Startling new changes to the College’s Student Handbook and Student Organization Handbook serve as a stark reminder of how far the College has strayed from the original mission and purpose of the Campus Senate. During my three years in the Senate, serving as its co-chair and as a student representative, I watched as administrators warped the College’s only meaningful democratic institution for their own uses and gutted the Senate of its oversight powers.
For nearly half a century, the Senate’s constitution included among its powers the oversight of the College’s Student Handbook. The Senate was entrusted to “legislate within the jurisdiction of the Campus Government rules for the regulation of student life and extracurricular activities” and it had “exclusive power” to do so (II.1.d, II.2.c, Constitution, as of Oct. 28, 2016). At Kenyon, unlike many other colleges, there was an expectation for students and faculty alike to engage in the process of self-governance. This exercise in democracy came part and parcel with the liberal education Kenyon prided itself on. Students and their professors worked in tandem to determine the policies to which students would abide. The community’s involvement in the institution lent a valuable sense of democratic legitimacy to those policies.
I do not mean to say that the Senate was some idyll of a governing body without its own problems. Indeed, when I became co-chair, it was mired in confusion about its mission and the extent of its legislative abilities. However, despite these challenges, the Senate still managed to achieve meaningful changes to student policy in areas such as Title IX, free speech and protest.
In the fall of 2018, the Office of Student Engagement (OSE) dismantled the Senate’s power to review and alter the policies regulating student life with sweeping constitutional revisions. Currently, the Senate’s legislative powers are limited to “deliberat[ing] and … adopt[ing] policy recommendations on whatever matters are of general importance to the broader campus community” and “provid[ing] recommendations such as resolutions and legislative proposals to the College President and/or Senior Staff” (I.2.a, I.2.c, Constitution, Oct. 18, 2018). These “powers” amount to bupkis. In place of obtaining the consent of the governed through Campus Senate, the OSE will now merely “strive to discuss major policy changes” to the Student Organization Handbook “with Student Council prior to implementation” (Student Organization Handbook, Draft 5.1.20). This means that the OSE can make changes to student life policies without the approval of or consultation with the College’s students, faculty and staff. Today’s Kenyon students are receiving a very different kind of education in governance than their predecessors. Seen in the best light, perhaps this is Kenyon’s way of preparing students for a world in which democratic backsliding and Potemkin village legislatures are fast becoming the norm.
These changes come amidst a barrage of administrative overreach. In 2017, when the College’s own Alcohol Task Force found that all-campus parties were the drinking event least associated with risks of alcohol poisoning, the Office of Student Engagement (OSE) did not look for ways to expand these events. Instead, they are taking every effort to stamp out all-campuses, leading to an increase in the number of small unregistered parties with unregulated alcohol that the Task Force had determined to be most dangerous. And while the rest of the nation was sounding the alarm on the mental health and sexual assault crises across college campuses, the OSE took beloved student resources to the chopping block, such as the Peer Counselors and Sexual Misconduct Advisors. These steps were met with outcry from students but, lacking any formal powers to challenge the OSE’s restructuring of student life, the Senate remained neutered.
Making matters worse, administrators are not shy about abusing their power when they suspect students and student groups of violating College policy. For instance, when the BSU hung flags to call attention to increased harassment of minority groups, senior administrators flouted the Handbook’s policies regarding free speech and civil protest, sending Campus Safety to remove the offending materials.
Multiple student groups allege that the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSRR) has brought them in for questioning without the Handbook’s required 24 hours of notice. Others claim that they have confiscated students’ phones, that they have forced students to incriminate themselves by signing documents saying they will answer every question honestly or face disciplinary actions including expulsion, and that they have instructed students not to speak to or associate with friends during investigations.
Worse still, like overzealous prosecutors, the OSE and OSRR routinely attempt to limit access to the College’s established forums for due process. Time and time again they pressure students and student groups with threats of suspension and expulsion to strike “plea deals” rather than go through the Student Conduct Review Board, where they can be judged by their peers and professors. We recognize these bad behaviors as injustices in our nation. It is time to recognize them as injustices in our community.
The OSE and OSRR have proven to be irresponsible stewards of the rules and regulations for student life. Without a community based governing body to review their shifts in policy, administrators never have to think twice about pursuing whichever policies limit the College’s exposure to litigation, even when doing so comes at the cost of students’ rights, health and safety. I know many Kenyon administrators well. They are good people and they care deeply about students — their praiseworthy response to the COVID-19 crisis should tell you as much. But the institutional incentives bound to their positions too often require them to act in ways which are not in students’ best interest. The lack of any real check against these incentives only compounds this danger. To avoid further injury to campus life, students cannot continue to be apathetic on this issue. Instead, they must call on President Decatur to take efforts to restore Campus Senate’s legislative authority so that all handbook policies under its jurisdiction can be audited by the campus community.
Kenyon claims to develop responsible and educated citizens — tomorrow’s leaders on both the ballot and the bench. But today at Kenyon, you will not learn what a system of due process and equal justice might look like. Today at Kenyon, you will not learn what it means to affect change through anything resembling a formal legislative channel. Today at Kenyon, you will not learn how to participate in liberal democracy. Today at Kenyon, you will learn how to obey.