Peter Rutkoff will be celebrating his 45th year teaching at Kenyon, and with it, a new chair in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) is being dedicated in his name. When Rutkoff began teaching at Kenyon in 1971, the creation of such a chair — let alone an office devoted to diversity — seemed unlikely.
“When I first got here, the first class of women hadn’t even graduated,” Rutkoff said. “So it was still essentially a men’s college, with pretty much men faculty, teaching pretty much 19th-century curriculum in 19th-century ways.”
Since then, Rutkoff, who has no plans to retire in the near future, has overseen programs to improve diversity at the College and surrounding areas. One such project is the Kenyon Academic Partnership (KAP), which brings Kenyon courses to Ohio high school students from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. Since Rutkoff began serving as KAP’s executive director, the program has grown from including six high schools to including 34 public, private and parochial schools across the state.
The Peter Rutkoff Chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will be held by a faculty member who follows Rutkoff’s commitment to promoting diversity, inclusiveness and understanding American history from multiple viewpoints.
“I don’t want to teach the history of non-white folks as if there is a drawer that needs to be pulled in and out and now that we’ve done that, we don’t have to keep going,” Rutkoff said. “I try to understand the larger social and cultural context of American diversity.”
According to President Sean Decatur, the new chair in the ODEI is funded through donations from alumni who wished to support the faculty while also specifically honoring Rutkoff, whom they cited as an influential figure from their times at Kenyon. Decatur said it is part of a larger campaign to help fund the College’s endowment.
“Having a faculty position supported through the endowment is important,” Decatur said. “This is funding for a faculty position now supported from the endowment instead of being supported from regular operating funds. It gives a mechanism for the College to honor faculty members … [and] the work faculty members are doing.”
Riley Selig-Addiss ’16, an American studies major and student ambassador for the department, said Rutkoff tries to create diverse classroom environments, especially by taking his students outside Gambier to other locations such as Pittsburgh and Charleston, S.C.
Rutkoff, who inaugurated Kenyon’s American studies major in 2002, developed and teaches a course called The Sankofa Project, which centers on theories and practices of urban education and involves an extended class trip to a public high school in Cleveland. “When we’re in Cleveland, he’s always talking to students there trying to get them to apply to Kenyon,” Selig-Addiss said. “It’s like a very low-income, minority school, so he’s trying to draw students from there.”
Karina Cruz, a senior American studies major, said another important aspect of Rutkoff’s teaching style is his understanding of his own privilege. She takes no issue with the College honoring Rutkoff, who is white, with a chair devoted to diversity.
“I don’t think it’s a problem that he’s white, or in a position of more privilege, and also getting this honor,” Cruz said. “I think he’s always understood his position in a way that has helped many students of color throughout the years.”
Rutkoff said he will continue to incorporate diversity into his classroom discussions.
“It’s been very slow and incremental, but if you stay here long enough, the increments tend to add up,” Rutkoff said. “When I first came here, what little diversity there was, there was by accident, and now there’s much more.”