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Community comes together to celebrate ‘Decatur Decade’

Community comes together to celebrate ‘Decatur Decade’

The event was held in Tomsich Arena. | COURTESY OF KENYON COLLEGE

Community members gathered on Tuesday to celebrate the “Decatur Decade,” a recognition of former Kenyon President Sean Decatur and the contributions he made to the Hill during his nine years in Gambier. Organized by the Office of Campus Events, the event occurred in Tomsich Arena and included refreshments, cardboard cutouts of Star Wars figures and a giant card for attendees to sign. It also featured remarks from speakers Acting President Jeff Bowman, former Trustee Bruce White, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy Joseph Klesner, Professor of Physics Tom Giblin, Civil Rights/Title IX Coordinator Samantha Hughes and Student Council President Ubongabasi Asuquo ’23. 

After these speeches, Decatur took to the podium to reflect on his time at Kenyon. Before he began, he admitted both his discomfort with public speaking and his self-proclaimed nerdiness. As such, he explained to the audience that in preparation for the address he had given a prompt to the OpenAI software ChatGPT: “Write a farewell speech to Kenyon College in the style of Sean Decatur, referencing protein folding.” Before Decatur read the speech, he assured the audience that it truly was written by AI software. “This is real,” he said. “What I’m about to read, it’s not like it’s good, but it’s terrifyingly not bad.” 

After sharing the ChatGPT-generated speech with the audience and rousing many laughs, Decatur reflected on a more personal level about what originally drew him to the College. He began by recounting his first Kenyon experience taking a capstone United States History class offered by the College during his junior year of high school, a class he said helped him develop a more profound love of learning. “It was in that class that I really had my eyes opened to the fact that ideas could be contested and debated, that you could get information from reading things that didn’t look like history books, but were novels — that there were ways to read those in the context of history, that you could argue about things in class,” he said. “I really began to recognize that value of deep curiosity, deep knowledge and deep inquiry that we take pride in at Kenyon.” 

He then shared another tale from his junior year of high school:  his first ever road trip, an adventure from Cleveland to Gambier that he embarked on with a close friend who had recently gotten his driver’s license. On the way to Kenyon, Decatur and his companion were pulled over for speeding, an experience that left both of them deeply distraught. Considering their sorry state when they finally arrived on campus, Decatur expressed gratitude for the kind people they encountered who welcomed them to the College. “Maybe it’s because we were sort of shaken and looked like we were on the verge of tears; maybe it’s just because we were wandering aimlessly about campus. A lot of folks actually came to talk to us; folks actually took us into buildings to give us tours to walk around — I came away with a sense that this is a place where people actually look out and they pay attention,” he said. 

Decatur noted that when he reflects on the 40 years since he was first introduced to Kenyon, what he originally admired about the College turned out to be as meaningful as he had anticipated. “That curiosity and rigorous inquiry coupled with a genuine sense of friendship and care for others are the things that really matter about Kenyon, and those are the things that I take away from here,” he said. 

The celebration was accompanied by remarks made by other close colleagues, including Bowman, who acknowledged Decatur’s many contributions to the College, such as his steady leadership during the pandemic and the strides he made in attracting a more diverse student body. He praised Decatur not only as a former president, but also as a community member whose kind and passionate nature has made the College a better place. “The many of us who work with him closely are familiar with the patience, the generosity and the respect that he shows co-workers, a reflection both of personal values, and more broadly of the kind of place to work and learn that we aspire to be,” Bowman said. “Sean knows that our passions, our wonders and our marvels — both scholarly, like bioluminescence and protein folding, and less scholarly, like Star Wars or This Is Us — define who we are and make the world a better place.”

Klesner praised Decatur’s many interests and the eagerness with which he shared them with the Kenyon community. He recounted the candidness of the introductory speech Decatur gave in March 2013 before he became president, and how he continued to embody this sincerity throughout his presidency. “He definitely used his own research on protein folding as a metaphor for the transformational character of learning in the liberal arts. But when Sean mentioned how he enjoyed using his Peanuts stationery as a boy, that he would fit in here was reinforced for me, for it told me he was comfortable with who he is,” Klesner said. He also recounted Decatur’s efforts to connect with the student body on a more personal level, such as by sharing his love for the “Fast & Furious” movies or scheduling time on the weekends to play Dungeons and Dragons with students.

Beyond the remarks given at the podium, several attendees in the audience acknowledged Decatur’s ability to help everyone feel a sense of belonging. “As an African American male, the whole culture of Kenyon, a private liberal arts institution, was so new to me when I joined, so I really look to him almost as a role model to see, okay, how did he navigate this place?” Senior Director of Campus Life James Jackson said. “I’m really appreciative to have served under him for seven years.”

Even many of those who did not have the opportunity to develop a close relationship with Decatur attended the event to show their support. “Being in the Class of 2025, even though we only really had him on campus for a year, you still felt that he had an impact on your faculty, your mentors, who would speak rather fondly of him and talk about his leadership during the pandemic,” Elizabeth Redmond ’25 said. “Even just being here for the end of D-Cat’s tenure, you really get a sense of the stability and community that he brought to campus.”

Although Decatur himself will be departing the Hill, he leaves behind the legacy not only of a successful president, but also as a man whose empathy, passion and humility embodied the spirit of the College. Following the celebration of the Decatur Decade, the Kenyon community wishes him the best as he begins to prepare for his new position as president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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