Section: Letter to the Editor

Letter to the editor: a call to the administration

Over the past three years, I have witnessed a coordinated effort by several administrators to control as many aspects of student life as policy can permit with increasing success. This has resulted in a systematic failure to include students in the College’s decision-making process, ultimately damaging the identity of Kenyon’s culture and the integrity of its environment.

Students have felt for a long time that their voices are being trivialized and that Kenyon is turning away from being an institution that celebrates our independence, our differences and our passion for improvement and progress. Instead, administrators have made decisions unilaterally that favor the financial interests of the College; Kenyon is turning into an institution that, as Colin Cowperthwaite ’18 so aptly put it, “you learn to obey.” If administrators continue to govern without the honest and unmitigated input of the student body, the College will be stripped of its identity and drastically harmed in the long term. To avoid such a fate, a channel of communication must be formed. Students and administrators must work together to increase civic participation and transform student government positions into more meaningful and effective roles.

There is no better analogy for the current state of our school than the 50-yard stretch of Middle Path between Gund Gallery and Rosse Hall. In the past two years I have seen the graffiti on this wall become more desperate and profane, as students’ playful comments on our comically grim situation turn into bitter discontent with the current administration. In the same span of time, I have seen the values of the student body snubbed, the identity of the College forcefully changed by administrative actions and the freedoms of the student body diminished. Students have taken to the wall to crudely show their frustration on the only platform they feel truly acknowledged: Whereas the wall used to house various peace declarations, expressions of love, and humorous phrases like “eat, pray, love #winemom”, now “F–K Admin” and personal attacks on administrators have been repeatedly spray-painted. This frustration, borne from the suppression of students’ voices, has repeatedly been ignored by the administration, covered up by a plank of wood or scrubbed away. If anything, these expressions have served as front-row displays of the tense relationship between the students and administrators, and discourage prospective students as they stroll past Ransom Hall. It is a vicious cycle, indicative of a relationship between students and administrators that is antithetical to progress of any sort.

When the organization I am president of, Delta Phi (D-Phi), sought self-improvement through disaffiliation with a consistently and inherently broken national Greek system, we were not provided with the full array of options. After several months of planning, it was only this month that I received a Twitter notification informing me that neither the members of D- Phi nor anyone else would be allowed the opportunity to become a local organization. This was a possibility discussed within the group and considered as a viable option, especially considering our distant relationship with Nationals. The only way a social organization can exist at Kenyon is within the boundaries of Greek life, so the official decision to prohibit any new local organizations felt not only personal, but vindictive to an organization that vigorously has committed to recovering from a history of inequitable social conventions and unhealthy norms. If Kenyon wants Greek life to depart from the archaic “Animal House” stigmas of the past and truly succeed in the social and academic arenas, then it seems counterintuitive to refuse the admission of new local organizations founded on healthier core ideals. It should support organizations looking to exist independently of the outdated values that many current Greek organizations are built on, not discourage their formation.

Greek organizations are a massive asset to the school, fielding donations from alumni and protecting the school from liability: National organizations’ insurance policies ensure that the chapter, not the school, will be liable for its members’ actions. With about 25 percent of the student body involved in Greek life, the College is protecting itself from a considerable amount of liability, and is better served by keeping these organizations prevalent and unchanged. Administrators have stated liability plays an essential part in these policy choices and that national organizations can better protect their members than local organizations, yet I can’t help but wonder how many more incidents of misconduct by national organizations have occurred or been investigated—compared to those of local organizations—only to dissipate upon the possibility of the donation pool drying up. It appears that the administration cares not for the individuals that comprise a group such as D-Phi, or any other Greek organization, but is instead concerned with the face value of having such institutions at Kenyon after we have gone. Greek organizations are a source of money, control and legitimacy for the College, an aspect of Kenyon’s that allows its sparse party scene to contend with other schools for applicants. In reality, the administration is limiting the amount of positive influence that these organizations have on student life through suffocating party policies and organizational obligations.

What is even more troubling is that this “no locals” policy has supposedly been in practice for years, but was only set in writing this month—if the Student Handbook is the only way students can understand the full scope of their rights and responsibilities, what other administrative practices exist that are they unaware of?

Systematically, the “Standards of Excellence” and party policies are a clear message to Greek organizations: Comply entirely or cease to exist. In creating strict, arbitrary stipulations and designations for how organizations are deemed “compliant,”administrators dictate the worth of Greek organizations rather than celebrating their unique strengths. Meanwhile, the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities’ conduct review process relies on alleged unfair practices and unconstitutional methods, often entrapping students or making them feel uncomfortable during questioning. Along with not being provided the proper 24 hours before interviewing in the case of investigations, students have allegedly not been made aware of the evidence against them in an effort to catch them in a lie, been made to feel uncomfortable or obligated to answer questions and have been held for hours at length with no explanation—all serious offenses in a long list of allegations from students that have felt victimized by an unclear and unfair investigation process. In an administration that is consistently reluctant to admit missteps, often requiring student uproar to elicit a genuine response, lack of accountability has become one of the largest issues. Students are unwilling and unable to trust administrators when they show no distinction between unwritten practices and enforceable policy unless changes are made.

With the somber, temporary departure of the PEEPS from campus, whose parties were regarded as some of the most special nights of the year, all-campus parties are likely to become an even more undesirable option for students to spend their weekend nights. In restricting all- campus parties through both policy and practice, students are losing their right to spend the weekend how they want and will certainly shy away from these events. The transferral of social policies to the Student Organization Handbook will significantly reduce student oversight, leading to even more strict policies, meanwhile the proposed BYOB option will most likely be unused, indicative of an administration indifferent to the wants and needs of the student body.

Considering that, in 2017, the administration’s Alcohol Task Force (ATF) found that a majority of alcohol abuse occurs in smaller parties and pregames rather than at large gatherings like all-campus events, I find these choices both puzzling and counterproductive. Why minimize a student’s desire to attend the safest alcohol-serving social event available? If organizations no longer desire to host all-campus events for fear of stepping over red tape, students will turn to smaller gatherings where alcohol abuse is more prevalent and acceptable, and the likelihood and severity of dangerous behavior will increase. (I can’t even begin to wonder how many students have stumbled out of an NCA so drunk that it is a miracle they made it home.) Couple this with increasingly common trends to supplement nights out with other drugs, and quieter parties begin to feel much more dangerous. Luckily, many of us can rely on our friends and peers—and sometimes even strangers—to help us through these situations. We will find ways to be there for each other no matter who runs the school, but by implementing policy that further discourages students from attending parties that can be regulated by servers, “floaters” and other organization members that protect the students from others and themselves, the administration is opening up the door for students to drink in an uncontrolled environment.

The fact that these party policies implemented in the Organization Handbook have been unofficial for years is doubly concerning; their effect has long been felt by those who frequent such all-campuses, or have since chosen not to. The administration’s actions are thinly veiled attempts to protect the College against possible litigation, undermine the personal responsibilities of students and organizations, and extend their reach as far as possible—all while potentially increasing the likelihood of tragedy for the students they are meant to protect. Administrators view students as the innate source of all liability, but what they fail to see is that their method of governance is responsible for some of the more dangerous aspects of campus life. In order for Kenyon is to abide by its dedication to continual self-improvement, administrators must treat the students as the engaging young constituents they are rather than just liabilities. Instead of helping students develop strong life skills like leadership, critical thinking and communication, the current method of governance encourages submission and discourages thorough examination.

Administrative misconduct does not end at its social policies or encroaching practices. The situation surrounding the Sexual Misconduct Advisors (SMAs)—an organization created for and run by students—is one of the most blatant signs of the administration’s true priorities. I can only imagine how many lives the SMAs must have saved, yet the SMAs were essentially stripped of their ability to effectively provide support, as their confidentiality policy, hotline and other facets of the program were eliminated due to so-called “liability risks.” Rather than becoming powerless under these severe limitations, it seems that the SMAs became a completely independent peer resource group, the Sexual Respect Peer Alliance (SRPA).

This does not mean SRPA is not a beneficial program to the student body; its creation is a testament to the SMAs and their ability to adapt to a hostile environment. In the face of sweeping national legislation regarding Title IX, a resource like the SMAs was simply crucial to the health of students, especially considering the lack of real infrastructure available to support students mentally and emotionally. You needn’t look far at Kenyon to find testimonies of students wronged by the Title IX process. The College has made a consistent effort of dismissing and silencing survivors of sexual misconduct, siding with aggressors and refusing to admit any wrongdoing throughout the process. If students are faced with the choice of reporting to an administration that has prioritized sheltering itself from liability and assailants from culpability, they are inherently denied the safety, support, and trust that anyone undergoing the jarring Title IX process deserves.

Since my first year at Kenyon in 2017, administrators have repeatedly shown that they have grown incapable of perceiving students as anything other than liabilities. With the erasure of off-campus housing, the apparent dismantling of peer counselors, and the ever-restricting social policies put in place, it has become clear administrators’ priorities lie within the financial well-being of the College. Because of this tumultuous history, there are more than a few students that feel that this administration is an out of touch and unsympathetic body. This method of governance not only harms the relationship with current students but is detrimental to the future health of the College.

For years, students have complained about the decaying relationship between the student body and administration, but often only amongst themselves. Many students, myself included, have felt that their grievances would fall upon deaf ears. Instead, much of the student body has left it in the hands of the Senate and Student Council to speak for us, leaving them to sort out the problems that our collective silence has magnified. It is much easier to enjoy the four years you are given, shrug at the problems that loom too large to fix, and move on with a cap and gown—but the sad truth is that Kenyon as we know is beginning to fade. It has become all too clear that there is not a powerful enough vessel through which the student body can communicate with the administration.

If students’ ideas and opinions hold no weight in the face of overreaching power, then we are taught not to fight for our own beliefs and enact change, but rather to lay down helpless in the face of adversity. If the College is beholden to what is written policy as administrators have stated, then it concerns me that some of the most sweeping changes ever to campus life have come as a result of unwritten practices; such discrepancies have serious implications and will only lead to confusion about student’ rights and the administrators’ power. As it stands now, the Student Council is the only legitimate channel of communication between the administration and the student body, especially given the extremely diluted powers of the Campus Senate. Any discourse that remains feels entirely artificial: Look no further than the most recent Student Council forum, where many students (of the 40 that attended) felt they were provided inadequate answers and questioned the motives of the meeting’s timing—during finals week and, more importantly, a pandemic. Administrators stated that the Handbook revision has been a two-year process, so it vexes me as to why these Handbook discussions have been squeezed into a two-week period amidst an already unorthodox school year; it feels more prudent that any substantial policy changes be delayed until students return although policy changes themselves may not even guarantee administrators’ willingness to color inside the lines. It is no secret that Kenyon students feel a deep connection to Gambier, so offering forums in the current virtual format seems like a conscious choice to limit student input. If this is the example that is set before us, a system where students simply must oblige to the rules without proper discourse, then I fear students will be ill-equipped to achieve their aspirations beyond Kenyon and the value of their degrees reduced.

Through conversations with my peers, it has become evident to me that students don’t necessarily care about how these policies affect every- day life as much as they care about the symbolic worth and implications of such policies. Kenyon students value their ideals, freedoms and intellectual passions far more than they do the sometimes-tedious weekend happenings, so it is frustrating for students to see their influence over their own environment purposely stifled. They do not weigh the quality of a party on a Friday night as greater than the quality of time spent better understanding the world, and each other—in fact, I would argue that they weigh it less. Students want the ability to gain substantive experience that prepares them for meaningful roles in society, but if we exist unaware of the practices that we are subject to then all we are prepared for is blind consent. The balance required of any good governing system no longer exists at Kenyon, and decisions with seismic implications are being made without the support, consent and sometimes knowledge of the student body. I know I cannot speak for all students, but I know that I am not alone in my assessment of this broken relationship and my desire to improve Kenyon.

A genuine channel must be formed through which the concerns, opinions and ideas of the student body can be heard by the administration, and where students have a say in how they are governed and protected going forward. At the very least, Kenyon must be run by administrators that don’t actively disregard students’ voices and instead choose to listen to them. Kenyon has its fair share of problems, and not all may be up for democratic discussion, but none can be equitably resolved without a cohesive partnership between the student body and the administration. If students are to fully exercise the skills which Kenyon claims to value as an institution of higher learning and personal development, then safeguards and procedures must be implemented which allow for meaningful discussions between students and administrators. Kenyon prides itself on its students’ ability to be there for each other and for future generations, so, now more than ever, students must strive to uphold what makes Kenyon special.

I love this place and the people who make it whole with all my heart, but it deeply saddens me to see it torn, piece by piece, policy by policy, from the hands of the students. I will always cherish Kenyon for the opportunities it has given me and the incredible relationships that it has allowed me to build. However, I fear that if students and administrators cannot work together to remedy this rift, the Kenyon that I and my fellow classmates of the class of 2021 will leave behind will not be the place we loved but merely a shadow of what it used to be.

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