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Decatur to step down, will lead Natural History Museum

Decatur to step down, will lead Natural History Museum

President Sean Decatur, who has been on sabbatical since July, announced Tuesday that he will be stepping down from his position at Kenyon to become president of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. Decatur will return to Kenyon in the new year and remain through March, in what Acting President Jeff Bowman described as a consultant role, to aid with the transition as the search begins for Kenyon’s 20th president. Decatur will take the helm of AMNH on April 3. 

After graduating from Swarthmore College, Decatur taught at Mount Holyoke College for 13 years, where he served as an assistant and associate professor of chemistry. He then worked at Oberlin College as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and later as the dean of its College of Arts and Sciences before arriving on the Hill to serve as Kenyon’s 19th president in 2013. While on sabbatical, Decatur has been working on a book that he describes as a combination of family history and memoir. “It’s really about my path in both growing up and what has drawn me to have an interest in science, and what it means to be an African American scientist in the 21st century.”  

He explained that the opportunity to work at AMNH was a surprise: “If you had asked me even five months ago if this was something I’d imagine being possible, I would probably say no.” Though Decatur has worked in higher education since graduate school, he explained the jump to museum work isn’t as big as it might initially appear. “It really matches my long-standing interest in science education, in trying to get large groups of folks enthusiastic and excited about science,” he said.  

The things Decatur said drew him to AMNH were the same things that initially drew him to Kenyon nearly a decade ago: a commitment to education and diverse perspectives. He explained that he sees this new position as an opportunity to continue pursuing his passions on a larger scale. “This was not something I was anticipating, but when the opportunity was brought to my attention, it really crystallized a lot of things that have been important to me for a long time, and that really grew out of the work that I’ve been doing at Kenyon,” he said. 

Decatur is particularly drawn to the museum’s dual focus on fundamental science as well as educational programming. Beyond offering masters and doctoral degree programs, the museum does extensive outreach to local schools in and around New York City. “I’ve heard from just about everyone that I know that’s grown up in New York, who talks about going on field trips to the Natural History Museum, and that the impact of the outreach on that level is really tremendous,” he said. “For me, what’s exciting is the opportunity to really help to further integrate the two parts of the institution — so, how can the really innovative, cutting-edge science be made visible and engaging to the millions of people who come through the doors of the museum?”

Decatur looks forward to the challenge of not only expanding his passions to the scale of the museum’s 5 million yearly visitors, but also directing the museum as it turns to face the post-pandemic world and other challenges. “When we think about some of the larger pressing issues of our moment — and climate change is pretty high on that list, but I’d also say the broader issues around diversity and inclusion — and how we build deeper, meaningful understanding in a cross-cultural way, the resources of the museum are well positioned to do that,” he said. 

Decatur took on issues like this in Gambier, where he oversaw a historic expansion in financial aid opportunities through programs including the American Talent Initiative and the Kenyon Access Initiative. In 2021, Kenyon received a grant from the Schuler Education Foundation, which increased scholarship opportunities for students from underrepresented backgrounds. He also saw the College through the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing disputes over student labor. 

During his tenure, Decatur oversaw the development of two strategic plans, the second of which emphasized environmental literacy and sustainability in the face of the climate change crisis — building off Kenyon’s 2016 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Decatur reflected that increasing diversity at Kenyon is one of the things he’s most proud of about his tenure, along with strengthening ties between the College and the greater Knox County community. “Those are things that are collective work across the community. And both of those are things where the work is never really quite done,” he said. “So I hope that Kenyon is able to continue moving forward on both of those fronts.”

Over the course of the past decade, Decatur has overseen a massive capital expansion project. The Our Path Forward campaign, which launched in 2018, reached its initial $300 million dollar goal five months ahead of its goal. The campaign has financed the construction of the new West Quad: a new library, a new building for admissions and financial aid and a new academic building. In 2021, an anonymous $100 million dollar donation financed three new residence halls. The campaign now aims to reach $500 million by Kenyon’s bicentennial in 2024. As of December 2022, the campaign has raised $492 million, providing scholarships and financial aid, as well as supporting Kenyon’s other priorities.  

Reflecting on Decatur’s presidency, Bowman acknowledged all he has given to Kenyon. “He has been a real advocate — and this is in partnership with the trustees and faculty and really everyone — but he’s been a real leader in thinking about how to make a Kenyon education accessible to all kinds of different students, and to make the campus a more equitable and diverse and inclusive place,” Bowman said. “This is evident in all kinds of different ways, from the student population to the faculty population to the kind of resources we devote to student well-being and financial aid.”

Ultimately, Decatur said he will miss the Kenyon community most as he enters this next chapter. “[My time at Kenyon] has really been an education for me as well,” he said. “It’s taken me more than twice as long as your typical kid to get through it, but I feel that I have learned along with others in the community, and that’s been really special and valuable.” 

To whoever succeeds him on the Hill, Decatur’s advice was simple: “Enjoy it.”


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