By Lauren Toole and David McCabe
Last week, Collegian editors Lauren Toole and David McCabe interviewed President Sean Decatur for an hour about his background and vision for Kenyon. This interview has been significantly edited for clarity and length.
You grew up in Cleveland. Was it in the city, in the suburbs?
I grew up primarily in the city, right downtown. For folks who know Cleveland ﾅ basically close to the Cleveland State area.
Did you have any siblings?
I’m the youngest of three. I have two older brothers who are 14 and 10 years older than me, so I’m the youngest with a big gap. They had to drive me to things in order to get the car ﾗ ﾑyou can have the car to go out if you take your brother to x’ ﾗ which was a great benefit.
But also, I was very geeky as a kid and my brothers were both ﾅ studying computer science, computer engineering in college, so I actually just started playing around with computers and programing at a really young age and that was completely because that’s what my brothers were doing either in college or for a living.
And your mom is still in the Cleveland area. She was a teacher, right? What did she teach?
So she taught a bunch of different things, but mainly math and science ﾗ seventh and eighth grade math and science.
I’m struck by the fact that we’re having all these conversations about women in the sciences right now. When you’re part of those conversations, do you draw on your mom’s experience having taught science at all?
I had spoken, especially when I was younger, with my mom about her interests, and how she ended up where she was. She was someone who was very interested in math as a kid, and going to college was very interested in studying math, but was pretty strongly directed in college to go into teaching. That was the 1950s, [and] the one direction for women who were interested in math [was] to become a math teacher. ﾅ I think one of the things I’m very conscious of when working with students is keeping all options open, making sure that people are aware that all opportunities are open as pathways for what to do after graduation.
Growing up, did you always want to be a scientist?
Pretty much. I was the type of kid who would take everything in the kitchen and mix it together and pretend it was a chemistry set, and I’m sure I breathed in toxic household things that I wasn’t supposed to breathe.
What kinds of things did you mix?
You know, a range of things, from like cleaning supplies and spices to stuff from the refrigerator. It was generally not allowed, but I did it anyway.
Did you do stuff outside the classroom?
I did all of the geeky things that one could imagine doing in school. I was a big Dungeons and Dragons player. Not quite sure if that counts as an outside activity.
You knew you’d get a follow up about that, right?
That was the coolest thing I remember. We had a group of friends and we would program our computers to keep track of our D&D characters.
We would have a sleepover at someone’s house, and this was pre-laptop, so you would bring your computer with you, and you could monitor your D&D character while playing. Yeah, I was a very geeky kid.
But then my big activity beyond that [was] I did speech and debate in high school, which was just a ton of fun.
That’s an interesting choice for someone who describes himself as an introvert.
Yes. Though [there] is a ﾅ subculture of speech and debate things, and so actually that’s how I met my wife, through high school speech and debate ﾅ we were on opposing speech and debate teams.
Who was better?
Depends on whom you ask. We never actually competed head-to-head, which I would say we probably would not have gotten married if we had, so I think in retrospect that was [for] the best. We actually did different types of events.
After high school, you decided to attend Swarthmore instead of Harvard. Did anyone in your life think that was a good idea?
My mom was pretty much, go where you’re interested, and that was fine. And at the time I was pretty convinced I was going to be an engineer, sort of like my brothers were engineers. And I visited the campus and just fell in love with it. It was a small place; people clearly knew each other. When I was a student there I could get mail [addressed to] “Sean, Swarthmore College,” and it would show up in my P.O. box.
Did you maintain your interests in college? Did they change?
I did debate for a while in my first year in college, and that was the same. But I also began trying new things, so I played Ultimate [frisbee] for a year, which was, for someone who is pretty unathletic, was an experience to do but was a lot of fun to do. That was a very laid-back club sport experience, which was a lot of fun. I also got very interested and involved in volunteering, especially around literacy issues.
One thing that we read about that peaked our interest was that at Mount Holyoke, you put together a lecture series on race and science. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
A topic that’s been of interest to me for some time is accessibility of science to diverse groups. There is a real challenge in the pipeline in terms of students from underrepresented groups going on to both graduate at the undergraduate level in the sciences, but also get graduate degrees and move on into the professoriate.
As someone who clearly thinks about race and higher education, do you think that Kenyon has done enough to be more attractive, to get more students who aren’t from the same privileged demographic?
Without a doubt, progress has been made in terms of both attracting students to campus from diverse groups and retaining students to campus. I think [it’s important to make] the curriculum look at incorporating areas into the curriculum that look at issues regarding women, issues involving parts of the world outside of the Western canon.
I think there are always things we can do to be better, and one of the things I’m very interested in is taking a look at what we can continue to do to make sure that we are attracting a diverse range of students to campus, and what are we doing to make sure the place is the type of environment that is supportive, that we can retain and support those students while they’re here.
Do you think Kenyon has that kind of environment right now?
I think Kenyon’s a place where people don’t see themselves locked into one particular group or one particular identity; that they are very comfortable with the fact that at different points they interact with different groups.
And I think that core of not only having diverse folks around campus, but that they’re not separated out like sections of an egg carton on campus ﾗ so that you have a diverse student body demographically, but they’re not actually forming a community. I think at the same time I recognize that introduces as many challenges as it does opportunities, because when people interact with each other, there will be points of difference and disagreement, but again, I think Kenyon’s a place that seems to navigate those quite well.
Does Kenyon cost too much?
My gut answer depends on how you look at it. From the perspective of what you get from a Kenyon education, I actually still think that a Kenyon education is quite a bargain. That said, I fully understand that when families look at the sticker prices of $57,000, rapidly closing in on $60,000 or more, that it’s a very big number, and I think we need to be very clear about what you’re getting from this, what’s the return on investment, what’s the value that comes from a Kenyon education. I actually think that the return on investment is quite high, and that if families think of sending a child to Kenyon as really being a way to invest in the long-term success and future and happiness of that child, then it’s worth it.
What I think we need to do, and what I think many of our peers need to do, is to be much clearer and intentional and articulate about that.