Kenyon College is a tiny liberal-arts school in rural Ohio. It is probably best known for its literary quarterly, the Kenyon Review, although it has also earned a fine reputation for its traditional curriculum and devotion to teaching. Kenyon is located in the town of Gambier (population 2,000), about an hour's drive from Columbus. Its proximity to farmlands and its remoteness from big-city life were deliberate: the school was originally an Episcopal seminary, back in the early 19th century, and it has retained much of that cloistered atmosphere. When I was a student there in the mid-70's, the school went by the nickname “The Magic Mountain,” less because it was built on a hill than because of its seeming allergy to the worldly, the contemporary, and the trendy. Kenyon has long preached Aristotelian moderation, and practiced it—sometimes to a fault (it has often been accused of excessive blandness). The students tend to show a remarkable deference to authority. Fraternities, for example, at least in the years I was there, were thoughtful enough to schedule their annual Spring Riot in cooperation with school authorities, so that fire officials and local sheriffs could be on hand when the “spontaneous” bonfire of books and dorm furniture got under way.
Kenyon was probably one of the only non-Southern-fundamentalist colleges in the country to have passed through the 60's nearly unscathed. This was probably due to the self-selection the school's atmosphere engendered. Kenyon has always attracted the type of student who preferred a traditional education, in a culturally conservative setting. After all, these Midwest high-school students (Kenyon draws overwhelmingly from Ohio) could have chosen to attend nearby Deni-son or Oberlin, both of which have a more political and cosmopolitan atmosphere and a higher level of student activism. The Kenyon student seems to seek out and appreciate precisely the sort of philosophical detachment Kenyon offers.
So when I began hearing rumors last spring of student unrest, clashes between faculty and administration, the firing of the editors of a student newspaper, I couldn't quite believe this was happening at tranquil Kenyon College. What was going on there? Was it simply a case of the provinces, yet again, getting things late? Were the students at Kenyon, at a time when the rest of the country was blissfully riding a wave of conservatism, finally discovering the 60's?
A logical supposition on my part, but, as it happens, untrue. What was going on at Kenyon, I learned upon investigation, was a reversal of the usual scenario: it was the school's administration that was engaged in a thoroughgoing reform effort, while students and faculty members were urging maintenance of the status quo. The current unrest at Kenyon, then, is not a reaction to the conservatism prevailing on college campuses but another manifestation of it. The “establishment,” on the other hand, traditionally a conserving, stabilizing force, is lobbying for swift and radical changes in the curriculum, indeed in the very ethos of the college. And just as the reformist spirit of the 60's latched on to various ideas that were in the air, so too does this reformist effort bear a standard of its age: in this case, a particular academic brand of radical feminism. The administration does not refer to it in these terms; it speaks mainly of women's studies and the new scholarship on women. But the fact is that women's studies comes in many forms, ranging from serious works of social history to overtly political ideology. At Kenyon, the latter predominates—and there the trouble begins.
The introduction of women's studies into the Kenyon curriculum was undertaken by the college's president, Philip Jordan, shortly after his appointment in 1975. Jordan announced his intention at that time of making Kenyon a “first-rate modern institution.” Since one could argue that the school was already first-rate academically, the operative word here would be “modern.” To continue on Kenyon's traditional course might be noble or rewarding, but it would hardly win the school (or its new president) national attention. Perhaps, though, something could be added to make Kenyon College competitive with its more fashionable counterparts, to bring it closer to the cutting edge.
What is surely on the cutting edge today is women's studies. Both as a field of its own and as a cross-disciplinary enterprise, women's studies is firmly established in many top universities, and even more so in the lesser-rank colleges and junior colleges. Unlike so many other academic innovations of the past decade, it is not struggling against forces of obsolescence but is, on the contrary, only now really coming into its own. It has lost its special-interest status and has rapidly become “main-streamed”—i.e., incorporated into the curriculum.
If President Jordan's moves in the direction of women's studies were fairly gradual—encouraging delegations of Kenyon faculty to attend the annual women's-studies conferences run by the Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) of which Kenyon is a member—his new provost, Jerry Irish, appointed in 1980, soon increased the momentum. He formed a Committee on Women and the Curriculum, appointed a Women's Academic Coordinator, and, finally, selected an associate provost who had a solid background in women's-studies development, a person who could share his assessment that “Kenyon, like our society, is sexist,” and that both, therefore, are in need of reform.
Joan Straumanis was courted for the position of associate provost while she was still chairman of the philosophy department at Denison. She had been active in feminism and women's studies for some time, especially in developing women's studies at Denison and urging that it be made a requirement for graduation. During the evaluation process, Professor Straumanis was encouraged to meet with members of the Kenyon faculty and administration to discuss her views on how the college's curriculum could best be reformed. Once at Kenyon, she gave a lengthy interview to one of the school's newspapers. “A very important aspect of women's studies,” she said, “is self-discovery and self-liberation . . . [students] begin to analyze their own lives in political terms as a natural result of a critical analysis of the distribution of power in society. . . . The study of the ways in which power is distributed, including its distribution by sex, may lead to political commitment.”
Disturbing as these comments were, they were mild compared to statements Professor Straumanis had delivered outside of Kenyon. For example, in her concluding remarks to a conference on “The Structure of Knowledge: A Feminist Perspective,” she announced that she would “close with some remarks on menstruation.” “It is very consciousness-raising,” she said, “to have your period during a conference like this one. . . . I don't know of any other conference where the speaker got up and said that she had her period. . . . For that and other reasons, women's studies will never die.”
But more worrisome than the hiring of a new associate provost was the discovery that the college had submitted a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in spring 1982, asking for funds to set up a women's-studies program. The money never came through, but the college set up a women's-studies course in 1983 nonetheless. It was in any case through the informal circulation of a draft of this document that most faculty members learned for the first time of the path their school was to take. (They also discovered that their provost had been, at the time of his appointment, “charged with the responsibility to reform the curriculum in a manner that would make women's studies an integral part of the liberal arts at Kenyon.”) “We are convinced,” the draft declared, “that women's studies is necessary to ‘humanize’ the liberal arts at Kenyon, and that it is erroneous to speak of the ‘humanities’ without conscious and systematic studies of women.” “The [women's-studies] course,” it went on, “will serve as an introduction to the new scholarship on women . . . [it] will consider the issues of class, racism, and homophobia as well as sexism . . . [it will] consider the transformation needed to achieve a non-sexist society.” (In the final version of the proposal, this last statement was modified to “will consider various views about whether changes are desirable.”)
To many on the faculty, Kenyon's request for funds for a program designed to “develop a critical attitude toward claims made by the liberal-arts curriculum” was tantamount to requesting $50,000 from the federal government for the purpose of self-destruction. They questioned whether the reforms recommended in the NEH proposal constituted radical intellectual criticism or, more than that, indoctrination. The acting chairman of Kenyon's political-science department, Harry Clor, took part in a debate on the question that appeared in the pages of the student newspaper, the Gambier Journal. He insisted that “there is a vital distinction to be made between a search for knowledge which happens to have political consequences and a political training for the sake of achieving them.” He also took issue with an assertion that had been made earlier by the provost that “all education is political” (a comment the provost is living to regret).
The other side of the case was argued by anthropology professor Rita Kipp, who supported the notion of humanizing education to make it more appealing to women. “Women's studies,” she said, “asks how we can make the sciences equally engaging to men and women. Can we make scientific work less ‘cold,’ less ‘hard'?” She faulted the traditional liberal-arts education for concentrating solely on the contributions of men, and for defining its terms on that basis. “Why,” she asked, “is an oil painting a ‘finer’ art than quilting?” As to the charge that women's studies espouses an explicitly feminist viewpoint and is thus biased, she concurred, but argued that since all teaching is inherently biased, at least “when a class clearly knows a teacher's feminist bias, students have the ground from which to challenge the teacher's interpretations.”
The Gambier Journal was increasingly becoming both the forum and the catalyst for debate on these issues. In October 1984 the newspaper sparked a particularly heated controversy with its publication of an editorial criticizing the provost for encouraging a feminist bias in the campus's main lecture series (which also happens to be one of the few forms of entertainment in Gambier). “Someone should inform Jerry Irish that we are at Kenyon for a liberal education, not a Liberal Indoctrination,” the editorial began. “Students seeking a fair and balanced education have been completely and arbitrarily isolated from an entire side of the ideological spectrum.”
The lecture series in question, held in the 1984-85 academic year, consisted of 21 events, nine of which focused explicitly on issues of feminism or homosexuality. These included three showings of the film Not a Love Story—a feminist critique of pornography—along with a lecture by the film's star, a former stripper. It also featured a lecture by the foremost feminist theologian and critic of America's “patriarchal power structure,” Rosemary Radford Ruether, some of whose remarks were later printed in the Journal: “God/ess is both the ground of our embodied selves (matter) and also the endless new potential of our embodied selves (spirit), not as two, but as one and the same reality. God/ess does not confine us to stifled, dependent self, or uproot us into a spirit trip against the earth, but leads us to the converted center, the harmonization of self and body, self and other, self and world.” The provost had written to the faculty, urging them to attend Dr. Ruether's lecture. Her work, he said, “generates hope for a just society while it analyzes the religious rationalization of discriminatory institutions.”
The Gambier Journal editorial prompted a spate of letters to the newspaper, as well as indignant denials of responsibility on behalf of the provost. It also moved a previously shy and soft-spoken philosophy professor, Thomas Short, to write a forceful article entitled “Education and Indoctrination at Kenyon.” Here he chronicled in great detail the “politicization that is taking place at Kenyon,” and sought to defend the school's curriculum from the criticisms leveled by radical feminists. He concluded that “there is a concerted effort by the administration and some faculty to change the ethos of Kenyon College. They view this as a change from conservatism to a more progressive outlook. I view it as a change from a non-political curriculum to one that is politicized. . . . [A] change from liberal education to political indoctrination.”
All these developments have led to a growing sense of strain on the Kenyon campus. Women faculty members, in particular, have had to deal with a host of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures. These have ranged from letters from the provost suggesting that they attend particular women's-studies conferences and summer seminars, to invitations to his home for four-hour-long brainstorming sessions on new ways of updating the Kenyon curriculum. The greatest pressure is felt by the young, untenured female faculty, for whom suggestions and requests by the provost obviously carry a good deal of weight.
Students too have been finding themselves under pressures to conform. One student, for example, who wrote a letter to the Kenyon Collegian criticizing the women's-studies course for its “implication that women are not capable of serious academic work,” received a phone call (“of a fairly harassing nature”) from the academic dean's secretary. One teacher tells of learning that a student in the women's-studies course was asked to defend her decision to dress in a noticeably feminine manner. Other students have complained of having their grades lowered if they fail to use the “he/she” form in their papers. (The provost makes a point of requiring that all papers for his courses be free of “exclusive language.”) In certain literature classes, too, students reported being put very much on the defensive if they disagreed with their teacher's feminist interpretation of a work.
While incidents like these are mere irritants in the larger scheme of things, pressures in such areas as the hiring of faculty and the granting of tenure are far more serious, and pose long-term consequences. So great is the pressure on various departments to hire women, for example, that the administration recently experimented with distributing a booklet to all search committees entitled Seeing and Evaluating People. The booklet argues that since discrimination against women is historically determined as well as unconscious, imperceptible, and therefore rampant, one must keep a vigilant watch over one's instinctive “neural-perceptual-cognitive interpretations.” Department members were told to read it over and then meet with members of the college's new Hiring Workshop on Gender and Minority Issues to discuss their feelings about the points it raises. (One department startled the committee by pointing out that these guidelines in effect advocate inaction, since they show the impossibility of transcending instinctive discrimination.)
But the goal at Kenyon, as has become clear over the past few years, is not simply to hire more women but to hire the right sort of women, which is to say, feminists. At least one non-feminist woman who was denied reappointment has been given to understand that it was her refusal to incorporate feminist materials into her courses which was responsible. That such an implicit policy exists is borne out by the curious fact that, when the administration had occasion to publicize a list of already existing Kenyon courses that focus on women or gender—namely, in its grant proposal to the NEH—it omitted mention of the college's “Women in Politics” course, one which has been offered intermittently by the political-science department since the mid-70's—long before there were any pressures to include such material in the curriculum. One can only conclude that the reason it was left out (even though it has frequently been taught by a woman) is that the majority of the authors assigned are male, and that the course does not express a feminist viewpoint—or any political viewpoint, for that matter.
President Jordan and Provost Irish would have had good reason to become increasingly worried about the rumors circulating in the outside—i.e., non-Gambier—world about Kenyon College. When in December 1984 the Gambier Journal reprinted, without comment, a syllabus for the women's-studies course, any outsider who might have seen it would have suddenly become aware of the distance Kenyon had traveled in recent years. There was a preponderance of feminist and lesbian authors and film-makers, the opening assignment was a role-playing exercise entitled “Households: A Simulation Game,” and one-fifth of the total course grade could be earned by submitting a piece of needlework or doing a dance. But the administration could at least console itself that the circulation—even the grapevine circulation—of this campus newspaper was so small that no more than a handful of outsiders would be likely to see it.
Imagine the administration's horror, therefore, when it was discovered, two months later, that the editors of the Journal had sent 9,000 Kenyon alumni not just a standard subscription solicitation but a montage of articles and editorials critical of efforts to incorporate the feminist perspective into the Kenyon curriculum. And in the covering letter that accompanied the mailing, these potential donors to the college's forthcoming capital-fund drive were told that “a small minority of militant feminists, with the full support of the administration [are] attempt[ing] to politicize almost every aspect of the college.”
Letters from shocked alumni began flowing in, some of them threatening to withhold their usual contribution until they received an explanation. Within a month, the editors were fired, after two turbulent and chaotic sessions before Kenyon's media board. The board, which is made up of students, faculty, and administration, found that the editors had “acted irresponsibly” in using the alumni labels granted them, and had “fail[ed] to give due consideration to the impact [their actions] would have on the Gambier Journal, other student organizations, and the college.” Despite the fact that the administration disavowed any direct role in their firing, both the editors and other members of the Kenyon community felt otherwise. The editors promptly called a news conference to market the story to the local press, thus bringing still more publicity down on the administration's head. “Kenyon in Flap Over Ouster of Student Editors,” proclaimed the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “1980's College Dispute Puts Radicals on Other Side of Fence,” said the Mansfield, Ohio News Journal. “Misuse? Gambier Journal Co-Editor Challenges Firing by Board,” read a headline in the Columbus Citizen Journal.
The administration tried to defend itself by claiming that the students had been dealt with justly by the school's media board. The editors for their part claimed that they had never really been given a chance to defend themselves, since no formal charges had ever been leveled against them. And indeed, the sheer variety and disparity of the grievances cited in the media board's final ruling would seem to bear this out. They ranged from an alleged infraction of the newspaper's constitution, to “alienating staff members,” to general editorial incompetence. The evidence cited for the last category in particular would amuse a professional journalist: the board claimed that the paper's editorials reflected only the views of the editors and did not represent proportionately the entire student body; that the editors' ability to compose responses to the letters-to-the-editor gave them an unfair “last say”; that the editors turned down an unsolicited editorial; that staff members who did not agree with the political bent of the paper had no recourse but to put up with it or seek a position at one of the other student publications; and, finally, that the editors-in-chief “had a program for the next few issues.”
As it turned out, simply firing the editors was not enough to ensure the demise of this increasingly adversarial newspaper. The staff incorporated themselves and severed all financial ties with the college, whereupon the administration denied the Journal the use of any school facilities, extending even to the distribution of copies in the dorms and dining halls. Aware of the fact that the paper was at this time looking for a new printer, the administration contacted one of the local printers (with whom the college did a good amount of business) and discouraged him from printing the Journal. The college also threatened to file a lawsuit against certain staff members over the use of the name the Gambier Journal.
Despite these hardships, the now independent Gambier Journal was still alive and kicking at the end of the 1984-85 school year, but many additional obstacles were strewn in its way. Since the newspaper's constitution stipulated that editors of the paper are to be elected by the staff, the media board met yet again (in closed session) and ruled that this meant that students who at any point in their four years at Kenyon had worked on the Gambier Journal—including disgruntled former staffers—were eligible to cast a vote in the forthcoming election of editors. The existing staff, meanwhile, many of whom had assisted in the drafting of their paper's constitution, insisted that only current staff members could elect their new editors. Thus it happened that on the evening of May 2, 1985, two separate elections took place for the next year's editors of the Gambier Journal. The result was nothing short of a Coca-Cola-style confusion. When members of the independent Gambier Journal looked in on the freshman “activities mart” this past fall, they saw their alter-editors standing behind a booth bearing the sign the Gambier Journal (though the sign was later changed to read the Kenyon Journal, most likely in acknowledgment that the original staff's incorporation gave them rights to that title). As of this writing, both papers are still coming out, though what will happen in the months ahead is anybody's guess.
One controversial item that will not be stirring up publicity this year is the core women's-studies course that gave rise to so much trouble. Kenyon now offers one quasi-women's-studies course in the guise of a course on the family, and half-a-dozen other departmental courses that focus on questions of gender. But the original women's-studies course could not be offered in 1985-86 for a more compelling reason than bad press: the enrollment would simply be too low.
When the course was first introduced in 1983-84—amid a blaze of promotional publicity—only 32 out of a possible 1,400 students signed up. These students were taught by four faculty members, two per semester, each of whom received release-time for the additional preparation demanded by an interdisciplinary course. The second semester of that year, 29 students signed up. The following year, 1984-85, there were ten students during the first semester but by the second semester the number had dropped to seven (the same number, by the way, that chose to attend the equally well-publicized Rosemary Radford Ruether lecture). That kind of student-faculty ratio was unjustifiably high, even for a school like Kenyon, which prides itself on small classes and an average student-faculty ratio of 13 to 1. It was hard to decide, moreover, which was more embarrassing: the fact that so few students showed any interest in the first place, or the continuous drop in enrollment—which usually indicates the effect of word-of-mouth information about a course.
Nevertheless, the administration has reiterated its commitment to women's studies and its determination to resume the core course in 1986-87. As a sign of this commitment, it has moved the college's Women's Center—which at last count had twelve members—into new and larger quarters. And the Women's Faculty Caucus—whose formation was inspired in large part by the provost—has recently, with his blessing, petitioned the president to create a new administrative position, that of Director of Women's Academic Concerns. The job would entail a threefold function: to ensure the “integration of feminist views into the existing courses,” to prevent “women's studies from being isolated in the curriculum,” and, finally, to keep women's studies from being seen as “exclusively a faculty concern.” As one woman faculty member candidly admitted, Kenyon's commitment to feminism “has taken on an entrenched character. The real question now,” she said, “is whether the piece of the pie should be the pie.”
As for the temporary suspension of women's studies, it is fair to say that the vast majority of students at Kenyon College couldn't care less. For the past few years now they have stood on the sidelines, politely watching their elders toy with the curriculum and engage in passionate debate on language policy. The one striking fact that has emerged from the controversy and the demoralization attending it is the students' overwhelming lack of interest in, or outright opposition to, their school's recent official commitment to radical change. How long an administration can continue waging a top-down campaign for reform in the face of such lack of support is an interesting question. That the students at Kenyon will come to share its passion, however, is very unlikely. One thing is certain: this was never their revolution.