A recent post on the popular Facebook page “Overheard at Kenyon” ignited an online debate over paving Middle Path, often described as the “central artery” of Kenyon’s campus. “If the people who run things at Kenyon College have an ounce of care and commitment to injured and/or disabled students, faculty, staff, and guests (and also stroller-users), they will pave Middle Path,” wrote Teddy Hannah-Drullard ’20 on August 29.
The post was mostly met with support from commenters, including Dudgeon Stephie, who posted a series of photos of different Middle Path construction projects, including a photograph of former Kenyon president Philip Jordan who, in 1980, tried and failed to navigate Gambier unassisted in a wheelchair as part of “Handicap Awareness Week.” Stephie’s comments highlighted something which students can easily lose track of at an institution with such high turnover: The debate over paving Middle Path has been raging for nearly 50 years.
It started with a rumor: In 1970, Gambier had one of its harshest winters on record, with heavy snowfall that eroded Middle Path’s gravel, cutting massive rivulets in the walkway as it melted and froze into unnavigable sheets of ice. Word got out that meetings had been planned by administrators to address the situation, and that paving the Path had been fielded as an option. Although these claims were never verified, the Collegian picked up on them immediately. Students were outraged at the thought of paving the path. “Why not pave Middle Path, you can get where you’re going faster, right?” wrote a student sarcastically in a Collegian editorial. “$7,000 a year they pay for this paper, and they publish this crap. Goodness me.”
Soon after, the student body organized a “Middle Path Day,” where students, faculty and residents would come together to rake gravel, clean litter and plant trees and flowers along the walkway. Although this was partially motivated by a desire to see Middle Path beautified, a 1973 Collegian article claims that the day was created in direct response to paving rumors. In 1974, Kathy Dawson, the chair for Middle Path Day, warned in the Collegian that dwindling participation in the Kenyon holiday could lead to the pavement of Middle Path. “Just because there has not been any commotion about paving Middle Path doesn’t mean that it’s not being considered,” she wrote ominously.
By 1979, the school proposed multiple solutions, including installing “iron railings” on either side of Middle Path to prevent erosion. Professor of Anthropology J. Kenneth Small suggested in a Collegian article giving alumni the option to pay $50 to have one of the bricks used to pave the path engraved with their name as a quick way to raise funds and “combine new and old tradition,” but the idea never took off.
In the 90s, growing awareness of issues of accessibility added a deeper dimension to Middle Path debate. In 1991, April Beeba ’92, one of the heads of the recently founded Students for an Accessible Campus, said in an interview with the Collegian that Middle Path was the worst thing about Kenyon’s campus. “Those people I have asked, ‘but why not pave Middle Path?’ The answer to that is it is tradition to have the pebbles,” Beeba said. “That argument sounds like that of those opposed to hazing.”
The first remodel of Middle Path began in 2011, when group of architects and engineers visited campus, tested different drainage systems and submitted competing proposals for “resurfacing” Middle Path, a project that was completed in 2016 and has proven ineffective in preventing snow and ice hazards and ruts from rain. Although Middle Path’s accessibility is currently in the limelight, Kenyon has held debates over remodeling for nearly half a century. The college has made strides towards improving the walkway, but, in light of the recent construction which is viewed by many to be ineffective, the question has been raised of how to make Middle Path an accessible space once and for all.