Reason to Believe: A Statement from President Decatur


(Aerial photo by Brendan Keefe, ’90)

This piece was guest-written by President Decatur

Thank you to the editors of The Thrill for inviting me to share my reflections on the election. I published an initial set of observations last week on my blog, but after nearly a week of personal reflection, of listening to discussions on campus, and of observing events around the country, I have some additional thoughts to share with the community.

From its beginning, the campaign of Donald Trump featured statements and rhetoric that were racist, misogynist and xenophobic. This is not merely a partisan view; again and again these comments were condemned by conservatives as well as progressives. The presence of such rhetoric in our election system is no surprise. It is not even new to presidential politics: segregationist George Wallace ran for president four times, once receiving 46 electoral votes (and this is not ancient history; these were in my lifetime). Nor should we be surprised that racism and sexism are alive and well in the United States. Many of us had observed or experienced prejudice before November 8, and we fully expected that this struggle would continue (regardless of the outcome of the election) on November 9.

So, what feels different this time? One thing to remember is that it is not just the rhetoric of Mr. Trump himself, but the shocking and violent displays that accompanied him along the campaign trail, and that now threaten to become part of our regular, public discourse. The increase in hate crimes that has occurred after the election is real; the harassment of Muslim Americans, Latinx Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and LGBT+ Americans at schools and on campuses around the country is real. If Mr. Trump is to live up to the standard of becoming a president for all Americans, it is time for him to firmly condemn this violence and commit to protecting the safety and rights of all Americans. As president of Kenyon, I state clearly that all members of this community are valued, and that those who feel threatened should know that I (and my colleagues on the faculty and staff) believe wholeheartedly in your presence in our community, and we will work hard not only to ensure that you are safe, but also to ensure that you thrive.

Another factor that makes this feel different is that Mr. Trump not only made hateful comments, he pledged to implement policies that will trample the rights of many. Several policies now under consideration (mass deportation, bans on Muslim immigration, stop-and-frisk policing, repeal of equal employment protections for LGBT+ people, among others) would have a direct impact on the lives of some of our community members. I know there will be continued talk of the softening or an evolution of these positions as a Trump administration takes power, but its difficult to feel optimistic. Those of us who are committed to protecting essential civil and human rights should get informed, get organized and work tirelessly on these issues.

We are a diverse community, and our community includes members who voted for Mr. Trump. I (and my colleagues) also believe in your presence here, and we fully support and respect your rights to express your political viewpoint. This is not an empty statement; rather, it is core to our mission as a liberal arts institution, one where ideas and opinions must always be expressed, respected and contested. I’ve listened, and I know that there are many reasons that you may have voted for Mr. Trump without the intent of endorsing bigotry. Fundamentally, the political diversity of our community is a strength, not a weakness. This campaign season has taught all of us the dangers of isolation, of engaging only with those with the same opinions, and of not developing an understanding or empathy of those who have different viewpoints.

Connecting and listening across lines of difference is essential for the future healing and success of our nation. I urge those at Kenyon who supported Mr. Trump to listen thoughtfully and respectfully to others here who are feeling angry and threatened by the election.  Too much of the media discussion in the past week has focused exclusively on how those who have felt directly pained and threatened by this electoral outcome have an obligation to reach out to those who voted for Mr. Trump. This one-sided approach is inadequate the burden of building bridges should not fall exclusively on those who are feeling vulnerable. We will not develop a sense of empathy across the great divides that separate us unless both those who voted for Mr. Trump and those who opposed him follow the advice that Bryan Stevenson laid out so eloquently in his visit to campus earlier this year: take a risk and get close to those who are different from you, hear the stories and perspectives behind the pain they are feeling, and reassure them that you see, hear and respect their humanity.

Bruce Springsteen ends his great (but depressing) album Nebraska with the song “Reason to Believe,” each verse telling a Job-like story of a character facing loss but ending with the phrase, “At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.” To our Kenyon students all of you, regardless of political views or your vote in the past election you represent my reasons to believe. If we are successful in our institutional mission, Kenyon will produce graduates who firmly reject bigotry; who understand that words have meaning and should be crafted with care; who speak and act with integrity; who address difficult problems with reason, analysis and evidence; who understand that knowledge and preparation are integral to doing a job well; who are curious about the world and others; who do not shut out or exclude people or ideas based on assumption or stereotype; and who believe that civil discourse has room for neither personal attacks nor the abridgment of basic rights and freedoms of community members.  This is what I hope you are learning at Kenyon now, go put this into practice.

16 responses

  1. So interesting that President Decatur mentions “a one sided approach” and “political diversity” in a piece that presents no balance or political diversity whatsoever. The Kenyon faculty has an obligation to consider students on both sides of this vote, yet no mention is made of Mrs Clinton’s responsibilty — to be an honest, law abiding citizen and candidate. Her integrity cost her everything in this election. There are critical lessons to learn from her failure that will be required learning for these students as they begin their professional careers. None more valuable than non-negotiable requirement of integrity.

    As a parent, I see that president Decatur is speaking to many of the students there; while failing others terribly. My child is hardly free to speak his mind and celebrate his vote in a classroom where professors are crying over election results. You’ve also failed your students parents — who pay the tuition bills.

    Kenyon is a beautiful place, but it has become a school of a singular political point of view — whether you choose to acknowledge that or not. Real free speech is long lost. As is the political balance that exists off of today’s college campuses. That is every bit as dangerous as the campaign you are damning. Maybe more so.

    • I could not agree more with your assertion of faculty obligation.

      For what it’s worth, please know that there are members of this faculty who also see great danger in the College’s reaction, both official and unofficial, to recent events. While the overall “message” (inclusiveness) is one I can get behind, the specific tactics and rhetoric being used are, often, the very tactics and rhetoric being decried (exclusiveness). The rampant hypocrisies fueling both major presidential campaigns should stand as a reminder that we should pay closer attention to what is done instead of focusing so much of what is said.

      And I’m afraid that your claim of “institutional” bias is also correct. For six years, as I worked toward tenure, I was told by colleagues, some of whom have known me for years, that I should “be careful” about revealing my beliefs…that I should “keep my head down” for fear of political/professional blowback. I know this advice was offered with the best of intentions, with the utmost concern for my future success and well-being. But the very fact that they felt compelled to offer it suggests a severe lack of and intolerance for diversity of thought. The funny thing is, my core beliefs seem to be, for the most part, in complete accord with those held by the vast majority of the campus. As indicated, most major differences seem to arise from disagreement over the efficacy of specific methods (see my critique above: I struggle with a call for unity that, even if unintentionally, trades on division).

      Still, for the most part, I followed the advice…it’s a decision I don’t live with easily. But that’s on me. My choices are my own.

      In conversations around campus, my recent concerns have been met with knee-jerk assumptions about the direction of my vote. In almost every case, those assumptions have been incorrect. And I see no reason to confess my vote here—the entire point is that, in this particular context, it should not matter. A true liberal arts education is not shaped by political ideology. When done with absolute integrity of purpose, it’s very much the other way around.

      It saddens me that we have let you and your family down. I’m sorry for any part I have played in that.

      Ben Viccellio
      Associate Professor of Drama & Film

    • I’m not sure what in President Decatur’s statement makes you think that your critical insights about Clinton’s candidacy (or more to the point, your son’s) wouldn’t be welcome at Kenyon. Decatur himself is not politically neutral and has no obligation to pretend that he is; neither was former President Phil Jordan, who made no secret of his Republicanism in or out of the seminars he occasionally taught. Like his ideological opposite, Peter Rutkoff (to take another example from my personal experience), he used it to productive purposes in the classroom and in the broader community–not as a cudgel, but as a perspective to be considered alongside others. To this day, I’m neither a Rockefeller Republican nor a Marxist, nor did exposure to Fred Baumann turn me into a Burkean, nor did Ryn Edwards convince me that her perspective on radical feminism was right for me (or indeed even that radical). But I’m better for knowing first-hand what those perspectives are, because I had teachers who were skilled enough to show me, and–forgive me–parents who were wise enough to let me figure out for myself what I was or was not “free” to say without tying it to the question of who was paying for what.

      Free speech means freedom to speak, not any sort of guarantee that your views will be popular locally, or that the ideological makeup of your neighborhood is “balanced” by any given person’s reckoning. As it happens, I’m now a professor at an institution whose faculty and student body might be somewhat more to your liking in terms of their voting patterns. The president I report to was a political appointee in the George W. Bush administration and is widely expected to assume, when he leaves, some role of responsibility within the state Republican party or the Trump administration. But he’s good at his job, which means that I’m free to express my opinions in and out of the classroom so long as I am doing it in a way that advances the education of all my students. This can be done well or poorly; fortunately, I’m good at my job too. And while I appreciate that the tuition bill from Kenyon can put anyone in a pessimistic frame of mind, you might consider that your son is in the hands of people who take his intellectual and political freedoms at least as seriously as you do. That’s what this message from President Decatur is trying to tell you and every other member of the Kenyon community.

  2. Dear President Decatur, Joe Leone here, Kenyon Class of 1987 (and Marquette grad school ’89 and law school ’92). I found your letter both terribly one-sided and wrong on the merits. For example, it is manifestly incorrect to assert it’s a violation of their rights to deport undocumented immigrants, Additionally, you appear to be unaware that during the eight years of Mr. Obama’s presidency, 2.8 million people were deported. Your credibility is jeopardy.

  3. It is ironic that the presumably conservative Kenyon parents are writing in a whining tone that is reminiscent of the liberal tone conservatives so often decry. Trump ran on a platform of hate and fear. One only needs to view a random sampling of Trump rally footage to know that this is so. These are not political ideologies. They are marketing strategies that are designed to conceal the true nature of the product for sale. So I can only assume that a hearty debate about the relative merits of conservative and liberal policies would be welcome in a Kenyon classroom. I believe that the central point of President Decatur’s post was to assure the entire Kenyon community that hate speech and fear mongering are not up for debate at Kenyon. If the student whose parents wrote to complain feel strongly about Trump’s Republican platform, and wishes to debate or even simply express his thoughts, he will have to do so vigorously and with courage. For it would have to be a fine and nuanced political platform indeed that would legitimately render the expressed xenophobia of the President-elect anything other than “deplorable” in public service. There is no need in President Decatur’s post to balance his message with statements about Secretary Clinton’s notable lapses in integrity. The article was not written to vindicate her. In fact her defeat renders that goal blissfully bygone. The article was written to emphasize the safety of socially marginalized people in the Kenyon community, and to exhort the students of whatever political persuasion to do the same. President Decatur wisely suggests using the power of critical thought that is the hallmark of a Liberal Education. Furthermore, a Liberal Education is only rarely confused with a liberal political orientation among those who can think and feel at the same time.

    • The only one claiming he ran on hate and fear is you and your dying liberal progressivism. Trump won because you think we’re afraid. We’re not, and we proved it Tuesday. You and your cronies who are protesting, the liberal arts kids who don’t know how the real world works because they’ve been fed bullshit by the likes of professors here, they are the ones who are afraid. They are the ones who blame everything other than their own inflated egos. That’s why Trump won. Not to mention Obama was ruining this country economically. But that’s another story your liberal arts education skims over unless you actually study economics. Sad!

      • Dear Anonymous.
        I agree with you completely. I am afraid. As are my cronies, it would seem. I agree with you completely. Thiose who voted for President-elect Trump proved they are not afraid. Running on a platform of fear and hate unifies the disenfranchised and cures them of their fear. But there is a difference between a platform and an emotion as anyone who has studied human beings would know. And leaders of any party should not pander to emotion as that is the nature of leadership: to rise above our basest instincts which are part of the “economies” of every human endeavor. (As any compassionate and POLITICALLY MODERATE thinker such
        as myself would realize.) It must have been your lack of fear and your anonymity that allowed you to assume I was a liberal progressive.

  4. Those who voted for Trump, whether students, alumni, or faculty, cannot simply disavow his documented racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and xenophobia by saying “but I’m not those things.” Your vote is entwined with them.

    If you wish to celebrate your vote, it is incumbent on you to first clearly and concretely repudiate those repugnant aspects of his campaign and pledge to take all action in your power to hold your president-elect accountable to the values you claim to hold but which were not deal-breakers for you when you cast your vote. Without such affirmative and specific commitment, you are celebrating a vote that carries with it definitive declarations of intent that directly threaten the immediate safety and liberty of fellow students and the family members and friends they may have in other communities and are at odds with Kenyon’s community values and with the traditions of liberal arts education, with our Constitution, and, by the way, with actual conservative values as well.

    In the interest of promoting a vibrant discussion, I’d like to preempt some less useful responses:

    You should spare us the false equivalence of “but you have not repudiated Clinton’s lack of integrity!” This comparison simply does not stand up to logical scrutiny.

    Regarding “free speech” arguments: the first amendment protects citizens from speech constraints imposed by the government, up and until the point that their speech presents a clear and present danger to others. It does not oblige a private institution to tolerate any speech it finds unacceptable, and nor does it offer the speaker protection from the moral opprobrium of their community.

    Regarding “academic freedom” arguments: this concept only applies to sitting faculty pursuing scholarly and didactic inquiry, and carries with it a burden to demonstrate the rigor and intellectual honesty of their scholarship, as an Oberlin professor recently found out.

    Professor Viccellio, if you are pursuing real academic inquiry from a perspective that goes against the grain, I will absolutely defend your right to do so, and I do not believe the Kenyon administration would punish you for such. However, if you are fellow-traveling with ideologues who traffic in hate speech, it is not unjust that the burden of proof is on you to differentiate your position, demonstrate the rigor of your process, and explicitly repudiate the positions that you are enmeshed with that do not meet the standards of academic rigor.

    • Thank goodness I’m not “fellow-traveling with ideologues who traffic in hate speech.” Not sure what in my post would suggest that. And I have no idea what the Kenyon administration would or would not do…I am not a member. I was simply relaying the warnings given to me by other faculty, some of whom have taught at Kenyon for decades, and all of whom seem to be very much WITH the political “grain,” as you put it. It would be strange if their read of the overall community’s aversion to certain political approaches wasn’t based in some kind of truth. On top of this, I have seen how, in otherwise civil discussion, these specific political stances are met with immediate and unwarranted character attacks.
      This is not a matter of the very specific issue of “academic freedom.” That’s why I deliberately didn’t use that phrase. And this is not a matter of the equivalency (false or otherwise) of the candidates. And it’s not a matter of a private institutions obligation (legal or otherwise) to free speech. It’s a matter of human decency on all sides, which should, in my opinion, transcend matters of law. It’s about understanding that you can’t fight the destructive flames of identity politics with more identity politics. And you can’t help the marginalized by marginalizing others. All we’re doing is perpetuating a cycle of division.

      Ben Viccellio

      • I agree with you completely, and have long felt that we should protest with dollars and not epithets. But that would require for liberals and moderates, at least, to go without “things” and comforts. As a liberal leaning moderate I have noticed that this is far from our strong suit.

    • Then don’t. Unless you’re hoping that the threat of financial withdrawal will dissuade the institution from expressing its truth. But that would be unwholesome and it would fly in the face of free thought. So you’re probably not doing that.

  5. Can we at least agree on denouncing harassment? Other college Presidents have spoken out:

    “It is essential that we immediately reaffirm the core values of our democratic nation: human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.” Is even this controversial now?

    Perhaps we will disagree about immigration policy, taxes, and missing e-mail messages, but can we not agree that racist slurs, neo-Nazi graffiti, and harassment of LGBT+ citizens are unacceptable on our campuses and in a civil society?

    We must urge President-elect Trump to denounce the deplorable voices of violence and hatred who act in his name.

    • He did. Now Hillary and Obama needs to do the same with the protests that are becoming violent and are calling for the assassination of Trump and rape of Melania.

  6. I agree. Please understand however, how infuriating it is to hear the president-elect denounce even civil protest as unfair. It does seem, and time will be needed to verify or not, that Mr. Trump finds ordinary events that do not go his way as unfair. If this turns out to be the case, people will become agitated as the basic freedoms designed to contain passions will appear to be at risk, and subject to the frailties of a leader whose emotional grasp on the realities of life seems tenuous.

  7. Pingback: Things You Missed on Campus Last Semester | The Thrill

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