Section: Letter to the Editor

Top-down decision-making hurts the Kenyon Farm

Changes to the working, learning and living conditions of students at the Kenyon Farm and among the CAs raise two questions. The first concerns the substance of those decisions, and the second relates to the process by which they were made. I will deal with both substance and process in terms of the policies handed down by the administration to the Kenyon Farmers.

In evaluating the quality of a decision affecting the Kenyon community, a good question to ask is “Who benefits from it?” From what I can tell, the decision to kill the residential Farm program in no way advantages those students who are most committed to living, learning and working there. The Provost and President, who made the decision, have not provided a clear argument concerning the educational objectives their planned changes will fulfill. This by itself makes their decision questionable. 

The Farm’s mission, as I see it, is to promote student empowerment. It does so through a form of engaged learning in which students put ideas and methods about sustainable farming into practice in solving real-world problems. Farming is, therefore, a natural experiment, with the problems student farmers solve appearing at all hours, often unpredictably. The variables in their experiment — animals, plants, tools, and infrastructure — require around-the-clock care. Engaging in the open-ended experiment that is the Farm thus requires that students live in their natural laboratory so they can put the concepts and methods they are learning to work in understanding better themselves, farming, and their relations to the environment. Consequently, fulfilling the Farm’s educational promise not only requires a residential program but, as the student farmers recently argued, also requires expanding it. The Provost, as outlined in last week’s Collegian, has a different vision of the Farm’s place in the curriculum. 

Any debate about the Farm’s educational value should proceed from a clear statement of the program’s mission and explain the ways in which planned changes will enhance the achievement of those goals over existing practices. Such a discussion must include all stakeholders in the Farm, including the student farmers. That leads to my second point: how the decision to terminate the Farm’s residential program was made.

The proposed changes to the Farm are the product of a deeply flawed top-down decision-making process. Fixing that process requires ensuring that those impacted by a policy have a significant say in its creation and implementation. This means that students’ involvement in decisions affecting them is mandated, timely, respectful, meaningful, and enduring. Mandated and timely means that the administration must bring students into conversations about changes affecting them early in the decision-making process and in ways on which all parties agree. Meaningful indicates that students can challenge plans with which they disagree and also propose ideas of their own, and neither can be dismissed unilaterally. It also means that the outcome of these discussions must be the result of negotiations, real compromises.  

Respect is not to be confused with politeness. Politeness refers to courteous relations among individuals. Respect deals with the structure of interpersonal relations, demanding that all involved in a decision be treated with dignity as equals. Enduring means that decisions to which everyone agrees cannot be changed by one party. Moves to modify an agreement restart the mandated, timely, respectful and meaningful process of negotiation. This process need not yield perfect decisions. It does give all stakeholders, including administrators, the chance to learn with and from each other as they cooperate in solving problems, moving forward together rather than treating each other as adversaries. That is a true model of the liberal arts in action.  

Seriously considering these points is a way to start transforming decisions made for others into those made with them. Failing in that effort will only result in situations like the one that Kenyon’s Farmers are facing. Met with intransigence by the President and Provost, the Farmers are taking risks and expending energy to challenge that which threatens the Farm they love. This is as admirable as it should be unnecessary. If the Farmers were included in the discussion from the start — respected as equals, their perspectives valued — they could have been instrumental in forming policies aimed at enriching the Farm’s educational value. Left out in the cold, they must now protest in the cold. Living their principles should not be this hard at Kenyon.

Given the problems Kenyon’s student farmers, along with other student workers, have faced in getting the administration to include them in decisions that impact their working lives, it is little wonder that they are seeking to form a union. This route, radical as it may seem, is the only one that ensures that the decision-making steps listed above are reliably implemented. Otherwise, student workers will always find themselves reacting to decisions made for them rather than being partners with administrators in decisions made together. Unions, like all human creations, are imperfect, but they do give workers a say, and a say that cannot be ignored in the conditions of their employment. All workers, including our students, deserve that say.


Ed Schortman


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