F+L. So. Tell us about your first date.
F+L. What was your relationship with your most influential teacher?
MK. I would say that I’ve had a lot of influential teachers, mentors, in college and beyond. The two that I probably remember the most are probably two high school teachers. One was my AP U.S. History teacher, who really emphasized the different ways one could interpret history. He was someone who politically emulated George Will, and so we had some different views ourselves. He really inspired me to think about the ways in which you might think about history and interpret history, and that you could have valid interpretations from very different points of view.
He and my AP English teacher, who was a woman named Mrs. Cook, influenced me a lot. She really encouraged me to think about the different layers of meaning in books and [she] really push[ed] trying to understand those. She was a southern person. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and she was from Virginia. She really pushed a lot on writing and writing precisely. She would write question marks when I wrote things that were unclear, and I thought that was very, very helpful. I always have appreciated teachers who do circle things and say, “What are you saying?” I always think that people who don’t like their papers to be marked up are really shortchanging themselves, because the whole point is to improve your writing. She not only improved my writing but also helped me think about interpreting great works of literature.
I think that my education up until that point had been fairly successful but hadn’t really gone to the higher level. I think that they pushed me onto the path that allowed me to compete at a collegiate level. I’m forever grateful to them. I’ve had some great teachers in college and law school. One of my years at Oxford, I had some good teachers as well.
F+L. What lesson are you trying to teach your kids and how are you doing it?
MK. Well, I think the most important lesson my parents taught me that I’m trying to teach my children is how fortunate they are, and how fortunate I was, to be part of the family they are, and to be able to have some of the options that they have. It is the obligation of people who do have options and do have choices to help make the world such that everyone can have some of those choices and options. The way I try to do that is by trying to point out the situation in other places, whether it’s in the United States or around the world, and to try to demonstrate to my own, my wife’s own, actions: how we believe in charity and doing work to help other people. It’s something that once you give freely and happily, it is part of one’s being. It should be part of what one wants to do in life.
F+L. You’ve been here for two years. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned at Oberlin, how did you learn it and how has it affected your life?
MK. I had two different answers to this, and I’ll give you both. One is a slightly more profound, and the other is a slightly less profound. The one that I think is probably the most interesting is that I have learned a lot about Oberlin’s history and the number of important people and actions that have occurred at Oberlin, in terms of access, and in terms of thought, and in terms of everything from the arts to the environment and so forth. One of the challenges is to take those values and that history and to try to translate it to the contemporary scene, to try to do that in a way that is meaningful but is also responsible within all the constraints that one has, including budgetary–but not just budgetary.
I think that the lesson, I would say, is recognizing the importance of the history and the values to an ongoing set of people in an institution, but also trying to do that within a context that is changing. It’s exciting, and it’s challenging, and it’s also sometimes quite humbling.
The other lesson, I guess, is just one that I knew, and I think we all learn it everyday, which is how important it is to recognize and appreciate the contributions of everyone—not just the people that make it recognized—but everyone, to thank people for the work they do, [saying] that ‘this means an enormous amount.’ The simple act of thanking people and recognizing them is very, very important to maintaining a sense of community and a sense of commitment to an institution. Perhaps that’s not as profound, but it’s very important, and it’s one that one probably should be reminded of every day.
F+L. How do you know when some body is a friend?
MK. Well, I’m going to interpret that as ‘How do you know someone’s a true friend?’ which is, I assume, what you meant. I thought about this, and I think that it’s hard to generalize, but I find that when someone is kind or supportive even when there are tough times or things go wrong, that is what I would consider the mark of a true friend. It’s not blind loyalty, because a friend can be very critical and say, ‘Look, you messed up, this is what you need to do,’ but I think that a friend is someone who stays with you even when it may not be that you’re as seemingly successful.
I think, often times, we develop our best friends in college, because we do have ups and downs in college, and we’re more open about our ups and downs with other people, whereas after we leave college, I think that we may not be in as close a community, and we may not be as open about our ups and downs, and we may not be as forthcoming about the challenges we’re having. I think a lot of people who have said to me, for instance, that certainly some of their best friendships–but often their best friendships–were formed during college at Oberlin, because this was a period where they were changing, they were developing, they were growing, and also they had positive and negative experiences. This was a time when they shared those with people.
F+L. What do you remember most about the University of Michigan case?
MK. It was a legal case, and one of the things that we focused on were the legal arguments, but it was also a very emotional case for a lot of people. It did seem to symbolize whether American higher education was going to continue to be able to make an active effort to recruit people of color to the more selective institutions. For many people, for that reason, it was a very personal case, and it wasn’t just a legal matter. It was actually about their being, or their commitments to diversity or integration, or whatever you wanted to call it.
What I was struck by during the course of the time I was at Michigan was the level of emotion on both sides that this case aroused, and the extent to which a lot of people felt it really spoke to them. There were people who came up and said, ‘This case is about me,’ even though they hadn’t even gone to the University of Michigan. They felt they had benefited from affirmative action policies, or they felt that they had not been included because there had been the absence of affirmative action policies.
In a sense, it felt as though, on a small scale, this was about America, and really what kind of vision we were going to have of America, because higher education is such an important part of achieving the American dream. Those are the kinds of memories I have, and when we won, it was very gratifying. We won most of what we wanted to win, and we prevailed on the big questions. Then there was the state initiative in Michigan, which ended up outlawing many forms of affirmative action, and that was also emotional. Those are the things I remember.
F+L. Is there an event you remember specifically?
MK. I mean there was a fun, sillier moment. After the argument, we left the Supreme Court, and there were some people outside that were singing the Michigan Fight Song. Some of us that had been in the Supreme Court congregated on the steps, and we sang the Michigan Fight Song on the steps of the Supreme Court. It was really fun. There were some pictures taken of it, and the guards scooted us away after a while, but it was a cathartic moment, because the Michigan Fight Song is quite upbeat–“hail to the victors, da, da, da, da, da.” It’s a good fight song, it’s a memorable fight song, and to be able to sing after the Supreme Court argument was really a huge relief and release. That was April First, it was April Fools’ Day, that that was on.
You never are sure when the Supreme Court is going to deliver a decision, so we made a bet that it was going to be on the last few days of the term of the Court, which is typically late June. We managed to get into the Court, a very few number of us, on that particular day. It turned out that that was one particular day–my boss had something in Maryland, and we had a little gathering the night before–Anyway, we managed to work it out so there were maybe 3-5 of us, I can’t remember, and we happened to be in the Court the day Sandra Day O’Connor read the decision. We thought it was a good sign when she started reading, but we didn’t know. As it went on, it just got better and better. I could feel my heart pounding, probably harder than it’s ever pounded, other than when I’m doing a lot of exercise, I mean it was just really incredible. It was a little hard to breathe, even, because I’d been working on this for so long, and I’d put so much energy in it, and it really did feel that it had become my life.
I’d been interested in the issue even before I got to Michigan, and one reason I came to Michigan was because I knew that this case might go to the Supreme Court. I mean, the fight song was fun, but hearing her read the decision in the court was pretty unbelievable, especially because she picked up on a lot of the things that we had advanced that were very important. You just never know what’s going to happen in a case like that, very high stakes and so forth. Those are good memories.
F+L. What type of President do you want to be?
MK. Well, in terms of image, I think it’s important to be accessible and positive and proud of Oberlin and the faculty and the students and the staff, and to help folks realize what a wonderful institution it is. One of my goals it to help bring those feelings and that perception to the broader world, as well as also bring people to Oberlin so they can appreciate what Oberlin has. I think that’s one of my goals, to both bring our message and our accomplishments and our spirit to a broader range of people, but also to bring people to campus and to reconnect with people–including alums–but also others who might not fully understand what Oberlin does, both the arts and sciences and the conservatory. I also care deeply about our record in access and environmental sustainability and also building a stronger town, and a stronger, broader community, than the college.
F+L. Nobody is perfect. What are you currently working the hardest on to fix?
MK. On a personal level? The one thing that I try to do, but I’m not perfect, is to try to remember everybody’s name in my conversations with them. I try to have infinite patience, but I suppose I’m not always infinitely patient.
When I find myself feeling less than perfect, I find that exercise is actually the best way to get myself into the best frame of mind, to be clearer, thinking. Also I find that exercise is a great way to relieve tension and stress. I also think that sometimes exercise allows me to get beyond issues of the moment and try to think about the bigger picture.
Travel, sometimes, also can help that too. Sometimes when I’m away from campus and visiting from people, I’m able to appreciate even more fully the strengths of Oberlin. Sometimes, and this is true of any place, when you’re on a campus or you’re in an institution, when you’re in a place, you can get focused on what are the concerns, and what are the weaknesses, and so forth, but sometimes just stepping away, seeing other people, seeing other institutions, allows you to appreciate the stress.
F+L. Are you ready to explain your life as we stand on one foot?
MK. Yes! Okay, okay, ready? Okay: I have tried to honor my parents’ values and teach them to my children. Done.
F+L. And lastly, we want to hear a joke.
MK. Remember knock-knocks or chicken crossing the road and stuff? I never remember that. The jokes I remember are the little silly things that the kids tell. They’re often not that funny, but they’re sort of cute?
Alright, so one of my kids did this thing where he was asking for things, and my wife said, “I’ll take it under advisement.” And he said, “Will you take it to the store instead?”
It’s not much of a joke! I told you, get it? Take it under advisement, take it to the store instead? It’s a small joke. I’m not really a joke guy. I mean, it’s cute, it was cute. He was a youngster at the time. Anyway, sorry, I’m not much of a joke guy.