Kenyon’s Campus Senate has historically been the only representative body on campus where students, faculty, staff and administrators come together to discuss campus-wide issues and resolutions. In its 57 years of existence, the Senate has devolved from a body that dictated almost all aspects of student life to a group with little decision making power on campus.
Founded in 1963, Campus Senate was originally intended to be a space where students, faculty members, trustees and administrators could discuss and propose solutions to student concerns. According to the 1964-1965 Course Catalog, Campus Senate had the power to “legislate and to interpret policy regarding student affairs.”
The idea to establish a senate came from the College’s Self Study Committee, which evaluated many aspects of campus life. The chair of the Self Study Committee was future Charles P. McIlvaine Professor of English Emeritus Perry C. Lentz ’64 P ’88, who, along with Writer in Residence P.F. Kluge ’64, then a junior, was among the first members of Campus Senate. At its founding, the Senate hoped to address a variety of issues on campus, including a debate surrounding “women’s hours,” which dictated the times at which students were permitted to have female guests in their dorm rooms. In the following years, Campus Senate played a significant role in decisions surrounding campus policies on alcohol, fraternities and housing.
Initially, Campus Senate was to be comprised of five students nominated by the Student Council, three members of the faculty, the Dean of Students and the College Chaplain. Though the Senate would have full legislative powers, the College president could ratify or veto their legislation.
This structure has changed numerous times as the College has evolved over the years. When the Coordinate College for Women at Kenyon College opened in 1969, for instance, the Coordinate College created their own equivalent of Campus Senate, the Coordinate College Council; one member of this council was granted a Senate seat. When the new College Constitution was created in 1972 in order to accommodate the creation of Title IX, it was decided that, just as Kenyon became fully coeducational, campus government would become so as well.
In its prime, Campus Senate’s activities were widely discussed among students, and the Collegian reported on its deliberations regularly. By the mid-1970s, though, this excitement for the Senate seemed to fade. By 1977, there was talk of eliminating Campus Senate altogether: The so-called “York Proposal,” brought forth by the provost, sought to put an end to faculty participation in Senate, which would strip it of much of its power. However, the student body ultimately rallied together to prevent this proposal from passing. The Senate was threatened again in 1991, when Student Council proposed absorbing some of the Senate’s legislative powers, which, again, would have all but abolished the Senate. However, this never came to fruition, and the Senate survived.
Throughout the 1990s, Campus Senate continued to enact policy regarding a variety of issues, including the lengthening of library hours, increasing parking availability and even the establishment of what is now Wiggin Street Coffee. When plans for Peirce Dining Hall’s renovations were first proposed, a group of female students petitioned the Senate to make it a more inclusive space through the addition of round tables, which are still used in Thomas Hall (New Side) today.
The Senate remained active throughout the 2000s. They voted in favor of a pay raise for students, though it was rejected by the president, created a Senate seat for Greek Council, rewrote Title IX policies, raised the minimum GPA for participation in Greek organizations and drafted the Good Samaritan policy, to name a few.
Though students grew less eager to run for Campus Senate in the early 2010s, the group still continued to create policy. Most notably, the Senate voted to convert all single-stall bathrooms on campus to gender-neutral or gender-inclusive ones in the fall of 2014. The Senate also spent a great deal of time considering what was perhaps the largest campus debate of the time: the College’s smoking policy. By the fall of 2012, the Senate began to discuss the creation of designated smoking zones and the removal of ashtrays from trash cans. The policy was approved by both the Senate and the College president, but was never fully enforced.
Upon her return to Kenyon in 2015, Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 was appointed a seat on the Senate as the College’s chief student affairs officer. Despite many past successful initiatives from the Senate, Bonham quickly expressed her concerns for the body’s mission. “I think there’s a general lack of clarity about the functions of Senate, not only on Senate itself but also within the Kenyon community as a whole,” Bonham said in an article from the Dec. 10, 2015 issue of the Collegian. “It’s worth looking at whether Campus Senate continues to fulfill a need.”
In the same article, President Sean Decatur said that he did not think of the Senate as holding much power, but he did not want it eradicated. “I don’t think that dissolving Senate would be a good thing for the campus, though it may be the right time to ask whether the structure of Senate is the right structure for us now,” he said.
Other members of the Senate, however, were more concerned with the body’s actual influence on campus. Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt ’97, who, at the time, was Senate co-chair, expressed concerns about their inability to enact change. “Right now, we’re not convinced that we have the ability to affect anything,” Heidt said in the same article. “If we’re working on something, we hope that it’s something that we actually have some ability to affect.”
After these concerns about influence and purpose, in spring of 2016, hopes for a revamped Campus Senate were high. Consequently, Colin Cowperthwaite ’18, who was student co-chair of Senate at the time, teamed up with Heidt to create a new “Senate 2.0” initiative, which aimed to reduce their overlap with the Student Council and make the Senate more efficient. “It made Senate a more lean and effective decision making body,”
Cowperthwaite wrote in an email to the Collegian. “It was also in response to the administration’s failure to act upon the Senate’s smoking resolution.”
Over a year later, in September of 2017, the Senate voted to implement this restructured body. The body was now to consist of six students, two faculty, two administrators and two staff members. The previous year, the Senate had consisted of 11 students and 11 administrators.
After this, the Senate worked to amend their Constitution to clarify their mission. From fall 2017 to spring 2018, a Constitutional Review Committee consisting of Cowperthwaite, Bohnam, Student Council President George Costan- zo ’19, Dean of Campus Life Laura Kane and Associate Professor of Economics PJ Glandon worked on a new draft that specified the role of the Senate. However, the Committee did not always see eye to eye.
“At the beginning of the process, I submitted a draft Constitution which preserved Senate’s legislative role but this was dismissed out of hand,” Cowperthwaite wrote to the Collegian. “Instead, [Kane] wrote the Constitution and we would come to humbly offer our comments. When I and other students objected to the removal of the Senate’s purview of many Student Handbook policies, [Bonham] would dissemble and claim that the Senate did not have a legislative role despite the language in the original constitution and that it’s[sic] purpose was not to focus on student issues but only those affecting the whole campus community.”
The 2018 Constitution drafted by Kane gave Senate far less power than the 2016 edition. In the 2016 Constitution, the Senate was granted the power to “legislate within the jurisdiction of the Campus Government rules for the regulation of student life and extracurricular activities,” and it had “exclusive power” to do so. In 2018, however, the Constitution states that Campus Senate has the power to “deliberate and to adopt policy recommendations on whatever matters are of general importance to the broader campus community and to forward such considerations to the appropriate campus body and/or administrative office.”
This new Constitution was not voted on until the fall of 2018, after Cowperthwaite, one of the strongest advocates for a revised Constitution, had already graduated. “I believe that this was done to freeze me out so that I could not speak out or organize students against the removal of our oversight powers before the vote,” Cowperthwaite wrote to the Collegian.
Since approving the new constitution, Campus Senate has been primarily focused on drafting a protest policy. Professor of Mathematics Bob Milnikel, outgoing faculty co-chair of the Senate, said that the process for drafting and proposing the policy took almost a year. “Senate has no legislative authority, but we obtained endorsements of our final proposed policy from [Student Council. Staff Council, and Faculty Meeting] before presenting it to Senior Staff for implementation,” he wrote in an email to the Collegian. Other Senate actions in recent years include giving feedback on new Title IX policies and the College’s new mission statement, consulting about Honors Day awards and helping to draft an accessibility statement.
These recent undertakings, however, are not nearly as large as some of the projects that the Senate used to take on. When in recent years, Bonham has been asked about the shrinking role of Campus Senate, she has explained that more of the issues previously handled in Senate are now handled by adults in hired positions.
“For example, if there is a question or concern about housing and residential life that now just simply goes to the Director of Housing and Residential Life,” Bonham said in a September 2016 article of the Collegian. “Whereas before that might have been an issue Campus Senate took up and then bought to the dean of students.” However, housing at Kenyon has been overseen by a Director of Housing (today known as the Director for Residential Life), a paid employee, as early as 1974, if not earlier.
Following recent administrative revisions of the Student Handbook, an open forum was hosted last week to gather feedback. The forum included discussions of changes in the investigation processes and the formal prohibition of new local Greek organizations on campus—all done without Senate approval. As many students and alumni—Cowperthwaite included—pointed out, important campus decisions should not be made without Senate approval. They therefore used the forum to address the need for the Senate to regain the power that it had lost.
Cowperthwaite expressed concerns about these open forums not actually enacting real change. “In all of the forums, Senate and Council meetings, and personal conversations I cannot recall a single time the administration has truly reversed course on any policy of real import in response to students’ dissent,” he wrote in an email to the Collegian. “At best students can delay. And when the only power in government is the power to delay it is no wonder that students are not lining up to participate.”
Cowperthwaite believes that asking for student input in such forums alone is not enough to solve the current issues. He hopes that despite never being able to overrule the administration, the Senate will be given opportunities to have a vote for initiatives like the Student Handbook in order to “formally register” the attitudes of the student body. “Students must demand an opportunity to vote so that it is clear to the community and the historical record when the administration is actually listening to students and when it is decidedly not,” Cowperthwaite wrote to the Collegian.
However, Bonham does not see much of a need for the Senate to alter its current role. “Moving forward, my hope is that [Campus Senate] will continue to function in the same healthy and productive manner, and that if any future tweaks are necessary, Senate will discuss and debate them,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian.
Even as some view Campus Senate as an ineffective body that does not continue “to fulfill a need” on campus, it has survived at Kenyon as a vehicle for student voices. Despite its diminishing power, students and recent alumni are fighting to restore the Senate to its decisive roots.