Section: Opinion

On the Record: President Julie Kornfeld on campus dialogue

The Collegian sat down with newly inaugurated President Julie Kornfeld, former vice provost for academic programs at Columbia University, to discuss the politicization of college campuses, Kenyon’s commitment to open dialogue and Kornfeld’s transition into the Office of the President at a time of nationwide unrest.

In your inauguration speech, you spoke on the challenges facing higher education, including the “politicization of campuses leading to disruptions and, in some cases, violence.” What did you mean by the “politicization of campuses?”

We’re seeing people having a deep political divide and using that politicization to disrupt education. Politics have come onto campus. It’s always been a part of campus, but it’s led to disruptions in ways that — I wouldn’t say [have] never been seen because you can go back to 1968 at Columbia and other places — but it’s been some time since then. 

Could you share your perspective on what healthy protest looks like on campuses? How should administrations balance free speech with concerns for student safety? 

I don’t think there’s any doubt as president that I support free speech, and I believe in students’ rights to protest. As president, I have a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all my students. And so that’s the challenge in this moment when people feel threatened by speech. Certain speech, certain kinds of chants and other kinds of things make others feel like they may not belong. As a president, you’re trying to balance free speech and the ability for our campus to be a place where diversity of thought is accepted and welcomed and fostered. 

At the same time, you have to balance that with the safety and well-being of students and our community. That is the very difficult moment we’re living in — which is that we all want people to have difficult conversations, to engage in thoughtful dialogue. Colleges are a place for learning and being in uncomfortable conversations, and having dialogues that challenge our own beliefs and challenge us to think differently. That’s what college campuses do. I feel like that’s my role as a president and that’s why I also think it’s not my role to take a political stand. 

The challenge is doing that in a very politicized, very sensitive moment. It’s hard because we want to ensure that people also feel like they are part of their community and I don’t ever want there to be speeches or actions that threaten any member of our community — Jewish or Palestinian. And how people perceive safety and well-being is subjective at times. That’s the challenge. That’s the pain of this moment. 

You arrived at Kenyon on October 1, six days before the October 7 attacks on Israel. Could you talk about your experience as you transitioned to Kenyon in light of the nationwide unrest?

It was certainly a difficult moment to be a college president, and a difficult way to enter a new community. What I can say is that I have been really proud of this community. I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to be here at this moment in time, because this is a community that does really value dialogue and respect for one another in ways that I haven’t seen on other campuses. This community has a long history of fostering constructive, thoughtful dialogue around difficult topics, and I’ve seen that since I’ve been here. It’s not to say we’ve done everything perfectly, and it’s not to say that everybody has agreed all the time. But I think we’ve managed the disagreement in ways that have been respectful. 

People in the community have held each other to a community standard that has kept people from doing some of the things that we’ve seen, saying some of the things, behaving in ways that we’ve seen on other campuses, because there’s a sense of community here… In other campuses where you’re in large urban settings, you also have a lot of people that come in and out of campus who can say things and not have to live with the consequences of those thoughts or actions. We don’t have that here and that has held us together in a moment when it’s been challenging in other places. Even at times where people have used rhetoric that has been inflammatory, for example, within days, other people have had conversations with those individuals and things have changed in a productive way. 

You mentioned in your inauguration speech that you think it’s important that there’s a diversity of thought in academia. Could you speak more to where you see diversity of thought at Kenyon specifically?

I mentioned it in my speech because I think it’s a constant goal. I think that there’s this perception outside of higher education that only certain kinds of thoughts are accepted on campus, and that if people don’t agree with certain kinds of thoughts, their voices are silenced. I don’t believe that to be true. Do I think we could continually do better at that on college campuses? I do. That’s what I meant when I said we need to ensure that we have diversity of thought. We need to ensure that we accept students from all over the world, from all different backgrounds, from all different socioeconomic statuses. Only when you have people who come from different perspectives, and beliefs and values to a college, do you have that intermingling of thought. 

How will you, during your presidency, help navigate Kenyon away from these threats of politicization and violence that you mentioned? 

It’s not work I can do alone. It’s in partnership with the community, with the students, faculty and staff. It’s about ensuring access so that we have diversity of thought. It’s ensuring that we have opportunities for thoughtful conversation and dialogue and providing a forum for that — talks and opportunities for people to come together. It’s about having open communication between students and faculty, and students and administration, so that we have a really good sense of what’s important to our community and we can act and behave in ways that support that. That’s what I’m hoping to do.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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