Students Must Re-examine Role of Presidency

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Marvin Krislov announced Sept. 6 that he will be stepping down as president of the College, effective June 30, 2017. The news has received mixed reactions from students, many of whom hope that a new president might allow the College to reaffirm its commitment to progressive activism and accessibility to all students.

College sophomore Kameron Dunbar wrote for the Review last week on the qualities he hopes the next president will embody: “They must maneuver strategically while maintaining a level of ethics and decorum essential to running an institution heavily rooted in a commitment to social justice. … Oberlin’s next president should look like, think like and reflect the values of a changing America, a changing narrative of higher education and a reconceptualization of how a liberal arts education must function in 2016” (“Next Oberlin President Must Promote Unity,” Sept. 9, 2016).

Throughout his nearly 10-year tenure at Oberlin, Krislov has solely weathered much of the blame for aspects of the school that students find unappealing. For instance, following the police killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014, Black Lives Matter activists on campus directed a petition to President Krislov asking him to suspend the standard grading system for students of color who were processing and protesting police brutality. Following a meeting with Krislov, Kiki Acey, OC ’16, reported the president saying that he did not have the power to enact such a decision.

“Who is this invisible person that can make these decisions?” asked B.J. Tindal, OC ’16, as quoted in a Review article Dec. 14, 2014 (“Students Hold Emergency Convocation, Demand Institutional Support”).

Who does make these decisions? As the figurehead at the helm of the institution, Krislov’s power as president may seem greater than it actually is. According to the College’s Charter and Bylaws, the president’s main duties include preparing the budget, presiding over General Faculty meetings, supervising all departments and making recommendations to the Board of Trustees.

Fundraising is another essential part of the job. In a 2011 American Council of Education survey, university and college presidents across the country named fundraising and budgets as two of their top four duties, along with community relations and strategic planning. This emphasis on finances has led to a trend of hiring corporate executives as presidents. The same ACE study found that 20 percent of college presidents came to their job from outside of academia.

While the president does have powers of oversight, planning and agenda setting, the main body in charge of the College’s operations is the Board of Trustees. The approximately 34-member board must approve all major planning and financial decisions. The president is an ex officio member of the board, but only gets one vote on all issues. The board leaves most of the day-to-day decisions of running the College up to the administration and General Faculty — the two other governing spheres of the College — but retains the right to intervene as it deems necessary. The president does not even have the power to appoint his own assistants without an election from the board. Most curriculum and academic hiring decisions are made by faculty committees.

That’s not to say that the president is powerless. While Krislov may not have been able to unilaterally discard the standard grading system at the end of 2014, he could have endorsed the plan — which, as the activists pointed out, he refused to do. His support would have gone a long way in persuading the General Faculty and Board of Trustees.

Those who use Krislov as a scapegoat for the College’s many problems — tuition costs, enrollment, student health, retention rate and facility upkeep, to name a few — do a disservice to their causes by ignoring the overarching structures that have created and cemented these issues in the first place. While Krislov’s resignation opens up an opportunity for the board to elect a president who embodies Oberlin’s values of diversity and equality, a new president alone will not bring about institutional change.

Student activists must commit to challenging the administration and the board, as well as our future president, on issues of justice, equity and accessibility. When all fingers point to Krislov, too many of the institution’s decision-making bodies are not held accountable for their actions.

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