.
Klesner has dedicated much of his academic life to this region and has published articles on Mexican electoral politics and liberalization.
“Mexico at the time was a place that was not getting as much attention as some other countries,” he said. “I had a graduate school professor who strongly counseled me to do my work on Mexico, so I followed that advice.”
After graduation, Klesner accepted a position at Kenyon in 1985. “This was my first job,” he said. Klesner has remained here ever since.
Coming from such a small town, Klesner said the liberal arts was a foreign concept.
“In the community I grew up in, higher education was for very utilitarian purposes,” he said. “I learned what liberal education was, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to expect until toward the end.
“In small towns, people get set in their social patterns, in their way of doing things and in their way of seeing the world,” he said. “I didn’t want to fall into those patterns.”
At Kenyon, Klesner has designed and taught many international studies and political science classes. He also directed Kenyon’s International Studies Department for much of the ’90s.
Though only a few of Klesner’s close high-school friends attended college, there was little tension within the group. Still, “It’s harder to maintain long-term relationships, I think, when your life paths diverge a lot,” he said.
Though Klesner was not able to keep in touch with some high school classmates, on campus, he built reltionships with his students from the start. His best teaching experience happened during an international studies senior seminar in the fall of 2006 after he returned from a year teaching in Ireland on a Fulbright Scholarship at University College Dublin.
“I had taught the students in the course before I went off on my sabbatical,” he said. “They all went off on their junior year abroad, and we all came back in the fall of that year. We just had a wonderful time because we had all just had these experiences living and working and studying in other countries.”
That seminar, where most had experienced the “life of a mind” abroad, contrasted starkly to life in his hometown.
“The one class I thought was absolutely the best class I ever had was that group,” Klesner said.