Section: News

Student Council uses first meeting to tackle questions of inequity among students

After nearly three months adjourned, Student Council used its first meeting of the 2020-21 school year this Sunday to open the floor for discussion with Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 and Dean of Campus Life Laura Kane. 

In doing so, the Council sought to provide additional answers to students’ questions regarding the College’s plans for the fall, which are changing daily as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. 

Although the meeting covered a wide variety of topics, the heart of the discussion centered around a desire for equity and accessibility among students, as well as transparency from the administration amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Students in attendance asked several questions regarding financial aid and student employment. During the discussions, Vice President for Academic Affairs Delaney Gallagher ’23 clarified how the College’s one-year, 10-percent tuition reduction (which amounts to $6,080) may impact students’ federal financial aid packages. 

“Basically, your income, your parents’ income — which is why you submit your tax forms [through the FAFSA] — are what’s considered resources for you to pay for college,” Gallagher explained. “So that $6,080 credit, by federal regulation, is now considered one of those resources. So they have to go back and reevaluate your financial aid package.”

Gallagher emphasized that this reevaluation does not mean that students will need to pay more on their own dime than they did previously; rather, these new financial aid packages will not include this $6,080 — Kenyon will cover it instead. More information on this will become available in the next two weeks, the Council said. 

Similarly, some students voiced concerns that the College’s current student employment policy — which states that “students will only be paid for hours worked” — could have negative implications for low-income students and those who rely on Kenyon’s employment, particularly those who will not be on campus this fall. This represents a departure from the College’s spring 2020 policy, which said that all student employees would be paid for their typical hours while off campus, even if they could not fulfill their responsibilities remotely. Though the College has not explicitly said that students who cannot work remotely will not be paid, Bonham seemed to imply that the College’s shrunken operating budget made this unlikely. 

“It was a significant amount of money in order to make that happen [in the spring], but it was an investment that [the College] felt was important,” Bonham said. “Earlier in the summer, we believed that we were going to bring all students back to campus, and so it wasn’t the same issue that it is now, where we only have half of the students returning to campus. So the rules of the game have changed a little bit.” She also expressed her concern as to how student employees who are off campus could be held accountable. 

Bonham was careful to note, though, that students entitled to work study will still obtain the necessary support to which they are legally entitled. 

“Work study program is a federally funded program, so we have to be really careful about how that money is spent,” Bonham explained. “Obviously, Kenyon doesn’t want to violate any federal laws.”

Bonham also said that the College hopes to continue to support low-income students who are not on work study, although she did not give specifics on how it will do so. 

This lack of job security for low-income upperclassmen has left many scrambling to petition for on-campus housing in the fall. Diversity and Social Justice Committee Chairperson Micah Smith ’22 was particularly troubled by this. 

“Jobs and maintaining student income is a big reason why many students (while it is still a minority) can afford to attend Kenyon,” they said later in a message to the Collegian. “To change that to make it hinge upon physical presence on campus is unfair.” 

This wave of petitioners comes after the College’s July 15 announcement, in which it said that juniors and seniors would complete the fall semester remotely. Kenyon did concede, however, that students whose extenuating circumstances make living elsewhere difficult would be allowed to petition to stay on campus. Whether those students who are petitioning will have a place on campus is contingent on how many first years and sophomores decide to defer (students must make a decision prior to July 31). Those students who will return to campus, however, now have the option of being pre-housed at the Comfort Inn prior to housing selection on Aug. 7, a decision that was made in order to ensure that students without cars will not need to rely on the Knox Area Transit (KAT) shuttles for transportation and risk exposure to the virus. 

Students also sought more information as to how mask-wearing might be enforced on campus. Bonham emphasized, as she has in recent weeks, that Campus Safety will not be responsible for being “mask police.” Smith added that the College’s method of enforcement — whatever that may be — should not be reminiscent of policing practices.

“We really have to be aware of having accountability and how it is very hard to push people away from the idea of [mask] enforcement being like policing, because that’s a big issue that we have to handle elsewhere,” they said. Instead, Smith suggested, Kenyon should foster an environment where community members hold each other accountable, and do so comfortably. Accordingly, Student Council is exploring training programs that could help students navigate conversations with their peers who are not wearing masks. 

Gallagher, who is also the Student Co-Chair of Campus Senate, said that Senate recently endorsed a document called the “Kenyon College Commitment.” The document — which was written by Director of Student Rights & Responsibilities James Jackson, the Student Affairs Leadership Team and three students — “outlines that [students] are agreeing to being a part of this community that holistically focuses on everyone’s health, not just your own, and to have good practices and to take every measuring precaution to prevent the spread,” Gallagher said. Although students will not be asked to physically sign the document, Gallagher explained, by returning to campus, students are, in essence, agreeing to its terms.

Yet there are still many unanswered questions for students who will not be returning to Gambier in the fall. The College announced last week that, even though junior and seniors will take classes remotely, it will not adopt a universal pass/fail grading policy as it did in the spring. Last semester, Kenyon had opted for this route in hopes of lessening the inequities among students with variable circumstances or access to necessary resources. Should the College fail to make similar adjustments, some speculated, these inequities could be exacerbated. 

Thus far, Gallagher explained, the members of the Committee on Academic Standards have agreed that this semester’s grading policy will not perfectly resemble that of last semester. “What that [grading policy] is right now has not been determined, but I think it’s going to be more likely a middle ground between the grading policy that applies to freshmen and sophomores on campus, and the grading policy that happened last semester,” she added. 

On all of these subjects, students expressed a desire for a voice in decision making which affects the student body. In response, Student Council offered information as to how to get involved with one of the “working groups,” committees of students, faculty and staff that are assessing ways to make this unprecedented school year safe, enjoyable and accessible for the Kenyon community. Following the meeting, the College made public a list of the current working groups and their members. The vast majority of these groups are not chaired by a member of senior staff.

But some students in attendance were skeptical of these groups. Nick Becker ’22 was particularly dubious of the student employee working group’s effectiveness.

“I now know that there’s a student employee working group being established. But the accessibility obstacles here are, ‘What is this employee working group? What’s the goal of it? Why should I actually spend my time on this?’” Becker said. ” Though he had wished that the administration had addressed these concerns earlier, Becker suggested at the meeting that having a member of Kenyon’s senior staff present in this particular working group would help clarify its direction.

Though Bonham welcomed student engagement in working groups, she emphasized that decisions would need to be made quickly.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen in the next few weeks, and we would love to have student input in those conversations,” Bonham said. “As much as we want that involvement, and as much as it feels maybe not like Kenyon that we can’t spend months talking about these things, we have to make it all happen within the next few weeks.”

Student Council currently plans to hold its next public meeting this Sunday, Aug. 2. Kenyon students can access the full minutes for this past Sunday’s meeting here.

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