During the 41 years that I had the good fortune to teach at Kenyon, I noticed several trends. One of the most disturbing is what appears to be the Board of Trustees’ lack of faith in student capabilities, maturity and insights. That seeming lack of trust in students is exemplified by the Board’s consistent opposition to student efforts to help their peers. For example, the peer counselor program, established by Kenyon undergraduates working with Patrick Gilligan in the Cox Health and Counseling Center, supported students facing all manner of mental health challenges on campus. That initiative was terminated in 2018 by the administration, with the students having no opportunity to meaningfully question the decision or argue their case for the program’s continuance. The Sexual Respect Peer Alliance (SRPA), initiated in 2018, experienced the same treatment in 2022. At that time they lost their capacity to act as confidential, non-mandatory reporters of sexual abuse and harassment suffered by the students they were counseling. In neither case did the Board or senior staff work with students to create the legal structure in which peer counselors or members of SRPA could succeed. Such frameworks promoting successful peer-to-peer support exist at other campuses across the country, including Hamilton College, and the Universities of Michigan and Maryland. Why did the Board not follow the lead of these institutions?
Another example of the Board’s resistance to the idea of students aiding students is their ongoing refusal to allow student workers to vote on whether they want to form a union. Students, organized under the banner of the Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee (K-SWOC), have been petitioning for that basic right since the fall 2020 semester. K-SWOC, like peer counselors and SRPA, seeks to do what all unions do at their best, provide peer support in addressing important workplace issues that matter to their members. Just as other institutions have promoted successful programs like SRPA, trustees and administrators at colleges and universities such as Harvard, Grinnell, Hamilton and Dartmouth, are working effectively with their student-worker unions to improve working conditions. Why is the Board still investing vast sums in fighting a union vote (the Jones Day lawyers operating at the behest of the Board are paid, on average, $950 per hour)? In addition, why is the Board arguing that no undergraduate workers anywhere in the country have the right to form a union (a claim with far-reaching consequences that is central to their case against a union vote)? Does the Board think that Kenyon student-workers are less able to represent their interests through a union than are their peers elsewhere?
Communities are what their members do together or what is done in their names. Organizations like SRPA, Peer Counselors and K-SWOC, like all of the student groups and governing bodies on campus, build community organically when they stand with and for each other to accomplish shared goals. They make community by affirming the value of their members and constituents in a world and place where such value is not taken for granted, where equal treatment is not guaranteed. Students supporting students is a critical part of a college community. Why doesn’t the Board trust Kenyon students to play meaningful roles in standing up for, and helping, each other?
Former President Sean Decatur once urged those of us working at Kenyon to value the expertise of the College’s staff in creating our community. He was absolutely right. I strongly suggest that his insight should be extended to include students, treating them as full partners in the College’s operation. Students, with their varied life and work experiences, also need to be in the room where decisions made about them are finalized and actions impacting them are approved. They, like staff, need to be trusted, their perspectives valued. This does not mean that any student or student group will get whatever they want. It does mean that they have a voice, a voice that cannot be ignored, in negotiations with other community partners each of whom brings their different forms of expertise to bear on the important issues at hand. Learning to organize in pursuit of shared goals, to compromise as needed while being true to your principles, are skills that Kenyon graduates will need as they confront our deeply troubled world. Kenyon, as a leading educational institution, is an ideal place to learn just these lessons. The upcoming bicentennial offers a wonderful opportunity to initiate an all-campus conversation about the parts that all community members play in defining and achieving the common good at the College.