Section: News

Tensions run high as admin hosts forum on Handbook changes

At the May 14 virtual forum discussing the new Student Handbook and Student Organization Handbook, over 35 students and alumni made it clear that they were unhappy with many of the administration’s proposed changes. What began with issues of clarity and wording ultimately uncovered larger problems with the administration’s practices, specifically those related to accessibility within Greek life, gray areas in the investigation process and a large divide between the rights of students and the power of the administration.

The forum began with a brief introduction from Vice President of Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92, who thanked students for their feedback and discussed the lengthy process behind drafting the documents. Though many students had expressed concerns about the timing of the new Handbook’s release given the current circumstances, Bonham explained that the process behind such revisions had started long before the administration became aware of the pandemic. Back in the summer of 2018, Campus Senate passed a new constitution, and because of this, Bonham and her colleagues realized it was time to look into drafting a new Student Handbook.

“It had been at least 10 years since the Student Handbook had gone through any significant revision, so what had happened over the years is that different pieces got added at different points,” Bonham said. “We endeavored to make sure that this was a document that was clear, that was concise and as transparent as possible.”

Upon closer examination of the revised Handbook, however, students quickly realized that it lacked transparency. After Bonham’s May 7 email announcing the finalized draft of the Student Handbook and Student Organization Handbook, students scoured both documents and filled out the Google Form offering their feedback.

Bonham explained that most of the feedback she received fell into three categories: the extent to which students have a voice in future revisions, the ability of students to have input on the social events with alcohol policy and confusion about restrictions on new local Greek organizations. To begin the conversation, she compared the language in the old Handbook to the new one.

In the old version, it was written that students were to be notified of changes to the Handbook via email or the College website, but there was no mention of Student Council or their role in the revision process. The new Handbook, however, states that changes will be brought to Student Council before they are updated on the College website and conveyed to students via email.

In conjunction with the attention to word choice, Harry Clennon ’21 asked Bonham for clarification on what she meant by practice versus policy. She told him that a practice was “something we do on a daily basis; a policy is something written and codified in the Student Handbook.” After Bonham made this distinction, many students were still confused as to what “practices” were in use before they were officially made into a policy.

“It seems like some practices turn into policies and exist outside of what students know is going on,” Clennon said. “How are we as students supposed to understand that distinction?”

Bonham also clarified that disallowing new local Greek organizations has been a long-standing practice within the Office of Student Engagement. She explained that this decision was made due to issues of liability, one that Bonham claimed was “outside of the College’s control.”

“The reason for no new local Greek organizations is that they have a very high risk profile and the insurance company of the College has told us that we cannot have any new organizations recognized by the College, or it runs the risk of the College losing its insurance or paying additional premiums,” she said.

However, students were not convinced that this was merely a liability issue, as opposed to a continuous effort on the part of the administration to limit the amount of Greek organizations on campus.

“It seems to me that this is limiting the ability of future organizations to come to campus, whether local or national,” said Katherine Crawford ’22, a member of Alpha Sigma Tau (AST), Kenyon’s only national sorority. “I don’t see Kenyon being bettered by limiting local organizations. They are a vital part of Kenyon’s community.”

Another point of contention was the fact that the dues of local groups are lower than those of national organizations, pointing to greater issues of accessibility within Greek life and who can participate in it. For context, all of the national organizations at Kenyon cost over $200 per semester while local organizations cost from $100-$200 per semester.

“I know local groups have lower dues and can be more accessible to low-income students. I would like to make the dues more accessible across the board,” said Director of Student Engagement Sam Filkins.

Students were also upset by the fact that this policy would disproportionately affect those wishing to be a part of sororities, given that over 60 national fraternities exist that could establish themselves at Kenyon, compared to only 26 national sororities.

“In my four years, local sororities have been cooperative with the school’s policies and have hosted numerous events that enrich the community,” Abigail Salzman ’20, a former president of Epsilon Delta Mu (EDM), said. “Are efforts being made to think of another classification for social organizations that can serve similar functions and create those social spaces without having to go national?”

In response to Salzman’s concerns, both Bonham and Dean of Campus Life Laura Kane emphasized that national fraternities and sororities are banned from hosting all-campus events by national, rather than College-level, regulations. However, this clarification led to a bigger problem: with the new restrictions on local organizations, there would be a decrease in all-campus events. Students argued that the entire campus would feel the loss of all-campus parties.

“In 2017, when the College’s own Alcohol Task Force found that all-campus parties were the drinking event least associated with risks of alcohol poisoning, the Office of Student Engagement did not look for ways to expand these events,” Evan Wagner ’22 commented in the online chat during the forum. “Instead, they are taking every effort to stamp out all-campuses, leading to an increase in the number of small unregistered parties with unregulated alcohol that the Task Force had determined to be most dangerous.”

Bonham acknowledged the positive impacts of all-campus parties on campus culture and alcohol consumption, but suggested that reducing them may also have had such an impact. “I do want to note that we have seen this decline in all-campus parties over the last year and a half, two years. I should note too that transports for excessive intoxication to the hospital have also declined,” she said. “There may not be a correlation, but I think that’s a good data point to keep in mind.”

Finally, a number of students voiced the need for more transparency in regard to the student conduct section of the Handbook, feeling as though the College’s investigative process brought unneeded stress to students. Director of Student Rights and Responsibilities James Jackson promised that the administration would do their best to make edits to this section of the Handbook, but added that some amount of ambiguity is necessary in certain instances.

“When we start an investigation, we don’t want organizations to plan out what they’re going to say to us. If we show too much too early, there are times when we interview students and they will all have the same answers, showing that they got together beforehand to craft those answers,”Jackson said. “There are ways we can find a balance in improving the investigation process, while somewhat maintaining the purpose of the investigation process.”

The concerns over accessibility and inclusion led to greater questions regarding student autonomy within both Student Council and the Campus Senate. Despite the inclusion of Student Council in the new Handbook’s ratification processes, students expressed the concern that the input of Student Council was not enough, as it would limit the amount of voices involved with future shifts from practice to policy.

“It seems like it’s the role of our student elective bodies to make decisions about student life. It seems very easy for the administration to reject those decisions under the radar, without a clear legitimation of why they rejected them,” said Wagner. “We aren’t able to respond as a unified student body.”

As part of the discussion on student input on administrative policies, students also raised concerns about the role of the Campus Senate and whether or not the content of its meetings could be broadcast to the student body when an important decision was made. To this end, Bonham explained that Campus Senate was not a “legislative body,” and hadn’t been for many years. She said that, two years ago, the Senate went through a “significant revision” to its constitution because it “did not have an especially clear function.” She cited a smoking policy that Campus Senate put in place several years ago as leading to this change.

“There was no formal mechanism for moving that policy forward. What the new Campus Senate constitution does is provide greater autonomy to Student Council to discuss specific matters that relate to students,” Bonham said. “No longer does Student Council fall under Campus Senate.”

Because of this, Bonham said that, while the Senate’s role is limited to making policy recommendations to senior staff, “Student Council does have the ability to advise specifically on any potential changes to the Student Handbook.”

In the Student Council meeting on May 10, students questioned the limitations of this structure of governance.

“At one point, students and faculty did have direct voting input into policies and handbooks,” Student Council Vice President for Academic Affairs Bradley Berklich ’22 said. “There’s some bit of a vacuum of real, measurable input that would hold things really accountable … I do not think that the measurable student input has been replaced.”

In response, Bonham explained that the administration sometimes has to “implement policies that may be unpopular with students” due to legal, health and safety reasons, but said she wanted to make sure that both revised Handbooks included clear language that would take student input on such policies into account.

“Putting policies out into a referendum every time is just not practical,” she said. “I am hopeful that Student Council will continue to strengthen in the years to come, and be a loud voice that we can come to and consult with when there are any points of contention.”

After the lengthy forum, many students felt underrepresented in the College’s desicion-making process. They also asked to see concrete changes on the part of the administration, which Filkins, Kane and Bonham all promised to deliver. Whether this meant the creation of scholarship funds to make national Greek organizations more inclusive, the constant stream of communication between Student Council and the student body or a more precise wording on the policies found in the student conduct section, the three administration members at the forum promised to do better.

“Based on what the student body wants to see from the Campus Senate, if we had some process of the administration making it clear that they were going against the wishes of the Campus Senate, we would be able to respond more as a unified body,” Wagner said.

Correction: an earlier edition of the article says that all national organizations at Kenyon cost over $300 per semester. It has since been corrected.

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