Students Must Advocate for Departments, Programs

Editorial Board

In the throes of a budgetary crisis, it’s time for Oberlin students to rally behind their academic departments. With some tenure-track positions only temporarily replaced by visiting faculty, facilities set for understaffing, and the threat of more cuts in the future, it is vital that students voice which positions and programs matter to them. We have the ability to hold Oberlin accountable to its values by reinforcing what the College means to us, but we can only define our experience if we take the initiative to do so.

Last September, the Review published the article “Program Cuts Leave Film Students With Questions,” (Sept. 16, 2016), concerning the woeful understaffing of the Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman Cinema Studies Center for Media Education and Production that sits above the Apollo Theatre. The piece — which juxtaposes the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tim Elgren and Cinema Studies Professor Geoff Pingree’s significantly differing perspectives on the state of the Cinema Studies program — was the first instance of communication between the department and the administration on the issue whatsoever. The ensuing tension echoed larger concerns regarding a stoic, detached administration and raised questions about the efficacy of faculty committees in granting tenure-track positions to departments in need, as well as the role of the College in funding staff members for departmental facilities. Ultimately, it was the voices of students that raised the is- sue of understaffing to a deafening pitch; the passion Cinema Studies majors displayed in compensating for their program’s deficiencies was, as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and French Grace An then mentioned in her official statement to the Review, admirable.

Without a large well of donors from which to draw, programs like Cinema Studies are forced to set their sights lower than departments with an endowment, a discrepancy that fosters, for example, a far less robust film community on campus. “If you build it, they will come,” mused the cult classic film Field of Dreams; barring the means to expand their educational purview, disadvantaged programs will remain just that: disadvantaged.

Yet to “build it” is not enough. The understaffing of the DeVito and Perlman Center does not bode well for the Theater department’s upcoming third theater, currently being erected between Hall Auditorium and The Hotel at Oberlin. Theater department chair Caroline Jackson Smith told the Review that there is no funding guarantee for the positions necessary to adequately staff the facility; its construction was the result of a concerted fundraising effort specifically for that purpose. The excitement she described among Theater majors at the prospect of a new space was palpable. In a reluctant budget-spending climate, students — able to sidestep the traditional decorum with which professors approach the administration — should champion a push for a staff position to fill an otherwise inevitable void. This kind of foresight will be vital among the student body if the College is to grow at all during this period of restriction.

Students may not realize the flexibility with which cuts are going to be made. Despite Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan, OC ’84, calling for an overall five percent decrease in spending, the implementation of those measures remains remarkably unclear, even though the decision was communicated over three months ago. The College will be looking for student feedback regarding what can and cannot go.

Take direct action, then, by making full use of President Ambar’s office hours Sept. 22 and 28, Oct. 11, Nov. 2 and 8, and Dec. 12. We urge students to show up with a clear vision of Oberlin’s crucial elements, as those conversations may well define the College’s course, both in the immediate and distant future. We need to be optimistic about the administration’s intentions when it comes to student feedback.

Where the administration has previously failed, though, faculty are capable of picking up their slack. Don’t underestimate the power of faculty committees — among other things, they make recommendations regarding which departments are granted tenure-track positions — and make an effort to express your concerns directly to the chairs of your departments.

As ever, communication is the most direct solution to the most pressing problems facing our community, and by utilizing the unique power we have as students of Oberlin College, we can play a hand in the institution’s uncertain future. For the sake of our peers, our departments, and the school as a whole, we must hold Oberlin to its mission. How can one person change the world if they can’t change their college?