Capitalist Demands Limit Growth
Last week Student Senate Liaisons College fifth-year Megs Bautista and double-degree junior Jeremy Poe announced the possibility of the Board of Trustees reducing the College’s endowment payout. This move would solidify Oberlin’s overall long-term financial position while gutting its short-term budget. By opting to save more and spend less, Oberlin would be cutting its operating budget by millions of dollars.
It’s no secret that Oberlin cannot sustain its current path. Colleges and universities across the country are struggling with rising costs and an increasing need for financial aid. I understand that the demands pouring in from all sides are likely making the administration feel claustrophobic. Making more revenue through tuition hikes is problematic, as is cutting financial aid for OSCA members. It’s also problematic for the administration to raise revenue by buying up town property and overcharging for Village Housing.
Cutting costs by reducing student services is problematic. Cutting costs by dropping academic majors is problematic. Cutting costs by relying on adjunct professors and overworking food services staff is problematic.
Budget constraints are scary. This change will influence almost every student activist demand we’ve seen in the past few years. As the budget tightens further, something will have to break. I think we know this intuitively. I see a tired look in the eyes of everyone who has worked on the problem.
The model of higher education has changed in the last 40 years. Nationally, we have lost interest in teaching critical thinking; now the narrative revolves around preparing students for high-paying jobs in the workforce. This shift was recently codified by Barack Obama in his new College Scorecard system.
Students are beginning to see their education only in terms of how it will benefit them financially. At the same time, college administrations are starting to run their schools as if their financial positions are prized above all else. This dynamic is difficult for everyone, as liberal arts priorities fall to the wayside and free-market priorities enter higher education.
Oberlin has fallen into this trap. It is difficult for the College to solve capitalist problems while it exists within a capitalist society. In the long run, we need to change or we risk losing our hold on the progressive values that make us Oberlin.
We’re fighting a losing battle trying to conform to standards that don’t fit our socially-minded ideals. Trustees have the responsibility to protect Oberlin and its endowment in perpetuity, and this responsibility makes sense. But is it still Oberlin if we destroy our own financial accessibility in the name of financial security? Is it still Oberlin if we can’t afford to support marginalized students?
It’s difficult to imagine an alternative solution to the current financial problem, but I believe the first step is to disavow the traditional model of higher education. Reject the lecturer-student model and the producer-consumer dichotomy of education. Reject hierarchies of prestige and the artificial and classist division between the town and College. Instead of monetary relationships, rely on human relationships. Adopt the OSCA model of student self-sufficiency. Bring back “labor and learning” in a way that works for everyone.
It won’t be easy. But if we keep thinking critically about how the College is run, we can preserve its ethical and idealistic credo for another 150 years.