Oberlin Lacks Reason to Place Trust in Board
The Board of Trustees has seemingly done away with traditional public forums for students to speak to trustees, and the student body has yet to receive an explanation. Eliminating such access to the board is unprecedented and a significant cause for concern. The trustees seem determined to continue isolating themselves, giving the community less reason to trust them and threatening to exacerbate an already untenable political arrangement at Oberlin.
The trustees have imposed their will on campus in a number of recent actions, such as the recently approved Philips gym expansion and the in-progress Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center. Beyond capital projects, the treatment of Professor Joy Karega in 2016 prompted concern about the board’s respect for faculty governance and academic freedom, suggesting that the perceived concerns of donors and prospective students supersede values crucial to an institution of higher education. Discussions about campus anti-Semitism occurred as administrators were attempting to implement the Strategic Plan, which remains a board project despite claims of community consensus – faculty approval came by voice vote in a half-empty room and Student Senate unanimously opposed the plan.
The Strategic Plan prioritizes sustainable finances over all other goals and seeks to concentrate decision-making in the administration. In meeting notes from July 2015, the Steering Committee recognized the need for a 10 percent budget cut and yet chose to obfuscate and make the plan intentionally vague to “provide flexibility for the administration.” The concern about finances intensified through the planning process, especially following a sobering budget evaluation in August 2015. Trustees seemed to react by publicly and privately emphasizing the importance of their fiduciary duties, while in previous years they had stressed that their job was to “hire or fire the President.”
In fall 2015, tension between the idealized plan and the reality of the situation emerged. The Committee considered a plan focused only on finances a failure, but struggled to present an honest portrayal of the situation. Fiscal year 2016 budget deficits were projected at least as early as fall 2014, but by choosing a closed planning process and insisting that financial decisions had to follow the adoption of the Strategic Plan, the board ensured action would not be taken until the eleventh hour. Implementation was designed to operate through significant administrative discretion with the veneer of community participation, and the Review’s coverage shows the consequences of that arrangement (“Administrators, Unions at Odds on Cuts,” Feb. 10, 2017). In hindsight, the intensity of current financial pressures is self-inflicted. Significant budgetary adjustments could have been made in previous years, but instead, decisions will be made in the present by an isolated administration.
Student Senate’s concern that trustees have a flawed or ignorant view of campus led to its call for student representatives at board meetings. The summary from the Steering Committee’s final meeting in March 2016 suggests that the board received selective information about campus’ opinion of the Strategic Plan. The notes contain an incomplete representation of the votes that General Faculty took to approve the plan, notably omitting a 50–50 voice vote on an amendment for more specific implementation language. The notes also fail to mention that more faculty chose to skip the meeting than attend. These details suggest a lack of consensus on the Strategic Plan that would hamper its implementation, and it seems the trustees were inadequatly informed of campus’ opinions when they chose to adopt the plan.
Evidence of the problems of centralized administrative control has previously come from the forums that the trustees have now eliminated. In these forums, students repeatedly identified problems with existing administrative services. The trustees replied by reminding students about the significant financial commitments made to those services in recent years, mistakenly assuming that expenses are a useful measurement of policy efficacy. The documents and survey released by the Resource Management Working Group last fall suggest that the administration can only measure general spending patterns and lacks the means to analyze policy specifics.
In the absence of such analysis, and supported by the belief that students are customers, an isolated administration increasingly relies on industry practices and comparisons to competitor schools. Decisions are targeted to the perceived interests of prospective students and donors, two groups crucial to ensuring financial sustainability. Steering Committee meeting notes from October 2015 explain the importance of a 4+4 approach — referring to a plan to provide career support to students and alumni for four years after graduation — because it is “market savvy” and “adds value” to young alumni. Notes from December 2015 show that the increased focus on diversity was prompted by a similar shift in other institutions of higher education. The Strategic Plan ultimately bases Oberlin’s commitment to diversity not on moral arguments but because the institution is falling behind its competitor schools when it comes to compositional diversity.
The only reasonable way to resolve the financial contradictions of the Strategic Plan is to increase fundraising, which will further occupy the time of senior administrators, allowing them less time to actually govern. The distance between their decisions and those affected will continue to grow. In forums with Trustees, students said administrative services require significant change. Yet an isolated board and administration seem unwilling to reduce administrative positions while making targeted cuts to the rest of campus, trying to avoid criticism. This is foolishness, not expertise.
The board has committed to centralizing and trusting decision-making solely with the administration. This political arrangement has produced Oberlin’s current financial position, and it seems likely to produce more crises than solutions.
What reason do those of us on campus have to trust the trustees? Perhaps when the trustees meet next week, they can provide Oberlin with an answer.