Making the Water Visible
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, with my mother (a teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools) and a strong extended family committed to education. My early schooling was in two elementary schools that were remarkably diverse; one of these, Case Elementary School, drew students from African-American neighborhoods as well as Asian and Eastern European immigrant communities, and as a result I had incredible multilingual classrooms. Unfortunately, the 1970s were a financially challenging time for public schools in Cleveland, and cutbacks hit Case School hard.
Not only did we have nearly 40 students in my third and fourth grade classes, a shortage of teachers meant that I had, for two years in a row, a combined third and fourth grade classroom. Now that I am an educator myself, I appreciate the challenge that my teacher faced: a large number of students, not only of widely varying abilities but in actual different grade levels, and many of whom had English as a second language (with at least four different primary languages represented). My mother identified an opportunity for me to apply to an academically rigorous private school, where she felt I would receive more support. I was offered admission, with generous financial aid, and so in fifth grade I switched from an overwhelmed and overcrowded classroom to a well-resourced learning environment.
I also moved from a racially diverse environment to a more homogenous, predominantly white environment, where most families also had deeper financial resources than my family. I did not realize it at the time, but this was the first in what would become a career-long series of moments when I would be a visible minority in a classroom or on a campus, and the first of many moments when I would ask myself the question: Do I belong here? This continues to my current position as Kenyon College’s 19th president, and as its first black president.
In her brilliant essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston penned the beautiful statement, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” My academic career has largely been spent at institutions that are predominantly white, and while I have been fortunate to be a part of campuses that recognize the value of cultivating a diverse and inclusive community, it also holds true that for me, and for many others on campuses across the country, Hurston’s words reflect a feeling of daily life. It may not always be on the top of one’s mind, but that feeling is there.
Colleges were once thought to be places where only one type of student could fit — generally male, white, affluent. Schools then moved toward a model where a broader range of students was welcome, but students were expected to conform to the rigid environment of the institution — an institution that had not been originally founded with them in mind. The ultimate stage of a diverse and inclusive college is where a range of students is brought in, and all, including the institution itself, are challenged and changed in the process.
Changing historical and societal norms has never been, nor will ever be, effortless, easy work. The concept of race for many white Americans may best be described by the allegory made famous by David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address, “This Is Water”: It is the water, and goes unnoticed or unfelt. “The point of the fish story,” Wallace said in his speech, “is that the most obvious, important realities are the hardest to see and talk about.”
In my leadership of Kenyon, I have made it a priority to encourage all members of our community to do the work necessary to begin to see the water. Doing this work well must not entail one-directional outreach, but rather genuine conversations that give valuable space for learning and growing. This work also must entail a recognition that our understanding of diversity must become more textured. We need to be attentive to access on campus for students with a range of physical challenges; to the safety and inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community; to how we recruit students, particularly from geographically underrepresented regions. Moreover, diversity doesn’t automatically produce inclusion, so our efforts at bringing diverse students to campus must always be coupled with work toward ensuring their place as equals within our community.
The work of bridging divisions, of taking the risk of building community where it is difficult to do so, is work that is meaningful, and none of us should back down from it. There will always be moments in life when I feel like I don’t belong, but then I remember my great fortune: to be able to learn at, and lead, an institution of higher education. What better place for rigorous examination of the world, and my place in it?
Sean Decatur is the 19th president of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Decatur is a lifelong champion for the liberal arts and an emerging voice in the national conversation about higher education. Under Decatur’s leadership, Kenyon has attracted its most diverse and academically talented incoming classes in history.
Prior to assuming the Kenyon presidency, Decatur served as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College from 2008 to 2013. From 1995 to 2008, he was an assistant and associate professor of chemistry at Mount Holyoke College, where he helped establish a top research program in biophysical chemistry. He was a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2004 to 2005.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Decatur attended the Hawken School before earning his bachelor's degree at Swarthmore College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1990. He earned a doctorate in biophysical chemistry at Stanford University in 1995.
Sean’s Educational History:
1986 - HS Graduate, The Hawken School
1990 - BA in chemistry, Swarthmore College
1995 - Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry, Stanford University
Connect with Sean:
Sean Decatur (LinkedIn)