Section: Letter to the Editor

Letter to the editor: A note on democracy at Kenyon

Dear Kenyon community, 

Is Kenyon a democracy? I am going to suggest that there are two possible ways of defining democracy and that Kenyon does not match either of them. I will also argue that this is a problem that threatens the integrity of the College into the future. Please bear in mind that my remarks focus on the structure of decision making at the College, not on the quality of those decisions or the motivations of those who make them. In my 40 years at Kenyon, I have been impressed by the high quality of leadership provided by the Board of Trustees and senior staff. However, we have become complacent, willing to let a few decide important matters for us. If we are committed to teaching democratic values in all that we do, then I suggest we need to shake off that complacency and rethink who should have a voice in decision making at the College and how that involvement should be structured. 

In the most limited sense, if democracy is a form of government in which the governed elect those who will exercise power in their name, then Kenyon is not a democracy. We do not elect the trustees, president or vice presidents, all of whom make decisions that impact every one of us. Is that a problem? Not necessarily. Within our democracy in the United States, there are many institutions that are undemocratic in this sense, corporations being among the most prominent examples. When members of the Board of Trustees said last semester that Kenyon is a business, they might have been thinking in these terms. If so, they were right.

Democracy can also be understood in a broader sense. In this view, an institution like Kenyon lives up to democratic principles when its members have the capacity to challenge the decisions made by its appointed leaders. If you cannot vote for those who impact your life, you can at least hold them and their decisions accountable. Accomplishing that task necessitates rethinking how policies are formulated and enacted at the College. Many decisions are currently made by leaders with little input from those they lead. The current situation faced by our CAs is but one example. In this case — as I understand it from attending a recent town hall and Student Council meeting devoted to the issue — changes were made to the expectations of CAs, how they are hired and rehired and the general conditions under which they work, which took them by surprise. Other surprises of recent memory were the College’s decision to outsource our Maintenance colleagues in 2012-13, the firing of the Horn Gallery sound technicians last fall and a proposal put forward two weeks ago to extend faculty advising over the summer. None were happy revelations.

The administrators who enacted the new policies argued that they listened to the concerns of those impacted by the policies before acting. “Listening” is an interesting choice of word. Listening is what administrators at Kenyon and other institutions often do when contemplating making changes. It is also what parents do with children. It is a process that is not reciprocal; those in power listen to the ideas of others and then go on to make their decisions without further input from those most affected by the choices. The result is the kind of surprises described above. 

Listening in this sense is undemocratic, as well-intentioned as it might be. More democratic is the process of dialogue in which all parties are treated as adults, as equals whose views are respected and are incorporated into the policies that emerge from those conversations. This sort of give and take, like democracy itself, is fraught with uncertainty. What is certain is that the compromises emerging from such dialogues should be a surprise to no one who was involved. Dialogue is also predicated on the notion that we all have something to learn from each other and something to say, that we are all teachers in some cases and students in others. Who among us on the faculty has not learned from our students? No one has all the answers to important questions. Ignoring the input of any of us runs the real risk of imposing policies that are unintentionally detrimental. 

It is often said that much of what students learn at Kenyon occurs outside the classroom. Truer words have never been spoken. I know that all of us on the faculty encourage critical thinking and free inquiry in our classes. One of the most persistent refrains I have heard over the years from faculty is that we wish that our students would take more risks in their coursework and that they would demonstrate more initiative. Practicing democracy in all its forms requires the courage and confidence to enact those virtues every day. Instilling that courage and confidence cannot be limited to the classroom. It has to be part of how the College practices democracy in all aspects of its operation. We may not be able to elect our leaders, but we need durable mechanisms that guarantee that anyone with a stake in life at Kenyon — staff, administrators, faculty and students — can participate meaningfully in all decisions that impact the institution. Across the College, we are not looking to be listened to but negotiated with as valuable adults. 

Unionizing is one way to achieve this aim. It is a means of practicing democracy within undemocratic institutions like corporations. Workers vote for their officers, they vote on contracts and, in some situations, can vote to disband unions. Each local controls its own affairs, drawing on a national organization for help in bargaining and legal advice. Ultimately, however, the choice of what workers in a particular place want to accomplish comes down to a vote of the union’s membership. This is the path that our student workers are following, demonstrating those same qualities of risk-taking and initiative we applaud in the classroom. In fact, what they are striking for this week is simply the right to hold a community election in which all student workers would have the chance to vote on whether they want to form a union. In holding that vote they would exercise the right to determine their own future rather than accept the decisions made for them by the administration and Board of Trustees. 

There is no doubt that the Board and senior staff have what they think are the best interests of our students at heart. Nonetheless, by treating student workers as incapable of making up their own minds on this crucial issue, the Board and senior staff seem to be saying that our students are not ready to be treated as partners in the operation of the College. The adamant refusal of the Board and senior staff to even respond to requests from student workers for meaningful discussions about the election only confirms the impression that the “adults” are done listening and do not want to talk with their “unruly children.” Such an impasse is troubling in part because it highlights a tension between what we espouse in the classroom and how the College is governed. Unresolved, that tension threatens to erode the integrity of this proud institution.


Ed Schortman

Professor of Anthropology


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