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    • Razor editors Michael Bass ’16 and Sanaea Bhagwagar ’17 with Dr. Bynum following their interview (photo: hopkins.edu)

Chatting With Kai Bynum, Next Head of School

Michael Bass '16 and Sanaea Bhagwagar '17
An in-depth conversation with Dr. Kai Bynum, Hopkins' next Head of School, conducted by editors Michael Bass ’16 and Sanaea Bhagwagar ’17 on the morning of September 11, after Dr. Bynum had spoken to the Hopkins community at Assembly.
Q. Did you feel comfortable at Assembly this morning?
I did, I did, I felt comfortable. Part of that was it wasn’t the first time I’ve been in that gym during Assembly. And the other part is I like the school, and I respect the voices and opinions of the people I was engaging with. And so any time you’re entering a level when you’re willing to engage, and you’re assuming they’re also willing to engage you, there’s no pressure, you know. There’s a conversation. And I felt this morning we were having a conversation, There were some good questions that I appreciated. I really liked them I could talk about literature and philosophy all day long. That’s where my house is. As people asked those questions, we could have been standing there all morning. I felt really comfortable. I hope the students felt comfortable. Actually, that’s the goal. 

Q. How did your upbringing prepare you for your education and for your career in school administration? 
My family always valued education and the notion of thinking and being a good thinker and exploring the values in a classroom, which meant not always taking for granted the information in front of you and also realizing how the information in front of you applies to you as a person. So that’s something that was a part of me at a very very young age...loving knowledge. 

Q. That’s an interesting point. You said that you worked mostly boys public schools, so how do you expect the transition will be going into a coed school. Do you think your philosophy of school administration changes with the school?
I don’t think it changes at all because the first few schools I worked at were coed, obviously the public school was coed, the boarding school was coed, and I was a dorm parent…..I feel I have a pretty good experience of a co-ed environment. 

Q. You talked about your transition from public school to private. What, in the end, prompted that decision? Was there something about public schools that you didn’t like or was there something about independent schools that you valued or found attractive?
Two things. I was disheartened by the inability to be all in. I would say that I wanted to teach; I also wanted to be an administrator. I wanted to advise, I wanted to coach, I wanted to do a number of things. And I felt in the public sector either you’re this, or you’re this, or you’re this. I didn’t feel that I had the flexibility to be a part of all the school as I wanted to be. The other side of that answer is the openness and the total flexibility of the independent school. I mean, everybody’s all in. And that was a huge benefit for me to get into the environment. It’s a lifestyle, it’s not a job. And I love that. 

Q. And how did that mindset impact your decision to come to Hopkins, specifically?
It was the all-in philosophy. When I was here a couple of years ago I was able to visit with a number of students. I sat with a group of middle school students and had a conversation with them about their time at school; I had lunch with a number of upper school juniors and seniors for all three days, asking about their experiences, so on and so forth. And with faculty, as well - you get the sense that we are all doing something, and we are all doing a lot. So as the opportunity emerged to now be a part of it, to be charged with the opportunity to help lead it; it was a good reason to take it. It was a palpable thing. 

Q. We know through the press release and through the Administration, that you have been particularly involved in STEM innovation, so how does that fall under your first year plans at Hop?
Well I’d love for us to talk about it, for sure! I want to get a sense for what the appetite is. STEM is an interdisciplinary field, and I know there are a lot of good things already happening, in our math, science, computer science programs and art programs. From robotics to computer science to actually having a course that blends science and math, and a project-based course as an elective - those are many of the ideas we have. but again, those ideas will grow through the consciousness of the school . 

Q. I’m curious about the studies you’ve done at UPenn about student wellness, religion, and spirituality. How do you think that will apply to Hop students in creating that happy student body that you just mentioned?
The motivation behind my desire to look at spirituality and emotional intelligence was very simple. I was interested in helping students locate meaningful significance in their lives. And as educators—teachers, advisers, coaches, whatever your roles is—if we can be mindful of how we help students locate meaningful significance in their lives, they’re probably more likely to be happier students. So for me that’s a critical component—whether that’s realized as an advising group or in a course or in an activity. 

Q. Hopkins clearly has a commitment to diversity, and you have extensive experience leading programs in that field. So our question is: what will a truly diverse school look, act, and feel like?
It looks and acts and feels like a lot of things. On one hand there is this notion of cultural diversity. This notion of religious diversity, gender diversity, gender identity, sexual diversity, and sexual orientation. Any sort of demographic-cultural in that regard is one important factor in diversity. You could look at areas of intellectual diversity. I think where the term is grounded traditionally is more in the cultural sense, so the ways in which our student body reflects the demographic of the population, and the way in which our faculty reflects the demographic of our population as well. How do you know when it’s accurately reflected and when you’re satisfied? It could be realized in many different ways. For me as I have led efforts in the past, it’s focused on a particular context. So if you’re looking at your student body, what does the demographic of your student body look like? If you looking at sexual orientation, do students feel open enough at a young age to be whomever wherever they want? The notion of religion or spirituality in general, including atheism, is the room open enough to have a broad and open discussion about those things? So I think it really depends from one interaction to another. I think too often historically that discussion has been soiled, you know, because we try to put the notion of diversity in boxes. It’s harder to define it by those boxes. The definitions are evolving with us. 

Q. In The Razor, we noted that in the school profile (which goes out to colleges) we have an approximate 30% students of color benchmark. And I’ve always looked at that and thought “That’s funny, that’s the third thing on our list that characterizes our school.” Although I certainly do think it is something to take pride in, when you really see the diversity, the real diversity of the school is in the classroom, when you have people with really contrasting ideas and different philosophies. Especially when we read the Bible we read it as a piece of literature. And I have a different perspective than a lot of other people do. It really varies, and I think that’s really where you see the diversity.
Yeah, that’s the intellectual diversity I was talking about. Often times in other contexts I did sense that people all over the world tend to focus on one type of diversity. While I don’t want to discredit the importance of having cultural diversity and ethnic diversity, I think it is also important to just take a broader perspective on it. 

Q. That being said, especially the diversity part, what do you have in mind to bring Hopkins to the forefront of the secondary school innovation? What do we do that different from what’s done at Hamden Hall?
That’s a great question, I don’t know if I can completely answer that yet. I’d have to get to know all of you more, better than I do know. I’d have to get a better sense of the teachers, I have to learn a lot more about the community to provide a recipe for improvement, and to know what the ingredients are first. While I know what Roxbury Latin does well, I don’t really know what Hamden [Hall] does well. So I have to get a better understanding. Ask me that question a year from know, and I’ll give you a better sense of the answer. 

Q. Speaking for myself, I absolutely love the school and everything about it. But there is this one thing, which I’m curious what you think about, which is our mascot: the Hilltopper. It’s a goat. I don’t really feel that it represents the academic fortitude of this institution. How do you feel about that?
That’s a great question. It’s funny—some people say that goat really means the “greatest of all time.” So obviously you have to be careful and not seem as though we’re going ahead of ourselves. If we desire to be one of the best institutions in the country then it’s not bad for our mascot to represent that desire. 

Q. And in this next year, how often do you plan to come back to Hopkins, and what do you have in mind to build relationships with students, faculty, parents? What’s the plan?
The number of visits to campus is still being ironed out, but the goal is to meet as many people as I possibly can. To develop relationships within the community to learn the school, learn the customs the traditions, the habits, what are the rituals, what are all those things. I came out with a good sense of the community, a good sense of the academic integrity, a good sense of the feeling that the students, the faculty, and the staff are “all in,” and that was enough for me, so now it’s time for me to put more stories behind that feeling, you know, to put more of your experiences behind those feelings. So when I come in July and the transition is over with Mrs. Riley, I would have a better sense of how we can all work together. You know, the one thing that I’m sure you know, you’re editor-in-chief, to be a good leader you have to know your people, you have to know the people you’re working with, how they work, you have to know the desires, the wants, the wills, the won’ts, the frustrations, all those things. And so a lot of this year is going to take some steps to do that. If I begin to develop those relationships this year, I feel better about the transition coming in July. 

Q. What do you think your learning curve will be like as a first-time Head of School?
Luckily, in my previous roles, I’ve had experience in many of the descriptions the Head of School has to do, so my learning curve is not going to be as short as some might imagine. The learning curve I think I will really have to deal with is the scale of the school. For me, I tend to be a more relatable leader; I want to know people. Getting to know 700 plus students and 180 staff in my first year is going to be a daunting task. For me, all the work that I feel like I have to do as a Head of School is predicated on my ability to get to know people.
 
Q. One of the best ways to do that, I’ve found, is snow days. So the question is: are you generally a proponent of snow days, or are you generally cautious of cancelling school?
I will start with my experience with the Hopkins snow day. Two years ago, the Headmaster of Roxbury Latin and I decided to bring our faculty down to Hopkins for a day to visit classes and meet with students. We got to New Haven and guess what happened? Snow day. 
 
In all seriousness, I love to hear the experiences behind the days. Obviously, the safety is the most important thing. We don’t want to put students in a position where it’s unsafe to come to school: that’s the key. But we also want the school to be a home away from home. Assessing the days as they come and realizing what safety means that morning will be a fun challenge.
 
Q. What’s it like to be following Mrs. Riley’s footsteps? How do you plan to build upon her accomplishments?
I’ll tell you, it’s both a huge task and a rewarding thing. It’s extraordinarily rewarding knowing that you’re following such a good Head of School. She’s done such a good job for 15 years as a Head. The way in which the school has advanced in her time has been astounding. I noticed it two years ago and  I’ve respected and honored her role from afar at other schools. I think she has such a presence that will be really difficult to follow up. 

And that’s the daunting part, following someone who’s just that good. I think she is just such a fantastic leader. I’m sure I bring certain qualities and ideas and I hope you realize that over time. But at the end of the day you’re following what many folks say is a legend. How she operates and what she does, the respect she commands, her poise, her presence – she does the job extraordinarily well. That’s going to be the tough act to follow. I want to not only learn from her as much as I can, but also continue to lean on her for support and partner with her as we look to the next stage in the school. 
 
Q. As I’m sure you may know, she loves to quote To Kill a Mockingbird. From what book or poem can we expect the most references from you?
Moby Dick. My favorite book.

Q. What about Moby Dick is applicable to Hopkins?
I think MD is applicable to almost anything. People read it in so many different ways; it’s a book that you either love or hate. One of my genres of love is 19th Century American literature. Because of the various ways in which Melville intersects the essential society, the notions of identity, and the questions of purpose, it completely blows the doors off of most books that have been written. There is going to be some place for it be applied in how you interact with people and in how you interact with institutions. I’ll likely quote Moby Dick quite a bit in my time.
 
Q. Well, we know at least from the press release that you have a fly fishing background. I guess whales aren’t exactly fly fishing but, nonetheless, I’m sure it requires patience. Do you think that the activities you do in your personal life translate to your academic and professional life?
In fly fishing there are three things. First, it’s contemplation. Silence. It’s the space to think in nature. Only thing you can hear is the creek in front of you. The almost meditative mantra-like sound of the river is a powerful thing. And so having nature in this activity makes you turn this place where you can contemplate what is really important. The second thing is strategy. ?You have to assess the fish; you have to assess the environment around you; you have to assess your ability to catch the fish. The third thing you realize is it’s not necessarily about catching the fish. Once you’re in the environment, and you’re lucky enough to catch it, ?you ?put the fish back. And if you don’t catch it, guess what? You just had a great day in nature. So it’s an activity which keeps you away from things while keeping you focused in the moment.
 
Q. That reminds me of school in a way. You take classes such as “philosophy,” which is more macro than it is micro, and it requires contemplation and strategy but it’s not about catching fish; it’s not about the grade. I think that’s what you’re saying.
I think that’s a perfect connection. On?c?e, in a class I taught at one point, a student said “I’m starting to realize it’s not about the answers, it’s about the questions.” In this case, the answer is catching the fish but it’s not about that really, it’s about the questions?.
 
Q. That’s interesting. And I’m curious about this because I read that you have family back in Boston, so how is that going to work, are you guys all moving to New Haven?
Well, my partner is going to split time, probably half the week in Boston half the time here, and obviously I’ll be here full time.
 
Q. We interviewed Mrs. Riley back in January when she announced her retirement and she advised the next head of school  to “have a sense of humor, enjoy the community, and to find the unbelievable pleasure that comes from work done on behalf of the community.” I’m sure she’s given you similar advice in person. How does that advice correlate to your own goals at Hopkins as the next head of school?
They correlate directly. I’m human, and I love interaction and thinking. And I think for all of us to do what we do together and build the community that has already been established here ?is important. I have to be authentic, and that’s just how I operate. It’s a part of my makeup as a person in general?,? but it’s also a part of how I lead as well.? ?So we feel comfortable working together, and we believe in the same things. And if we don’t believe in the same things we can disagree with the belief that we still love this place and we have the same overall goals in mind.
 
Q. What has been the hardest decision that you have made in your career?
That’s a good question. In terms of leaving football, that was probably a biggie. I mean it was probably both easy and hard, to be quite honest with you. It was easy because I knew it was the right thing to do. It was hard because I was leaving a good career for the unknown. You’re leaving a known career that you’re already in for the space of this exploration of knowledge that seems like an abstract thing. So what does that really mean? I wasn’t sure then, but the same qualities and values I had then, I have now.
 
Q. And what do you think are the hardest decisions/challenges that Hop will have to face in the coming years?
Priorities. There’s a lot of ideas and desires that various aspects of community would love to see enhanced even more?;? there’s been a lot of progress made?,? but there? are? still some areas that we’d like to see further growth in. 
 
Q. Is there anything else you would like to say to the student body?
I can’t express my appreciation for the welcoming feeling that I?‘ve had from ?d?ay one on this campus, this goes back two years from the NEASC evaluation. From the start I felt a ?sense that this is a home. I visited schools all over the world and one of the first questions I asked myself was “Can I see myself as a student here?” Yes. 
 
I want to thank the ?community for allowing me to feel that. And I look forward to meeting everybody and getting to know them as best as I can.
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