Section: Magazine

A House Divided

Early in 2011, during his senior year at Mount Vernon High School, Tyler Aust, a Gambier resident, applied and was accepted to Kenyon, but he couldn’t afford the tuition. Aust chose to attend Case Western Reserve University instead, but was unhappy there. “Case just wasn’t the place for me,” he said. Aust applied to Kenyon again after his freshman year and was accepted. This time he could pay tuition but not room and board. Because Aust’s yard abuts the Brown Family Environmental Center, he petitioned the administration to live at home with his parents.

The College denied his request. “They said that they wanted me to get immersed in the campus culture and be in and live in the dorms because they said that was an integral part of a Kenyon education,” Aust said. (Administrators declined to discuss his case specifically.) But Aust, for whom the Chamber Singers have “always been like a second family,” and who at the time knew more Kenyon than Case Western professors, felt like he “connected to the community.” Each of the other Five Colleges of Ohio — Ohio Wesleyan University, Denison University, Oberlin College, and the College of Wooster — allow students like Aust to live with a parent or guardian in the local community, according to the policies laid out on their websites.

When Kenyon was founded in Gambier, the building now known as Old Kenyon housed the entire College, with students living alongside their professors and the president, Philander Chase. While Kenyon has expanded across the Hill since then, all students are still required to live on campus — a rare situation in today’s collegiate landscape, according to Jill Engel-Hellman, director of the Office of Housing and Residential Life. But that could change. Dean of Students Hank Toutain said he “can imagine that consideration of the College’s residential requirement might be appropriate within the context of the development of the College’s strategic plan, ‘Kenyon 2020.’”

Over the years, the campus’ small size has at times restricted the College’s ability to consistently make good on its longstanding on-campus housing guarantee. Though the official policy forbids housing students in the Village, intermittent housing shortages over the last thirty years have forced the College to break this policy. Not that students mind: Aust petitioned the administration because of financial constraints, but current students have sought to live off-campus for other reasons, both with and without the College’s permission. Such arrangements can have far-reaching consequences for their peers, community members, and life on the Hill.

Kelly Reed ’16 lived in an apartment on Woodside Drive last summer. She said she found the world “much more exciting” living off-campus.
Kelly Reed ’16 lived in an apartment on Woodside Drive last summer. She said she found the world “much more exciting” living off-campus.

During her senior year, Kat O’Hara ’12 lived with two other students in a house on Gaskin Avenue, past the campus’ northern limits. The previous year the group had submitted an application for an exemption to the on-campus policy, which ResLife approved. O’Hara described living in the house as “probably the highlight of my Kenyon experience.”

“I was more integrated into the community,” she said. “It made me feel grown up because I felt like I was getting away from being locked into this college life that someone else was telling me how to live.” Though they “didn’t really have a great relationship with” their immediate neighbors, O’Hara said she and her friends had a “friendly neighbor” relationship with others on their street.

While the distance from campus was occasionally bothersome, the relative isolation “fostered a lot of intimacy and richer relationships,” because people would “commit to being at the house for the night,” instead of jumping from party to party. Furthermore, paying their own rent and not having Maintenance available to fix their problems instilled a sense of responsibility in O’Hara and her housemates that she said was “good for us.” Rent wasn’t bad, either. O’Hara paid around $2,000 her senior year, compared to the $6,000 she paid to live in a Caples Hall suite single her sophomore year. (Currently, the least-expensive housing option is $3,700 per year for a residence hall triple.)

While the College approved O’Hara’s off-campus residence, its official policy on off-campus housing at that time read, and still reads, “Students found living off campus without permission from the director of housing and residential life will be subject to disciplinary action.” O’Hara’s exemption was only granted due to a prolonged lack of available housing. According to the Collegian, in 1988 a severe housing shortage allowed several students to opt out of traditional dorms and apartments and live “with faculty members [in] homes in Gambier and [in] apartments in Mount Vernon,” a situation ResLife administrators at the time intended to be temporary. Many students living off-campus in the mid-2000s lived in the Morgan Apartments, commonly called the Milk Cartons, which the College purchased in 2009. Construction of the North Campus Apartments, from 2012 to 2013, ended the most recent housing crunch, making off-campus housing unnecessary for students.

But the availability of housing on campus hasn’t stopped students from living off-campus. Sarah, a senior whose name has been changed due to her fear of College disciplinary action, currently lives with two other Kenyon students in a house in Gambier. She said she appreciates the separation of her home life from her school and social life. The ability to separate her worlds made her realize how stressful not having that split can be.

Sarah still “lives” in Kenyon housing, so she has to pay two rents while residing in the off-campus house in violation of College policy. The two rents combined cost $700 less than an on-campus apartment single. But Sarah’s reasons for living off-campus go beyond money. “We’re learning skills and it makes it less of a bubble — skills you need to learn at this age, too, that prepare you for what lies next,” she said. Another group of three students also currently lives off-campus, but declined to comment.

While Engel-Hellman, the ResLife director, said she is aware some students may live off-campus in defiance of College policy, she said she could not comment on any specific violations and had no estimate of how many students might be living off-campus in violation of the policy.

Despite the sense of responsibility and independence some students say living off-campus engenders, the College sees reasons for its policy beyond financial concerns. Dean of Students Hank Toutain said, “This college believes that there is considerable value in the exchanges that happen and the conversations that happen and the interactions when you’re living together and eating together.” Engel-Hellman holds a similar view. “The College as a whole believes strongly in the residential experience,” she said. “It’s integral to the college experience.”

But neither O’Hara nor Sarah has found living off campus to have diminished her Kenyon experience. John, a junior whose name has been changed due to his fear of College disciplinary action, and one of Sarah’s roommates, said when asked whether he felt disconnected from the campus community, “It may be because we’re juniors and seniors and have already established ourselves, but I think for us to live off campus, it’s not that huge of a deal.” All of them belong to and lead different groups and organizations on campus and spend most of the day on campus, rather than at the house.

Like O’Hara, Sarah and John have found that, in addition to strengthening their relationship with community members, living off-campus has also strengthened their relationships with other students, often through parties. These offer a different type of social experience in that no matter how crowded or loud a party, Campus Safety cannot shut it down. The lack of oversight could be a safety concern, but Thais Henriques ’17, who has attended parties held at Sarah and John’s house, doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. “People who did drink too much usually have close friends to take care of them, whereas in an Old K party, you might lose your friends and end up puking in the bathroom by yourself,” she said.

Despite the noise, no deputy from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has ever shown up in response to a community member’s complaint, according to John. In fact, “people on our block kind of appreciate the fact that we’ve moved in,” John said. One neighbor, after a few quiet weekends at the house, sent them an email making sure they still enjoyed living there. John thinks people in the Village would appreciate students “branching out into different areas of Gambier and interacting with the residents,” instead of holing up inside the “bubble of Kenyon.”

Even if some community members would like to see more students as neighbors, President Sean Decatur doubts whether the housing available in the Gambier area could support an influx of student renters. “We don’t have a few blocks of housing that is ready housing for a community of off-campus livers,” he said. According to Doug Givens, a former vice president of development, Gambier only has around 300 non-Kenyon residences, meaning students and community members would have to compete for space. Furthermore, Kenyon students already have a guaranteed bed on campus; living off-campus might prevent others from living in the Village.

In fact, last year on two separate occasions, students outbid an administrator for apartment spaces in Gambier. The administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was subsequently forced to move out. College Historian Tom Stamp said he thinks “the Village populace isn’t particularly enthusiastic about having students living out in the community beyond campus.” A dozen Gambier landlords were contacted for this story — including Sarah and John’s; most declined to comment or did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

Liz Forman ’73, a retired college administrator, lives on Ward Street and has rented out the space above her garage to faculty, administrators, and, most recently, students. Forman said she doesn’t have “any strong opposition to renting to students,” but added, “rental space in Gambier is hard to find, frankly. And students have more options than non-students for renting in Gambier. So part of me would like to keep the space for folks who have a harder time finding something.”

“Rental space in Gambier is hard to find, frankly.” – Liz Forman ’73

Still, Forman understands that sometimes off-campus housing is a necessity for students with non-traditional circumstances. Twenty-three years old and fresh out of a five-year stint in the Navy, Kale Barber ’16 arrived at Kenyon in 2012 and had, in his words, a “pretty jarring” transition. Despite his difficulty adjusting to Kenyon life, Barber still expected to enter the housing lottery after his freshman year, as usual, until Director of Counseling Services Patrick Gilligan recommended he pursue living off-campus. Barber wanted the independence he had had during his time in the armed forces, and also a place where he could live with his partner of five years, Stella Ryan-Lozon ’13, who had just graduated and would be working at the Kenyon Review. Gilligan recommended Barber talk to Forman, who had an apartment across the street from the Eaton Center. He petitioned the administration, who granted him permission. Barber thinks the closeness to campus, along with his military background and long-term relationship, gave ResLife enough confidence that he would not be cut off from the Kenyon community.

For Barber, living off-campus took some adjusting to. When professors plan their classes and write their syllabi, Barber said, they don’t consider that students might “have to drive into Mount Vernon five times a week to buy groceries or shovel snow or spray for weeds.” But what Barber loses in time, he gains in respect: his relationships with the faculty are more mature, less of a “let me take you under my wing and tell you how the world works,” and more of a “casual, adult conversation,” he said.

Because of this housing arrangement, Barber occupies a social position within the community in which he is young enough for fellow students to be peers, but old enough to maintain close relationships with faculty, staff, and Gambier residents. Barber and Ryan-Lozon sometimes have “dinner parties with the well-established senior members of faculty and the community” in his apartment, Barber said. Not so long ago, Barber’s mature relationships and conversations with faculty would have been commonplace among students, according to Forman. “Gund [Commons] used to have a space where you could have a faculty member to dinner,” she said. Forman thinks living off-campus can give students the opportunity to have “a different sort of social encounter with non-students.”

Barber’s is one of “fewer than five” exemptions to Kenyon’s housing policy that have been permitted during Toutain’s tenure, usually for “compelling personal reasons,” often involving dietary or mental health concerns, he said. No specific criteria exist, however. Exemptions are granted through “case-by-case consideration,” according to Toutain, who, in conjunction with ResLife, consults with AVI and the Health and Counseling Center to determine whether to accommodate the student. Ultimately, the decision is his, and with each decision, Toutain determines the makeup of the small cohort of students living off-campus.

Liz Forman ’73 (and dog, Jenkins) rents out the apartment above her garage to Kale Barber ’16, Stella Ryan-Lozon ’13, and their dog, Charlie.
Liz Forman ’73 (and dog, Jenkins) rents out the apartment above her garage to Kale Barber ’16, Stella Ryan-Lozon ’13, and their dog, Charlie.

“Why should we choose to be residential?” That’s the question Gilligan wants the College to ask itself. Gilligan said he believes the College should look around and see what life as a fully residential college offers the wider community. For Decatur, Kenyon’s sense of community comes from “a common dining hall” and a “common living experience,” which help foster those integral “peer-to-peer interactions.” Likewise, O’Hara said she thinks “part of what makes Kenyon, Kenyon … is that everybody’s on campus all the time and people don’t leave for the weekend. Everyone’s just there.”

But who is “everyone?” Does “everyone” include non-Kenyon-affiliated community members? Stamp pointed out that, up until the early 20th century, “Kenyon students lived in College buildings but took their meals with people in town.” Even after this practice ended, the Village remained a “company town,” as Givens put it. “Back in the ’60s almost everybody who lived in Gambier worked at the College,” he said. Had students lived off-campus during this time, their neighbors would more likely have been affiliated with Kenyon.

That is not the case anymore. Furthermore, Givens sees changes in the relationship between the College and the Village that are “not for the best.” Among these is a dramatic loss in housing units in Gambier due to the College’s practice of buying individual houses and using them for classrooms and offices. (Almost all of the current academic or administrative “houses” were once faculty residences.) According to Stamp, this practice began in the 1960s and ’70s, when the College removed “several historic homes” to make room for the new Coordinate College for Women, and purchased many houses “that were contiguous to campus off the market to use them for academic purposes,” including Sunset House, Acland House, Timberlake House and Bailey House. Givens said he believes these purchases have affected both Kenyon — by changing the nature of relationships between students and a faculty who must live farther from campus as housing opportunities diminish — and the wider Gambier community. “When you start to walk around the Village you see that there are lots of houses that are not houses anymore, or residences anymore,” he said. “And I think that’s too bad. And by having students and non-residents in those places, it changes the character of the Village and where things happen and how things happen.”

“When you start to walk around the Village you see that there are lots of houses that are not houses anymore, or residences anymore.” – Doug Givens

As a longtime resident of Gambier, Givens has seen how the Village’s familial character can clash with a college student’s lifestyle: “Having an eight-year-old awakened at two o’clock in the morning with a couple dozen people screaming ‘Fuck’ and throwing beer bottles is not — it’s great for students, but it’s not terribly compatible with the families.”

Audra Cubie ’01, a former member of the Gambier Village Council, used to live on Scott Lane, behind the Village Inn. It was “a silly, silly place, just because 3 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. people were yelling and peeing in the bushes,” she recalled. Cubie said those who live near the College accept that students will act out, but that “upholstered furniture on the front lawn for months” can strain student-community relations.

And despite John’s testimony to the contrary, Sam Filkins and Lacey Filkins, administrators in the Student Activities and Dean of Students Offices, respectively, doubt whether students even want close relationships with those in the Gambier community. During the first weeks of school they held a block party for the Morgan Apartments. “We invited all the residents on our street that weren’t affiliated with the school and a lot of the residents came but hardly any students came,” Sam said. Lacey said she believes many in the community “enjoy the fact that they’re near a college campus and are interested in meeting the students and building that community, but I’m not sure that the students would want that.”

Kelly Reed ’16, for one, wanted that relationship. By the end of her sophomore year, Reed had become increasingly disillusioned with the Kenyon community, feeling the students needed “to regain our sense of dignity in a place other than … being successful in reading texts and writing essays.” The room and board plan seemed stifling to Reed. “Human beings connect by doing things together creatively and trying to collaborate in basic situations, and so much is done for us here on campus,” she said. For her, it felt like “there was an iron wall between campus and Knox County. … A few hundred feet past Bexley and you feel like you’re in another world.” She felt more inspired beyond that wall. Reed decided to work at the Gambier Deli over the summer while living in the Village on West Woodside Drive.

And suddenly, “I just started to feel that the world was much more exciting and much more intimate than College made me feel.” Reed grew close to her lodgers, Mike and Stacy Bailey, and ended up going to church with them and forming relationships with many of the congregants. Wanting to continue living off-campus, she contacted Toutain. He considered her appeal for a few weeks, but ultimately decided she had to remain on campus. Reed briefly considered transferring, and although she decided to stay, she said she thinks Kenyon lacks “some kind of communal stability,” and that “an attempt to live off-campus is an attempt to recreate” a stable community.

Toutain declined to comment on why he rejected Reed’s petition. He acknowledged the current policy is vague. In a follow-up email, Toutain asked, “Does paying for and occupying a campus living space while also spending some time at an off-campus location constitute a policy violation?” Furthermore, because he doesn’t remember ever hearing the off-campus housing policy discussed in his time at Kenyon, Toutain added that he and Engel-Hellman plan to “actively explore” off-campus living. “We attribute certain values to being residential, and that’s sort of who we are,” he said. “I think there’s an assumption about that — I can’t think of an instance where it has been questioned or challenged.”

Barber thinks it should be questioned and that many students would benefit from living off-campus. “A lot of alumni first year out deal with all kinds of depression and struggles,” he said. Having a “transitional year” where students live on their own but still within the “Kenyon support system” would help prepare students for their professional life, according to Barber, which he said is “what Kenyon is about.”

Ask Tyler Aust and he will tell you that Kenyon’s fundamental feature is “intimacy.” Despite the College’s recent acquisition of the Buckeye Candy & Tobacco building in downtown Mount Vernon, which it plans to convert into academic and community outreach spaces, the administration has announced no major plans to expand beyond the Hill. As the 2020 plan states, Kenyon values “intentionally building community on campus,” though it’s unclear whether that may ever extend to allowing students to live off-campus. While the policy may not hold much weight with students who decide to ignore it — whose actions can potentially deny other villagers access to Gambier’s limited housing options — its current form can have profound consequences on those who play by the rules. Aust could not attend Kenyon “solely because they wouldn’t let me live off-campus,” he recalled. The campus is a five-minute walk from his house.

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