On Jan. 19, Kenyon’s newly formed presidential search committee hosted a forum seeking input from students, faculty members and alumni on the qualities that should guide the committee in their search for the College’s next president. The committee, which was formed shortly after former Kenyon President Sean Decatur announced his departure for the American Museum of Natural History in December, is headed by trustee Aileen Hefferren ’88. It comprises 15 other members of the community, including professors, administrative staff, representatives from the Board of Trustees and students.
The forum was held in Brandi Recital Hall, with more than 100 people in attendance. Hefferren introduced each member of the search committee before handing the discussion over to Shelly Storbeck, founder of Storbeck Search, a company dedicated to seeking out new leadership for and promoting diversity in educational institutions. Both Hefferren and the Storbeck Search team took part in the process of hiring Decatur nine years ago.
Storbeck began the panel by asking the audience to list some features of Kenyon that might draw potential candidates, explaining that for senior administrative roles in higher education, candidates are generally recruited rather than applying, making it even more important for Kenyon to be able to emphasize the attractiveness of the opportunity. Audience members had no shortage of praise for the College, mentioning its strong national reputation, close relationships between students and faculty, natural beauty and the community’s willingness to engage with controversial opinions. Multiple people mentioned the aspect of intentionality that comes with such a unique setting.
“Folks don’t end up here by accident,” one speaker said. “To choose to come here as a student, to choose to come here as an employee, it’s an intentional choice to be in this village.”
Another audience member agreed. “I feel like Kenyon is unapologetically itself. We’re not trying to be anyone else; we know where we’re at. And in terms of the market for higher ed, we embrace that,” they said.
Storbeck then shifted to asking about potential challenges a future president might face. Most of the audience’s responses stemmed from the broader issue of overcrowding: Key concerns included heightened pressure on housing and health facilities, overworked professors and students’ struggles to get into all their desired classes. One student mentioned feeling overwhelmed when entering one of the College’s central gathering places, Peirce Dining Hall. “Especially as it gets colder, and I know that Peirce is going to be so crowded, and it’s just going to make me overstimulated, or anxious, not worth the walk,” they said.
Finally, Storbeck asked the community about the personal and professional characteristics that they would find in their ideal College president. Audience members expressed overwhelming support for a president with a background in academia, arguing that anyone else would not be fully equipped to understand the needs of students and faculty. One speaker recalled how Decatur — who had served as a professor of chemistry at Oberlin College and Mount Holyoke College before coming to Kenyon — acted as an advisor to first-year students and taught classes. “I think what we all really appreciate about [Decatur] was that he was coming here with a very analytic, scientific mind,” they said. “He had been teaching, he still wanted to teach, he still wanted to work on the academic piece of this place — and we will not get buy-in from someone outside of that sphere.”
Others emphasized the importance of someone willing to communicate. “I think the ideal candidate is someone who would be able and willing to have difficult conversations … and is a strong leader and willing to go into those difficult conversations authentically and willing to be right [or] wrong and hear other people out,” they said.
In addition to the feedback gathered from the forum, Storbeck encouraged people to offer further input or suggest potential candidates on a survey posted to the Kenyon website. Although the survey has since closed, community members can still email the search committee with any input at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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