Trading Places

Students sharing a dining hall table in the spring had their chance to investigate the power of the College presidency.

Can a president change grades? How about borrowing a few dollars from that endowment fund? Well, no and no. Their source was student-for-a-day S. Georgia Nugent, a.k.a. the president of Kenyon.

On April 28, 2008, Nugent was then halfway through her one-day schedule as a student. Her schedule was devised by Richard Wylde '11 of Northampton, Massachusetts. Wylde had won the honor of trading places with Nugent, becoming president-for-a-day, through a 100-words-or-fewer e-mail. He caught Nugent's attention in part because he was a first-year student whose parents and sister are alumni.

Each approached their days with some trepidation. Could Wylde hold his own in a day of meetings with the senior staff? Could Nugent handle the fast-flying ball during a game of squash? Who would duck first?

They compared notes and shared their thoughts with the editors of the Alumni Bulletin two days after their topsy-turvy experience.

Bulletin: Richard, how did you set up Georgia's schedule?

Wylde: I had gotten her schedule first, and it was meetings about every half hour, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, I have to make up something equally challenging for the president to do."

Nugent: He had me booked every minute.

Wylde: I crammed a bit more in than I normally would. I was saying that I take a nap in the afternoon, which you [Nugent] thought was hilarious, because you have absolutely no time for naps during the day as I do.

Nugent: I would like to take a nap.

Bulletin: Richard, your parents must have been tickled that you got to do this.

Wylde: They were so excited. And my parents are extremely passionate about Kenyon. We have Kenyon coasters, Kenyon mugs. Growing up, I had every piece of Kenyon paraphernalia that I could imagine.

Bulletin: Did people give you advice on what to do for a day?

Wylde: I heard many suggestions. My "Quest for Justice" professor (H. Abbie Erler, assistant professor of political science), who likes to wear heels, suggested that we pave Middle Path. Others said I should revert the bookstore back to its old form. I should try to get grades changed, which of course I am not able to do, even my own grades. Like there is a C+ on my last "Quest for Justice" paper that I wasn't exactly pleased with, but, unfortunately, that doesn't fall within the realm of what's presidential.

Bulletin: Georgia, did you get advice from anybody on what to do and how to act?

Nugent: No. But once people knew that Richard had arranged a squash lesson for me, I got a lot of razzing about that.

Bulletin: Had you ever played squash?

Nugent: Zippo. Not only that, but I am afraid of the whizzing balls.

Bulletin: Will you play again?

Nugent: No, I don't think so, but it wasn't as scary as I thought.

Bulletin: Richard, what do you think about all the things that Georgia deals with?

Wylde: Well, clearly, she is a very busy and capable woman. But I was amazed at how many different things are brought to your awareness every single day. Like, Dean [of Students Tammy] Gocial was talking to me, as president, about how a junior's mother had passed away, and I thought that it was really nice that the president is immediately made aware of something like that. I am beginning to see that you are very interested in being in touch with students and keeping your eyes and ears open.

Bulletin: Georgia, were you self-conscious in the classroom?

Nugent: No. I felt like I was just another one of the group, especially in "Quest for Justice," because Richard had given me my reading ahead of time. I actually got to prepare for that class. And I loved it, because it was Melville's Billy Budd. And it was just so fun. I really wanted to be in the discussion, you know, and I tossed something in and then somebody else was saying, "No, I don't think that is right. I thought this was happening." So it was good. In "Quest for Justice" and in "Introduction to Psychology" [Tabitha Payne, associate professor of psychology], the professors would always call on me as "Richard." That was very funny.

Bulletin: Georgia, we've heard you describe how wonderful our faculty is. What insights did you gain about the Kenyon classroom?

Nugent: In the honors intro psychology course taught by Tabitha Payne, what the students apparently had been asked to do is choose a research article and present that to the rest of the class. I was very impressed with that. And I felt that these students were really well-prepared to understand how you do that, not just repeating the article but offering thoughtful critiques. In "Quest for Justice," I thought that Abbie was really good at getting people to focus on particular parts of the narrative and what was important. The third course was a "Literature of Modern Cities" course [taught by Thomas Hawks, visiting assistant professor of English] and was actually dealing with film that day. They were discussing Blade Runner and The Matrix. I love Blade Runner, but I haven't seen it in God knows how long. And, unfortunately, I have never seen The Matrix, though I had a notion of what it was.

Wylde: Well, you are also not a fifteen-year-old boy.

Nugent: But that discussion was fabulous, I thought. There was clearly a pretty high level of sophistication. And Thomas Hawks, I thought, was just amazing. So was his ability to really present an argument through the course of the class hour by eliciting comments. And that's the ideal. It got toward the end and this kind of "aha" moment, and you realize that's right. That's what it is all about. You know, it was very cool.

Bulletin: I am surprised that Richard's day as Georgia ended at 5:00. How late would Richard be going if he stayed on as president for the full day?

Nugent: Well, typically my meetings, or whatever I am doing in the office or when we are not doing an event, would pretty much end by 7:00. By that time, I haven't had any time to cope with e-mails or things that have accumulated during the day, so then I go home and basically work on correspondence or whatever it is until usually 11:00.

Bulletin: Of the things thrown at you as president, Richard, which was the toughest curve ball?

Wylde: Well, the one that completely stumped me was actually a real problem. Ms. [Jennifer] Delahunty, who is the dean of admissions and financial aid, said that we are behind right now of where we want to be in terms of enrollees for the class of 2012, and do we want to go to the wait-list early to ensure that we meet our peak number. And having no sort of qualifications to make any sort of judgment about that and having rapidly moved up in the world in about four hours, I was like, "Oh my, gosh, I have no idea about what to be doing."

Nugent: When you first come into this job, that actually happens to you. Somebody will say, "What should we do about so-and-so?" And between you and me, prez, you think, "I have no clue." Basically, you try to find analogies. Is there anything I have ever heard of like this? Are there any basic principles that I can apply?

Bulletin: I would be curious to hear both of you talk about what more you would like to do if you could continue this.

Wylde: I realize that I am completely ignorant of many things that go on at this school. There is so much to be learned. There are people I just don't know about, and I don't know about their work. The attention to detail that people put into certain things that I completely take for granted is absolutely fascinating. There are a lot of administrators who are passionate about their work at Kenyon. Administrators are humans, too.

Nugent: A major insight.

Bulletin: Georgia, what more would you do as a student?

Nugent: It just reminded me of how much fun it is to be in a class and to hear students talking about what they are learning. I think when I came to Kenyon, I really thought I'd sit in on classes much more than I have. I have taught a class each year, but I haven't had a chance to attend other classes. So I think that maybe this experience redoubled my interest in doing that.

Bulletin: Richard, if you had real power, what change would you make at Kenyon?

Wylde: Any change in any walk of life, there is bound to be criticism for it. So, I would say the thing that I would change on a practical level that would be very easy to change, and would affect me personally, is to have veggie deli meat in the dining halls. If I had to do something, like, more serious, that would actually garner more notice, there are a lot of colleges that have a tradition of a day in spring where all classes are canceled, like the classes are dismissed for the day. I think that would be a fun tradition here.

Bulletin: Let's talk about the vegetarian deli options. Is that something the president can do?

Nugent: I probably could do that, but I probably would never micromanage to that extent. I'll give you sort of a related example, though. On the first Saturday of Passover, I am sitting at home minding my own business and I get an e-mail from a student that there was no matzo at Gund. And I thought, "We've got to have matzo at Gund." So I was immediately in touch with food services and said, "OK, please look into this and tell me what's going on." Within an hour or so, I learned what was happening and it wasn't true, but it appeared to be true for that person. She had actually gone to the dining hall before the matzo was set out to serve. But in that case, where it is really something serious as to one's religion, I would get in there and say, "We've got to deal with this."

Bulletin: Georgia, what do you take away from this experience?

Nugent: It was very gratifying to be in those classrooms and have at least some of those experiences a student would have. This is really a great place to be.

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