Life and Death at a Liberal Arts College

by P.F. Kluge (Excerpted as “Kamp Kenyon’s Legacy” in Chronicle of Higher Education 2-21-03)

P.F. Kluge
Writer in Residence
Kenyon College

Address delivered to
Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences
Annual Meeting, November 14, 2002
San Francisco, CA

When I came to college — there’s a room-emptying sentence fragment if I’ve ever heard one — when I showed up as a clueless, immigrant stock first in the family to enter college, kid out of northern New Jersey, we were asked — make that required — to go to dinner in a place called Peirce Hall, the college commons, and there, sitting at long tables, framed by stained glass windows portraying great works of literature, surrounded by oil portraits of dead Episcopalians who were the college’s founders and benefactors, there we confronted one of those men who — risking colleagues’ sniping irony and contending with his own inner anger — incarnated the spirit of that time, that place: Kenyon College, September 1960. Denham Sutcliffe was the chair of the English Department and the night belonged to him. Making time count was his theme, this precious time at college, taking our studies seriously, regarding ourselves as professional students, in our works and days. I can see him now, a short, florid Oxonian, leaning back pausing and proceeding to recite those great lines from Pope’s Essay on Man, lines that — I just realized — nicely summarize the trade of the deans and provosts I address today: “created half to rise, half to fall/ great lord of all things, yet a prey to all/ sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled/ the glory, jest and riddle of the world.” Kenyon College, Sutcliffe told us, was opening for its 136th year which, as time was measured in Knox County, Ohio was a long stretch. But Harvard was beginning its 324th year and, in England, Oxford was well into its seventh century. The point was clear. When you came to college, you engaged with something that lived long and large, that measured, spanned and perhaps transcended time. A student’s career was over in a wink — 36 months, and this was before junior year vacations became undergraduate perks. A professor’s tenure ended quickly too, especially in Denham Sutcliffe’s case. One of the duties of my senior year was to be his pallbearer. But our individual transience heightened his point — that we pass through college but the college itself remains, the college which belongs to us, as we belong to it. That sense of time is reflected in our rituals, our songs, our regalia, our buildings, our fundraising, our brochures and…some would unkindly suggest…in our curricula. You see it in the nervousness of first year students, in the shadowed poignance of graduates of fifty years ago, presenting themselves on campus one more, one last, time. Attending a liberal arts college is an act of faith, investing $100,000 or more in a liberal arts education is an act of faith and the core of that faith is the confidence that the college goes on forever. And that, just lately is what I have been wondering about. And before getting to what’s been weighing on me, let me suggest that if I am worrying, you should be worrying too. Ten years ago, in what appeared to be an act of career suicide, I wrote a non-fiction account of a year in the life of Kenyon College, Alma Mater: A College Homecoming. I taught a fiction writing seminar, lectured on recent American novels, followed hiring searches, took notes — or, at least, doodled — during department meetings, probed fraternity weirdness, feminist anger, alumni lawsuits, tenured anomie and tenure-track angst and — in a move that should have gotten me a call from Stockholm — moved back into the same freshman dorm I had occupied in 1960. Through it all, I told myself I was writing about one place only, a singular place, Kenyon College, and what I came up with, no-holds-barred-warts-and-all-tough-love, would be about Kenyon College only. If I could get that one place right, that would suffice.

Then the mail came, mail from all sorts of places, lots of it from companion institutions in the Midwest liberal arts gulag, but there were letters from Princeton and Brown and from the Leeward Campus of the University of Hawaii. Over and over, one sentence appeared: if you crossed out the name Kenyon you could have been writing about our place. Kenyon’s passions and tensions were shared: students concerned about cost — and worth — of what we taught; professors torn between teaching and research, the comfy prep school model and the cutting edge research university style, college as conservatory versus college as laboratory; administrators not sure whether all-around adequacy or jagged excellence was their goal, whether they should be keeping up with the pack or differentiating themselves from it. And this reminds me of the most exasperating trait I’ve come across in talking to people about their colleges. If you’re discussing something fine and virtuous…delivering a compliment…people nod appreciatively, as if to acknowledge that the praise is not only merited but also has been delivered to the responsible party. If you risk criticism…grade inflation, oversize seminars, undergraduate grotesquerie involving the invariable trifecta of alcohol, drugs, sex…study the reaction. People look left, look right, look up the road at Harvard which, by golly — didn’t you read about it? — has the same problems. Or down the road at a public institution where the problem is even worse. Sure our students throw beer cans around, coming home late from parties, whooping and cursing as they pass. But, hey, at Ohio State they riot, they incinerate dumpsters after football games! The implication is clear. Our virtues are home-grown, our vices come in off the road, their symptoms are mild. To me this signals an unwillingness to straightforwardly consider the problem in front of us, on our watch, on our patch. That is what I aim to do now. I will speak of Kenyon but, considering that the institutional uniqueness is way overrated, I speak of other places too.

When you return to teach…profess…at a college you attended, you become especially sensitive to change, to the costs and benefits of what passes for progress. You reflect on life. On death. On your own death, which comes closer with every edition of the alumni bulletin, your class notes inching towards white space, towards the necrology of oldest undead graduate. Just lately, in addition to brooding on my own mortality, I have wondered about the college’s mortality as well. Our long history notwithstanding, the seeming endless river of life that flows through us notwithstanding and the weave of time and memory that we share, I sense mortality. I sense it in admissions, the way the sales force talks of “making the class,” and in those periodic agony exercises — curricular reviews, outcome assessments — that question what we offer, what we don’t. Oh for the straightforwardness of those DeVry’s ads we see on TV, smiling graduates in front of computers, peering into microscopes, carrying blueprints, all well-employed, assured that the money they spent at DeVry’s was well spent, education leading to higher income and a better life, all this while we send English majors out into the world ready to learn the meaning of irony the hard way, at Starbuck’s. I sense it in the shudder we feel at the talk of virtual classrooms, degrees online, the chances that all these trappings, these dormitories, playing fields, swimming pools and tennis courts, these ever-more-costly nine-month a year institutions, far from being morally and culturally imperative are at best optional, at worst irrelevant. It’s the fear of giving a party to which no one comes. So we have an institution caught between two obligations, a torn place. At current prices, we’re more than ever obliged to deliver the goods, to turn out English majors who don’t regard the apostrophe as an unidentified flying object. This we attempt to do, at Kenyon College, and often we succeed. But the obligation to challenge is matched by another demand: to accommodate. And this has led to another institution, a burgeoning case of mission creep, something that is called Kamp Kenyon. That’s Kamp with a K. I didn’t invent the spelling or the phrase. It’s been around for years, referring to that side of the institution that lets students get away with a lot, that coddles and gets conned. Kamp Kenyon is that part of the college which deals with campus life, student problems, drugs, date rape, housing, harassment, gender bias, dyslexia, dysfunction, disorders of all kinds, homesickness, seasickness, angst and anger. Its domain is almost everything that happens outside a classroom and, lately, some things that happen inside a classroom as well. It’s a growth industry, it seems, bringing more counselors, mediators, advisors every year, people who take courses in dormitory life and student group management and non-alcoholic socializing and some of those people tell me that my book, Alma Mater, is on reading lists. Many of these Kamp Kenyon people are thoughtful, hardworking people yet I have been forced to wonder — and now I wonder aloud — whether their initially useful presence does not come close to compromising the purpose and point of a college education.

Here’s the problem. Kenyon College is about challenging and testing students, Kamp Kenyon is about accommodating clients. Kenyon College keeps students busy, Kamp Kenyon makes them happy. Kenyon Colleges trades in requirements, Kamp Kenyon in appeals that become entitlements. Kenyon College has rules, to which it makes rare exceptions. Kamp Kenyon trades in excuses which become the rule. I want to be fair: much of this has developed in response to real problems and much that I deplore occurred with the consent of the administration, with the agreement — I’m tempted to say acquiescence — of the faculty. Another stab at fairness: notwithstanding my suspicion that rural, residential liberal art colleges are particularly prone to user-friendly compromise, let me avail myself of the fake left, fake right two step I deplored just a minute ago: they have deans-of-excuses at Harvard, I am sure, and at many other colleges as well. Okay? But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about the place where I live and work and the prospect of its piecemeal mutation into a therapeutic kibbutz.

Every year it’s something else, some small something, trivial somethings that add up. A few years ago, in the middle of August, that time when the arrival of body-contact athletes signals the death of summer, I received an e-mail from someone I am sure believed in what he was proposing, that it was a good proposal, good per se and good for Kenyon and, besides that, fun. Faculty and staff were invited to assemble in dormitory parking lots when the first year students and their parents came in off the road. We were asked to greet them and help them unload their vehicles and move things into dormitory rooms. I wondered whether I was the only one who flinched. A couple of things bothered me. Envy was one. I came to college with one suitcase and a small electronic device, I don’t know whether it was called a “record player” or maybe a “hi fi.” Anyway, the speaker was in the lid. These days, new students arrive looking as if they’ve looted Circuit City. Too much stuff, I think. The other issue was more serious. I tried to picture Denham Sutcliffe — that eloquent sardonic professor whose speech I just recalled, tried to picture him helping some kid from Wilmette schlep his sound system into his dorm. The way I met Sutcliffe — noticing his voice, that I can hear forty years later, his style, his quality of mind — seems to me the right way a college student should first encounter a professor. This parking lot aloha didn’t feel right. Someone was trying to make the students happy. But maybe happiness isn’t the first point a college should make. Or the last.

If you like helping students into dormitories, you’ll love what came along later: helping students move out of courses. Like all colleges, Kenyon has a drop-add period that extends a few weeks into the semester. And, like other colleges, Kenyon considers petitions for course withdrawal at any time. This, somehow, did not suffice. A small human scale place that advertises its careful review of individual cases decided that it was getting too many such petitions. So along came Kamp Kenyon’s Mulligan rule. Once in a career — just once, for now, and before the senior year, a student can withdraw from a course, without penalty, up to a week before the course ends. Well, in my courses I have students on waiting lists. Am I right to feel my space has been invaded when someone decides that, for the sake of administrative convenience, a student can sit, mopey, medicated, manipulative and bail out a week ahead of the final exam while someone earnest has been denied a place?

Now I come to another example of Kamp Kenyon’s nibbling away at Kenyon College: comfort zones. With final examinations and papers approaching, April is held to be a stressful time, possibly for all students, most certainly those who’ve blown off the first ten weeks of the semester: they’re in a bind alright. But wait a minute! Here comes an all-campus e-mail that invites everyone, faculty and staff, to offer “comfort zones” for pressured students. A prize will be awarded to the most ingenious entry. One office I walk through regularly has a table full of snacks and soft drinks. Ho hum. Outside a campus building, I see someone who is on the college payroll sitting in a folding chair next to a cooler, which she reaches into to offer popsicles to passing scholars. Just next door, down the road, someone else has arranged for three local masseuses to set up shop, giving in-chair back rubs to overburdened undergrads. And now I have to make one thing clear. I like many of my students. Whatever bad moods befall you, you can’t make a career knocking students, not at a small college, without seeing your work, your life, turn sour. I like my students. I welcome graduation, but seeing some kids walk across the stage, knowing I won’t be having them in my life much anymore, drives a stake through my heart. I mention this because I refuse to concede to Kamp Kenyon monopoly on the affection for, or from, students. The popsicle pushers haven’t got a hammerlock on feelings. Another thing: I grant that it’s possible if I saw a couple of parents struggling with a half-ton sound system, I might pull into the dormitory parking lot and lend a hand. I might. I might counsel and forgive a student with problems in my class; I might even have a chat about those memories of abuse and dysfunction which work their way to the surface in April, just ahead of papers and tests. And the damnable thing about the administrative initiatives I’ve described — the e-mails, the all points bulletins, the camp counseling and scout-mastering — is that they preempt such individual acts of kindness. They are the students’ co-conspirators, their new best pals, figuring out ways through and around professors, around requirements. The institution gets into the act, into what used to be the professor’s field of force and, though some of my colleagues have welcomed this, I feel it diminishes us, it takes away from what we claim and who we are. It subtracts from me, when students take their troubles elsewhere. Granted, my degree isn’t in counseling and all of us at small liberal arts colleges have learned that whole flocks of one-winged birds perch on our particular wire. Sometimes they flourish, sometimes they fail. It’s hard to say. If a student has problems you get an e-mail — an issues-gram, I call it — telling you that so and so is going through a bad patch and your forbearance would be appreciated during this troubled time. What is the problem, you might wonder, but in vain. After 9/11, when lots of students were down and for some of them college-as-usual was too much to bear, e-mail informed me, and, them, that a college dean was willing to be “academically creative” at this juncture. Funny, I thought that was part of my job, in my classroom.

This list of peeves could go on in this vein. I won’t though. It gets worse. The college I attended was lightly endowed, i.e., poor, and its poverty enforced a kind of discipline and focus. There were things the college could not do so what it did do, it often did well. Now the college has enlarged, three times the number of students as when I attended, twice maybe three times the number of genders and much of this growth was to the good. I would not reverse it. Yet it is also true that diversity can divide, that to enrich a place is also to dilute it. This leads to a Balkanized…make that atomized…faculty, a student body less closely knit, with fewer common holdings. It’s not just people that change; it’s buildings also. Consider the Horn Gallery. It started as an old barn — an old wooden barn — that students took over and used for poetry readings, plays, art shows. It had some rough improvisatory magic but whatever else you said about it, one thing was unavoidable: it wasn’t up to code. The administration responded with a new barn-like structure, fine, but someone at Kamp Kenyon decided that this building, this piece of college property should be alcohol free. Now, granted, the laws of the state of Ohio which forbid under-21 drinking need to be obeyed. I grit my teeth and attend one grimly non-alcoholic event after another, wondering how many of the guests have “front-loaded.” But to decree that not an event but a building should be alcohol free, now and forever is presumptuous and invasive. It means that, after their fall and spring meetings, the college’s own trustees cannot retire to a reception at the Horn Gallery. It means that adult writers attending the Kenyon Review’s popular two week summer writing program are told — by college security — that they can’t hold post-reading parties in the Horn Gallery and if they don’t get that beer out of the refrigerator lickety-split, it’ll be confiscated. It means that people who like getting married in the college chapel must take their toasts, and their rental fees elsewhere. Keeping students happy has led to keeping busy the people who keep students happy and things have gotten out of hand.

Kamp Kenyon’s needs are huge, as is its agenda. An article of faith at Kenyon — it’s something we still brag about — is that we do not have a place called a student union. The whole college is that. But recently we’ve been building student unions in disguise. A rickety old bank building recently used for college offices gets converted into a late night theatre and hangout space. Plans for our new $60 million athletic facility have a movie theater, meeting rooms, audio-visual stuff and computers, a juice bar, a pro-shop. Early plans included a climbing wall as well. In an inadvertently revealing decision, a residence last lived in by Kenyon’s provost will now be the home of an assistant dean of students. Underlying all this is the notion that students must have options — food options, athletic options, entertainment and diversion at all times and that it is the college’s obligation to provide and supervise such things. You might think — as I do — that a student can be left to his or her own devices at 3:00 a.m., whether to sleep, read, talk with other night owls, make love. That was the point of locating a college in a remote Midwest location, to escape from diversions. Now there are people committed — on behalf of the college — to providing them. In the name of happiness, a student’s or a student’s parents’ happiness…we admit and readmit students with profound problems…serious disorders, suicidal tendencies…and to the extent we engage those students, we attract more of them, with results that are costly, sometimes tragic.

Our attempts to keep students happy misfire. We go where we should not go, do what should not even be attempted. My final example is controversial. The jury is still out on our college court system, the intramural student-faculty-administration panel which hears and judges allegations of sexual misconduct, including harassment and rape. Is it legal? Illegal? Sub-legal? Quasi-legal? Para-legal? Why did we get into this business? The answer: to keep students happy. Any number of students, the argument goes, would not come to campus or would not stay were there no means of addressing offenses against them. To be sure, some of these offenses — rape, say — fall under the laws of Ohio, where the college is located and from which it has not seceded. But the implication is that the law of the land won’t work, that even if lawyers don’t brutally cross-examine, date rape cases, invariably compromised by under-aged drinking, will not prosper in local courts. Thus, we have our own system and thoughtful people who work hard to do the right thing. One doesn’t envy them. It’s terrible what students do, to…or with…each other, all our concealing notwithstanding. So now you get these cases. People try to keep things quiet, but it’s a small campus and word gets around, rumors and whispers, sides forming, conflicting versions of events. Rashomon-like, and at graduation, students marching across the stage with ribbons on their robes, one color if you think your buddy got a raw deal, another if you think a girlfriend’s complaint was mishandled. One recent case has led to lawsuits from both parties, the male who was expelled, the woman who left school, both suing the college.

This, then, is what it comes to, my thoughts of life and death at a small liberal arts college. This is the death I picture, less dramatic than what I promised but no less lethal: death from tinkering, death from drift, manipulation, self-assertion, death by accommodation, hard to say how it happened, when it started, who’s to blame. It comes to this: in our attempts to attract students to college and keep them there, will college itself become less worth attending? Liberal arts colleges remind me of those poignant cases one used to see on Regis and Kathy Lee, nondescript and nervous women bundled off stage for a makeover, returning an hour later, happy about their hair, make-up, nails and clothes. So, too, colleges attempt to make themselves over, with new buildings and new looks, summer camp amenities, counselors, programs. They trade in changes. But they need to be reminded of what shouldn’t change, an engagement between professor and student that has to be kept out of the hands of the campus make-over artists.

I began with an account of a stirring speech I heard more than forty years ago, a passionate professor who conveyed the spirit and ethos of a liberal arts college. I end with an account of another speech, one that I make at Kenyon every year, near the end of summer. That sullen, succulent season is still warm when freshmen arrive for orientation and, after moving into the dorms, after the canoe trip, after watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which someone has decided is a college tradition, after all the deans and counselors say hello, after a battery of speeches in which the provost and president assure students and parents that they were students once as well, after a lot of wisdom about saying goodbye, saying hello, after all that someone decides that maybe it’s time for a few words from a professor and so, like a pair of spavined old timers invited to toss out a ball on baseball’s opening day, I join my colleague Perry Lentz, also a Kenyon graduate of 1964, to spend an hour discussing what is billed as “academic integrity.”

The invitation comes from Kamp Kenyon, I’m happy to say, for I like a lot of people I disagree with and I appreciate that they give me this opportunity and also that they seem to have taken in stride my suggestion of a few years ago that, in a perfect world, many assistant deans and such would have found a more useful line of work, such as bread and pastry baking, landscape gardening and full body massage. I’m now nine years older than Denham Sutcliffe was when he died and part of the charm — make that, the power — of a small college is that it allows the past and the present to connect with each other and with the future too. The future is this captive audience shambling into the auditorium in summer clothes, tardy and heavy-eyed and already talked damn near to death, which I now confront, just as Denham Sutcliffe faced the Class of ’64. Put aside everything you’ve heard so far in orientation, I tell them, don’t disregard it, just put it aside, the camping trip, the dormitory frolics, all the gooey bonding exercises. Put aside those likeable admissions people, for they are the college sales force and you are last year’s sale. Put aside Kamp Kenyon, the counselors and all, for they are the local rescue squad and, although it’s nice to know they’re available, the less you have to do with them, the better. The things that brought you here are not the ones that will keep you here, if you stay. I’ve examined the records closely and can verify that no one has ever moved to Knox County, Ohio, because the food and sex were special. Put that aside and realize that your most important encounter with the college is with…well, you’re looking at it this minute…the faculty. Check it out. The work that you do for us, with us, not the fun that you have is your main purpose here. Forget all that welcoming oratory about how you may be the best entering class we’ve ever seen, with interests from A to Z, astronomy to zoology, so you should give yourself a standing ovation, just for showing up. They say that every year. What they don’t tell you is about our failures, which are failures not because of lack of ability but because of indifference, insolence, complacency and sloth. The fact that some of these hiders and sliders, these hang-dog half-assed characters actually traipse across the stage at graduation doesn’t eradicate the fact of failure, it just spreads the blame around some, compounding the guilt.

About professors. Some professors take attendance, some don’t. Some call you by your first name, some by your last, with a mister or ms. in front. Some put chairs in a circle, campfire style and others stand in front of the class behind a podium, and call on people who haven’t raised their hands, even though they are awfully busy taking notes. We have professors who think grading is more important, that once in your life you should be told whether your work’s worth spit. Others find grading arbitrary, authoritarian, etc. Some professors are hard and others are easy…upperclassmen will provide names. The good news is that all hard professors aren’t necessarily good and…oh happy day!...not all the easy ones are bad. There you have it, one size doesn’t fit all and universal success — as Von Clausewitz said of perpetual peace — is a dream, and not a happy dream at that. Different as they are, difficult as they may be, there should be two or three professors who change your life here. You cannot bond with all of them, thank god. That would be too much to bear. But some of them, a few. And among the few there might be one who gives you the sense of knowing you, your vulnerabilities, your possibilities, better than you do, before you do. That kind of contact is what we offer, that kind of magic.

I’m sounding solemn now, I realize, so I mention three eccentric jihads which I repeat to you, in the hope that the campaign will widen and prosper: (1) a late arrival in class is ruinous and wasteful as an absence and should be penalized accordingly; (2) hats are out indoors and so are sunglasses for this is college, not the federal witness protection program; (3) don’t yawn in my face. A human being, your professor, looks back at you when you sit before him. Cover your mouth when you yawn. Am I asking for the moon here? I go on a little more about reading that should be above the level of grammar school book report, i.e., I liked it, I couldn’t relate to it, it bored me, about class discussions that should be more than an open mike session, “yeah, well, whatever,” a self-serving show-and-tell period: I brought in a bird’s nest, a Japanese officer’s sword, a sponge. I talk about writing that should be focused and rigorous, not a random shake-and-bake of lecture notes and magic-markered quotations.

I’m near the end now, the end of my speech to them and my speech to you. I’m grateful for the chance to address incoming students. I know that out of this torpid late summer crowd, some good students will find their way to me while some others mark me as a must-to-avoid. That’s not bad for thirty minutes work. I am also thankful for the chance to speak to this audience of deans and provosts, though there’d surely be greater profit in listening. I’ve never understood why someone wants to be a dean or provost, what propels them, whether boredom and burnout in the classroom or the chance of intervening in the careers of their erstwhile colleagues. Did you jump or were you pushed? Is it a goal in itself or does it only work if it leads up, and maybe out, to something else? I wonder how things look to you and how you want them to be and I’d walk a mile in your shoes, any day, though it might be dicey. “If I ever set a murder novel on a college campus,” I wrote in Alma Mater, “I’ll make the provost the victim. Or more plausibly the killer.” End of quote. I mean that as a compliment.

Now I take a deep breath and launch into my valedictory to the entering class and also to you. I end by telling them that the work they do at Kenyon College matters more than how happy they are at Kamp Kenyon and that the happiness they want should result from the work they do. And if they are miserable, unbearably so, they should leave, for every day at a place like Kenyon is a gift, every day they live at college they’re in a zone of possible magic and if they don’t agree, well there are economical life-style choices in Bangkok, Manila, and Luang Prabang I can recommend, where the cost of a college education could set them up for life. I like them, I assure them. But it wouldn’t matter if I loved them. The idea of a small liberal arts college, endangered from within and from outside, is something I won’t compromise. I hope that what matters to me matters to them, hope they will resist the nonsense that distracts them and the nonsense that is offered. I wish them all the luck in the world — I wish the same to you — and, on the way back across campus, I nod in the direction of my professor, Denham Sutcliffe, not yet forgotten, not quite, who is buried in a cemetery just up the road.