On Thursday, March 11, President Sean Decatur announced that, after six years, Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 will leave her position at the College on May 10 to become the managing director of Columbus-based executive search firm BeecherHill.
Decatur spoke highly of Bonham’s leadership throughout her tenure. “Meredith has done, in my view, extraordinary work over the course of the past five-plus years, and has led through a remarkable amount of change,” he said. “So certainly, I’m going to miss her as a friend and colleague, and I think it’s really a loss for Kenyon.”
Associate Provost and Professor of Chemistry Sheryl Hemkin will chair the search committee for Bonham’s replacement with assistance from search firm Storbeck Search. Decatur said that the committee, which will be comprised of students, faculty and members of the Board of Trustees, should be finalized within the coming days. He anticipates that the search will conclude in June, which would put the College on track to have the position filled early in the fall semester.
According to the Kenyon website, in her capacity as vice president for the Division of Student Affairs, Bonham has been responsible for “divisional strategic planning and budgets, staff development and oversight, and implementation of initiatives that impact the overall student experience.” Her exit is one of the most significant changes in the College’s personnel since Decatur was hired in 2013.
For Bonham, this change is a bittersweet one. “I have very mixed feelings about leaving Kenyon — this was the first college I fell in love with when I was 17 years old, and it’s been a great honor and privilege to serve my alma mater in an administrative capacity,” she said.
Bonham’s departure comes during a period of continued turnover in the College’s Office of Student Affairs. Since January 2020, both former Assistant Director of Student Engagement Ashley Rastetter and former Director of Student Engagement Sam Filkins have left the College. It was not until February that the College’s latest hire, Director of Student Engagement Mick Steiner, filled Filkins’ vacancy.
Controversies have followed Bonham throughout her tenure, starting with her enforcement of the College’s ban on off-campus housing, and later the vast restriction of all-campus parties as well as revisions to the Student Handbook and Student Organization Handbook, a process which some felt occurred with insufficient student input.
Still, Bonham is proud of the sense of community she has fostered within the Division, and feels her staff is a cohesive team. Dean for Campus Life Laura Kane agreed. “The growth and success of the Division of Student Affairs is a testament to [Bonham’s] unwavering commitment to cultivate a dynamic student experience, grounded in institutional values,” Kane wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Meredith is deeply invested in the development of her staff and inspires us to approach our work collaboratively and student-centered.”
More recently, Bonham initiated and led the College’s Housing Study Committee, which released its report in November and help guide the construction of the recently funded apartment-style residence halls on South campus, set to begin in 2023.
According to Decatur’s email, Bonham has been a grounding force as the College has weathered the pandemic. He also cited her as a key player in “the master planning process for athletics,” which made funding for a second turf athletic field possible.
When asked what prompted her to leave the College, Bonham explained that this career change was one she had considered for quite a while. As early as her time serving as Hamilton College’s chief of staff and secretary to the Board of Trustees, a position she held for 12 years, she has taken pleasure in overseeing searches. The opening at BeecherHill was therefore a welcomed opportunity for Bonham. “I felt that this was a really amazing opportunity for me to start a new career that builds on my 20 years of experience in higher education administration,” she explained.
It is fitting, then, that above all, Bonham is most proud of the hires she made during her six-year tenure. Perhaps the most significant of these is Director of Health and Counseling Chris Smith in 2018. Decatur cited Bonham’s efforts towards bettering campus mental health services as one of her crowning achievements in his initial announcement.
The Cox Health and Counseling Center has been at the center of student discontent since Bonham hired Smith. Most significantly, this dissatisfaction came to a head when Bonham and Smith worked with the Peer Counselors (PC) to bring mental health-oriented installation “Send Silence Packing” to campus in September 2019. Many students, PCs included, were outraged by the exhibit, as its presence on Peirce Lawn rehashed personal traumas for some. Bonham later acknowledged her role in the event and the upset it caused in an email to the student body and hosted an open forum on the topic.
As a senior administrator in the public eye who is often the bearer of bad news, it is no wonder that Bonham has frequently been on the receiving end of student discontent. As Bonham herself told the Collegian in 2017, “I think there’s always going to be some tension or chafing between students and administrators … That’s natural and exists at probably every college and university across the country.”
As the search for her replacement begins, Bonham remains optimistic about how her successor might fill her shoes. “I think they’re going to come in and make their own decisions and lead the team however they wish,” she said. “I am fully confident in Kenyon’s ability to hire someone not only qualified for the role, but someone who will bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy to it and who will work really well with students.”