OBSERVER EXCLUSIVE: President Nugent’s State Of The College

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In conjunction with last week’s campus issue, the Observer is honored to publish a state of the college address from Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent.

It is no exaggeration to say that Kenyon today is the strongest it has ever been. Of course, Kenyon enjoyed “glory days” during the presidency of Gordon Keith Chalmers (1937-1956).  This period saw the founding of the Kenyon Review, the creation of the “School of English”—which brought “anyone who was anyone” in the literary world to this college on the hill, and a dramatic uptick in the academic profile of Kenyon (rated at the time the third best men’s college in the country!).  Unfortunately, while the Chalmers period was a tremendous success academically, it was disastrous financially. The college was close to bankruptcy. Ultimately, a non-academic businessman, Bill Caples (yes, he of the less-than-beloved eponymous Caples Hall), was brought in as president to put the college on a stable footing.

Today, while we wish there were more resources (for scholarships, student research opportunities and the like), we are on sounder financial footing than we have ever been before. And we should be mindful that we are more fortunate than some of our peers, who struggled much more during the recent economic recession. The majority of colleges across America laid off staff members, eliminated programs and undertook other drastic measures. At Kenyon, we tried to react in a way that reflected our fundamental commitments to people and to the educational programs for our students. We have made a number of changes and developed efficiencies around the edges, but we didn’t dramatically alter our educational core.

OK, financial health is important, but it’s not why we’re here, right? What about academics today at Kenyon? The news is all good. It remains true that each entering class comes with academic records even more impressive than the preceding classes. And not only are the “inputs” impressive, so are the “outputs”—what our graduates do. In recent years, we have become one of the very top institutions in garnering Fulbright post-graduate fellowships, Goldwater scholarships and other nationally recognized honors. This is important, I think, because it provides external verification that the education here really is rigorous and successful: when our graduates compete against the best in the country, we win. And this is true not only in strictly academic fields. A few weeks ago, we held an alumni event in New York City for Kenyon graduates working on Wall Street and in the financial services industry. I was so impressed by the many alumni who told me that their liberal arts education at Kenyon prepared them to succeed, they felt, beyond their peers from other educational backgrounds. (Who knew that a Kenyon English degree is a tremendous asset to a financial analyst?  Now I do.)

Another strength of Kenyon today, I believe, is that both our students and our faculty are increasingly diverse. A good deal of research has shown that bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and experiences leads to better decision making in the business world and a richer learning experience in the educational realm. It is simply no question that the world of the future—the world into which Kenyon students are graduating—will be a globally connected, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-faith environment. Our students must be prepared to thrive in this environment.  Again—as with financial resources (and not unrelated to them)—we are still not where we’d like to be in bringing diverse students, faculty and staff to Gambier. But there is a very marked change in recent years. When I arrived on the hill in 2003, the Kenyon student body was approximately 8 percent non-majority students. Today, that number is 20 percent. That’s progress.

Higher education today is under a great deal of scrutiny in the public media. Some critics claim that no learning is taking place (I know that’s not true at Kenyon.) Some claim that “bricks-and-mortar” colleges will disappear, replaced by totally online learning (this view has been around for at least a decade—and it hasn’t happened yet). Some claim that college isn’t necessary for most folks, while others assert that college is essential to America’s progress.  In other words, there’s a lot of turmoil in America today about what college is or is not, and what it should be.

What I see across the Kenyon campus today is a great surge of energy and a lot of thinking about new directions.  More than sixty faculty members are engaged in a project to articulate what the “essential skills” are that a Kenyon graduate should have, and how we can infuse those skills across the curriculum. There is a study of writing at Kenyon underway. There is a review of the KILM method of language instruction—is this the best methodology, or do we need to make changes? About a dozen faculty are involved in a project to develop “blended learning”—i.e., courses which might marry online and face-to-face instruction. In addition, we are developing an exciting new summer program at Kenyon which will bring adult learners to the campus in the summer and make Gambier more of a cultural center during the summer months.

I appreciate being asked to comment on the state of the college. I guess my one word response would be: terrific.

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