Campus Senate and members of the Board of Trustees met with representatives from the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) on Wednesday, intending to learn more about student employees’ experiences. Over 60 students showed up to the virtual event, with President Sean Decatur and Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 also in attendance.
The administration organized the meeting in response to K-SWOC’s demands for recognition. President Sean Decatur did not say that the meeting was a formal response to K-SWOC’s demands, but considered it an opportunity for “Senate to hear directly from a broad cross section of students” as they continue their work on assessing student employment at Kenyon.
K-SWOC Steering Committee member and former Helpline employee Graham Ball ’21 felt that the meeting was simply a retreading of old ground. He stated that if members of the administration had attended any of K-SWOC’s events of the past couple months, they would have learned more than they had that day. Ball emphasized the severity of the student employees’ situations, calling it a matter of “life and death.” “And I don’t use that lightly, but when you’re talking about student workers being denied paid sick leave during a pandemic that can lead to exacerbating an outbreak on campus, and actually cost people their lives,” Ball added. “These are issues that need to be addressed, and right now it feels like they are kicking the can down the road and chose Campus Senate specifically because it has no real power.”
At the start of the meeting, Ombudsperson Carrie Knell reviewed a set of communication agreements to follow during the dialogue. Knell clarified, however, that Board and Senate members would not respond to dialogue prompts nor would they answer questions. Attendees were then divided into breakout groups that a facilitator guided. In the breakout rooms, members of K-SWOC were each given two minutes to answer what their greatest workplace problem was.
Additionally, just three days before the meeting, without consultation, Senate Co-chair Delaney Gallagher ’23 informed the Collegian that reporters would not be allowed to record these breakout rooms.
“There will be no reporting from the small breakout rooms just the large space, but after the small breakout rooms you will be able to ask people if they want to be interviewed about what their experience is,” Gallagher wrote in an email to the Collegian on Sunday night.
Once the breakout rooms were assigned, however, the President’s Chief of Staff Susan Morse told reporters that they were prohibited from entering them.
Some members of K-SWOC felt neglected and ignored in the breakout groups. K-SWOC member and former Horn Technician Richard Shapiro ’23 considered the meeting unproductive.
“It felt like I could say anything to or about the Board members and it wouldn’t mean anything,” Shapiro said. “I didn’t see them react or respond to anything. They just sat there and looked away from the screen. Didn’t do anything. So it’s like, ‘are you really listening to me? Or is this just a nothing event?’”
Towards the end of the Senate meeting, the breakout groups reconvened and facilitators read aloud summaries of the discussions. K-SWOC member Logan Snell ’22 thought some summaries failed to accurately represent the concerns raised by students. Student employment issues, he said, were presented in a way that downplayed their severity.
“In a forum made for listening to students, our needs were filtered into neutral, nondescript language when presented to the entire group,” he said.
The administration also did not seem to acknowledge the work K-SWOC put into showcasing student voices and assembling testimonials, which could be found on all of their social media platforms. Ball’s testimonial was a restating of concerns K-SWOC already posted on its website.
“Then they asked another question, which was ‘What did we get out of this meeting?’ And unanimously, we said, ‘Nothing.’ We gained the knowledge that Campus Senate would be ineffective for addressing these issues.” Ball said.
Ball believes that the College is taking only performative actions while they avoid addressing the real issues.
Gallagher had intended for the breakout rooms to be open-ended discussions where students could talk about their experiences without feeling like they were being probed or challenged. While she thinks the questions given during breakout sessions could have been worded better, Gallagher believes that the Senate and Board of Trustees listened to student workers and successfully gathered more information.
“It’s very difficult to have those sorts of conversations, especially if you feel like you’re not being listened to,” Gallagher said. “But the biggest thing I can stress is that you are absolutely being listened to, because there would not be this many people dedicated to having a meeting at 4:15 on a Wednesday to listen to student employment if it wasn’t their top priority at one of the busiest hours of the week.”
Since the Senate had not heard directly from student workers before this meeting, Gallagher believes that it was a required step for making recommendations to the administration. Gallagher also identified union recognition to be the biggest issue student employees raised during the meeting.
Despite the administration’s hesitance to recognize K-SWOC as a union, Ball remained optimistic about K-SWOC’s persistence.
“I think what they’re hoping for is that we’re going to graduate, and that this momentum that we’ve built will dissipate,” Ball said. “What they don’t understand is that K-SWOC is here to stay. We’ve already created an institution that will be advocating for student workers for years to come.”
News Assistant Amanda Pyne and Staff Writer Jack Burczak contributed to reporting.