The Oden years

A brief farewell to a too-brief presidency

When Rob Oden visited Kenyon in early February 1995 as a candidate for the College's presidency, it seemed there was a golden glow about the man. By the time he left campus, members of the search committee were being inundated with e-mail messages and telephone calls, all with the same substance: "Hire this man. Hire him now. Hire him before some other college grabs him."

Now, Oden is leaving Kenyon to become the tenth president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Reports indicate that he generated the same kind of response there as a result of his campus visit. That golden glow has been enhanced, undoubtedly, by his record as Kenyon's chief executive.

Many at the College, and many alumni and parents, were surprised by Oden's decision to leave Kenyon for Carleton, but others had sensed a certain restlessness following the successful completion of the $116-million "Claiming Our Place" campaign.

Life on the Road

One of the greatest challenges facing any college or university presidentis that of finding an acceptable balance between time spent off campus pursuing the institution's interests and time spent on campus attending to business and establishing a presence in the community.

Oden began his presidency on the road, introducing himself and his vision for Kenyon to alumni and parents across the country. He ended it on the road as well, saying farewell to alumni, parents, and friends and thanking donors to the "Claiming Our Place" campaign. In between, he visited individual alumni to garner their advice, their support, and their gifts, earning admiration in many quarters for his fundraising abilities.

He also spearheaded a drive to transform the character of regional events with "Learning in the Company of Friends: The Kenyon Lifelong Learning Program," which is bringing faculty members to the regional associations to lead educational gatherings of alumni and parents.

In a recent interview, Oden revealed that, while he enjoys fundraising, he finds the travel wearisome. "Having to spend the night in LaGuardia, having to stand in lines that have always been long and now, after September 11, seem endless, that's not fun," he said. "And I don't think there's anyone telling the truth who would deny that traveling is very tiring."

Big Man on Campus

Early on in his tenure, Oden was able to teach a course, but, much to his dismay, that quickly became impossible because of other demands on his time. For a man renowned for his ability to hold a class entranced, it must have been a bittersweet farewell. Despite a grueling travel schedule, especially during the campaign, he remained a presence on campus, where he was well-liked not only by the student body but also by that harshest of critical voices for most college and university presidents, the faculty.

"I think the Kenyon faculty has been very grateful for the support Rob has given with regard to salaries and teaching loads and, most importantly, for his genuine appreciation of their work and their many accomplishments," says Acting President Ronald A. Sharp, a long-time member of the English faculty who served as associate provost and then as provost in the Oden administration. "He is held in very high regard by the faculty."

Indeed, during the Oden administration the College's faculty made significant gains in several key areas. Diversity increased dramatically, as did the amount of time available for the creative and scholarly work expected of the faculty. And Oden made sure that attention was paid to the competitiveness of faculty salaries and research support relative to the higher-education marketplace.

Likewise, the Kenyon Review found in Oden a firm source of support.

"Rob Oden immediately recognized the worth of the Kenyon Review, not only its intrinsic value as one of the world's great literary magazines but also its value as a flagship for the College," says David H. Lynn '76, editor of the Review and a professor of English. "He was instrumental in our efforts to form a board of trustees to oversee the Review's operations and to build an endowment to insure the Review's future."

Oden also had an impact on admissions. More than a few prospective students and their families were charmed by the president as he sprinted in and out of Ransom Hall between appointments. It might not be possible to lay the credit for this year's surge in admission applications at Oden's feet, but encounters of that sort, and the promise of accessibility they suggest, certainly haven't hurt.

A Legacy in Bricks and Mortar

Many a college and university chief executive has expressed distaste at being labeled a "bricks-and-mortar president" or, even worse, the victim of an "edifice complex." For Oden, it seems not to have been a concern; he proudly accepted the mantle of "bricks-and-mortar president," knowing full well that he has also left an enduring mark on the College's curriculum, student body, faculty, administration, and staff.

The Kenyon campus has indeed been transformed during the Oden years. For the first time since the era of Charles Schweinfurth at the turn of the last century, the College has had the equivalent of a "supervising architect," in the person of the acclaimed architect Graham Gund '63 and his Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm, Graham Gund Architects. The College has Oden, who considers Gund a close friend, to thank for Gund's welcome attention to every detail of the physical fabric of his alma mater.

The buildings that make up the Oden legacy, many of them designed by Gund, stretch from north to south along Middle Path and into newly purchased College lands on the outskirts of Gambier. In chronological order of their dedications, they are the Horn Gallery, James P. Storer Hall, the Brown Family Environmental Center Education Building, Rutherford B. Hayes Hall, Robert J. Tomsich Hall, the Fischman Wing of Higley Hall, the renovated Samuel Mather Hall, and the Eaton Center. Storer Hall, the new home of music at Kenyon and Gund's first building at the College, is perhaps Oden's favorite, fulfilling as it did his early promise to "get the music department out of the basement of Rosse Hall," its dank home of several decades.

And there are countless small improvements. During the summer and fall of 2001, the steps to Rosse Hall were restored to something close to their original formation, and the plate-glass doors were replaced with handsome wooden ones. At the same time, the facades of other buildings were once again revealed as a result of a program of judicious editing of campus plantings.

Oden once said that he was stung by criticism, during his tenure at Hotchkiss School, that he was too concerned with aesthetics. Many at Kenyon would disagree. The attention paid over the past seven years to the campus, which Oden has often called "the College's finest art gallery," provides a model of enlightened stewardship of a critical resource.

A New Challenge

At Carleton, Oden will be leading a highly respected institution with an endowment of more than $600 million, about four times the size of Kenyon's. Carleton is awash in applications for admission, and it reports that 53 percent of its alumni contribute to the annual fund. Carleton enjoys a consistent spot among the top ten national liberal-arts colleges in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings.

So what's left to do there? As Oden points out, there is probably no institution of higher education that couldn't be better, and Carleton may not be the last college to benefit from his expertise. Oden might have at least one more presidency after Carleton in his future. At fifty-four, he is several years younger than the average age of college and university chief executives, which advanced from 52.3 in 1986 to 57.6 in 1998, according to the American Council on Education (ACE). And ACE tells us the experienced president is an increasingly hot commodity: 25.2 percent of higher education's chief executives had previously held another top post, compared to 17 percent in 1986.

The Kenyon community will watch Rob Oden's still unfolding career as an academic leader with interest and pleasure - and tell their friends he earned his stripes in Gambier.

-Tom Stamp, who worked closely with Oden in his capacity as Kenyon's executive director of public affairs, is serving this year as acting director of development at the College.

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