Exclusive Governance Fails Students

Editorial Board

In an email from this past summer announcing to faculty and staff that Oberlin’s revenues would fall well short of targets and create a deficit of $5 million, incoming Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan, OC ’84, began with the salutation “To the Oberlin community.”

It was a stroke of profound irony. For all that it contained — including discussion of decreased enrollment, sub-par student retention, a projected five percent budget shortfall over the next decade, and a salary freeze for the second consecutive year — the letter was most significant in what, or rather who, it omitted. Despite the grave financial implications for current and future students, we were never informed, and Canavan’s message explicitly excludes students from the decision-making process, saying, “We will work with the administration, faculty, and staff to make these decisions.”

Also significant is the fact that, in the spirit of transparency and a duty to inform our fellow students, we’re publishing the email in full at left, a step rarely taken in our Opinions pages.

The fact that students remain uninformed nearly three months after this letter was sent is a betrayal. Regardless of why the Board of Trustees and administration failed to tell us this, none of the possibilities are good — at best, this is ignorance, and at worst, deception.

Students and their parents invest a tremendous amount of money in this institution, and that investment relies on the assumption that the services and programs students need will be around during their time here. The $5 million projected shortfall calls that assumption into question.

When students previously protested financial changes by the administration, such as the tuition hike and financial aid adjustments implemented during the last academic year, we already felt that administrators were not fully honest with us. Then, however, it was mostly unsubstantiated, based on instinct and incomplete information. Now it is plainly clear.

We wish we could say that we’re surprised, but this is exactly what students have come to expect. Again and again, the Board of Trustees and previous administrations have shut students out of the governance process, even as we have consistently called for more student involvement.

With things as they stand, however, student resentment will only become further entrenched and cause yet more problems — some of them likely financial — for the administration. If students begin to see their programs of choice undergo deep cuts, such as those that occurred with the Cinema Studies department last year, do administrators expect them to stick around after they failed to inform students that those cuts were on the horizon? When prospective students ask us about financial accessibility and program funding, what do board members expect us to tell them?

The worst part of this fiasco is that it places students, administrators, and board members in a catch-22: the longer students are forced to go without representation in higher levels of campus governance, the deeper resentment will grow, and the financial implications will continue to be disastrous.

That said, the situation could change. We urge the Board of Trustees to add a student representative at the soonest possible opportunity. Doing so would go very far in allaying student concerns and serve as a show of good faith. And there is no shortage of tremendously capable and energetic students ready to take up the charge, just like those on the committee that hired President Ambar. There is no good reason that students shouldn’t be involved in governance, and it is a travesty that in the years leading up to these shortfalls, there was no student present to hold administrators accountable on behalf of their peers.

When the time comes for programs to be cut, students must be an active part of and have meaningful authority in those conversations, as they will be the ones who know better than anyone else which programs are essential, just as they will be the ones to know which ones are not.

To close last week’s editorial, we challenged the Board of Trustees and administrators to engage with driven students on campus and work together to benefit both students and Oberlin’s institutional resilience; now, it’s clear that with yet another chance to involve students, they shut us out instead.

Last week, we asked for a seat at the table. This week, we demand it.