Our Path Forward?

A few weeks ago, I, along with four other students, was asked to participate in a dance that would be performed at a campaign kick-off gala dinner. When my dance professor initially asked me if I would be interested, she didn’t give many details beyond warning that the performance would be during Fall Break, so I didn’t fully know what I was getting myself into. I just relish any opportunity to perform, so I said yes right away. What I later learned was that this gala for trustees and donors was being held to kick off the public phase of Kenyon’s 300-million-dollar fundraising project, the most ambitious in the college’s history, dubbed “Our Path Forward.”

We spent several weeks rehearsing on the indoor track of the KAC, surrounded by athletes at afternoon practices. The piece was loosely based on a 1920 piece called Soaring by the modern dancer and choreographer Doris Humphrey. Like in that piece, we used a giant scarf (more of a bedsheet than a scarf, really), both as a backdrop and a set piece, rippling it to mimic water. Never in my time at Kenyon have I been asked to perform a movement that so closely resembles ballet. Normally in dance classes, we are encouraged not to focus too much on making balletic positions with our bodies. I miss having daily ballet classes, deeply, so I wasn’t complaining. I do find it slightly suspect, though, that when there is money on the line, money that could be used to build a new, sorely-needed dance studio, a facility that has been overlooked by previous campaigns, we turn to the most innocuous, crowd-pleasing style of dance possible: ballet. What we showed on that tiny, carpeted stage was not at all representative of what goes on during Kenyon dance concerts, in which the amount of yelling I have done far outweighs the ballet.

The day of the gala, we all dressed up and headed down to the KAC, which had been completely transformed into a swanky event space. In the multi-use athletic court in the lobby, we ate appetizers and, along with other students representing various Kenyon programs, mingled with professors, trustees, and donors. This was a moment during which I felt lucky to attend such a small school and be afforded opportunities to interact closely with faculty and administrators. However, because I was just a performer and not technically a representative of any specific department or program (as other students at the gala were), I was not actually permitted to eat dinner. Neither were the Chamber Singers, who accompanied our dance. As I sat in one of the lounges on the second level of the KAC, eating my little cup of pretzels and hummus and watching the festivities below, I couldn’t help but feel like the school was being kept away from the students. All I really know about what these 300 million dollars are going to fund (besides the new library) is what I heard while waiting backstage. Even though the supposedly-public phase of the campaign has kicked off, it still feels a little shrouded in mystery.

Being able to dance in front of professors, trustees, and donors, surrounded by many, many purple lights, was an incredible experience. Afterward, my earlier feeling of being left out was more than made up for by what was possibly the best cake pop I have ever had, as we were allowed to eat dessert with the gala attendees after performing.

Several days after the gala I received a gift thanking me for performing. I don’t think I deserved it: that purple ombré cake and the permission to walk like a ballerina, at Kenyon, in front of hundreds of people, was thanks enough. In the gift bag, though, was a glossy, 31-page booklet detailing the campaign’s goals. It’s informative, yes, dividing up the $300 million into four alliterative categories of spending: extend, enrich, enhance, and excel. It’s also just as disingenuous as our dance. It begins with a bold claim that “now, more than ever, the world needs Kenyon.”  Maybe the world needs higher education. Maybe the world needs liberal arts education. But specifically Kenyon? Does anyone really believe that? All the colorful pictures of happy, engaged students depict diversity that doesn’t really exist. In a plea for donations to provide financial aid to increase this diversity, the booklet claims that diversity is in jeopardy, as though it had actually flourished in the past. Of course, Kenyon needs to look special if the campaign is going to raise the additional $76 million needed to make it to $300 million. But it all feels so fake. I’d like to believe that all of this school’s problems can be fixed with a little more money (our endowment is shockingly low compared to other similar institutions). But I’m not sure if that’s so true.

There’s no moral to this story. It’s not a call for revolution; It was just an interesting experience that I had. For very selfish reasons, I’m glad I was a part of it. I liked seeing behind the scenes of this school, both the production Kenyon puts on for the trustees and donors, and all the effort that goes into that production. Did it feel like a lot of smoke and mirrors and not-quite-truths?  Yes. But I hope that somewhere in the middle of this grand production is a genuine interest on the part of the school in improving everyone’s educational experience. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a new dance studio.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2