Student Representation Essential, Not Radical

This article is part of the Review’s Student Senate column. In an effort to increase communication and transparency, Student Senators will provide personal perspectives on recent events on campus and in the community.

If you Google “How Oberlin Works,” the unfortunately dated but still highly informative site that explains Oberlin’s governmental structure, you’ll learn that the Board of Trustees is the primary and only legally authorized governing body of Oberlin College. Quite simply, the board is responsible for the College’s longevity and wellness.

For practicality and in the spirit of shared governance, the board then delegates responsibility to the administration via the President, and to the faculty. The board ensures the institution’s financial sustainability through management and investment of the endowment, hiring — and, if need be, firing — the president, and approving the aggregate operational budget.

The administration, which ensures institutional continuity by overseeing daily operations, allocates the operational budget. A portion of that budget allocation is entrusted to faculty governance — whose autonomy is enshrined in the 1835 Finney Compact — which distributes funds to different departments and programs as it sees fit. The faculty also has relative independence over all academic affairs.

This is the gist of shared governance, a model that strives to distribute responsibility to various stakeholders and incorporate diverse perspectives and the expertise of multiple constituencies to actualize common goals. Save for at a few institutions in the single digits, this is a governance model in which students are not delegated any official role in the process.

Two years ago, students started requesting to participate in the government of the college through representation on the Board of Trustees. This was, in part, a response to a perceived disconnect between what students value about an Oberlin education and what the board and administration prioritizes through budgetary decisions. It was also a display of students’ lack of confidence in the board’s ability to consider the student body’s current concerns in its larger considerations about the school’s longevity, financial sustainability, and brand integrity.

In my naïve idealism, I assumed the board would receive our request, see its merits, place students on the board, and kick themselves for not having done so sooner. That is not how the process ensued.

Students were first told that Oberlin was not ready to include the students on the board for reasons that could not be divulged. It was only after months of persistence from Student Senate, accompanied by explicit support from the student body through emails and verbal support culminating in a silent demonstration, that the board started engaging meaningfully with the idea of student representation. It’s been a long process, but the protracted negotiations are nearing an end.

The board will be voting on a proposal drafted by a collaborative working group of both students and trustees that I’ve been privileged to participate in. The taskforce was established after a productive mini-retreat among students and trustees, held March 6, and was an act of good faith — a demonstration that the board agreed with the principle of student representation, even while uncertain on the measures through which it could be implemented.

The trustees on the committee — Jacob Gayle, OC ’79; Anne Chege, OC ’16; and Ed Helms, OC ’96; along with Chris Canavan, OC ’84, Chair of the Board; and Donica Varner, interim General Council — generously gave their time and expertise throughout this process. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming meeting this weekend, I’m highly encouraged by the diligence of each of the task force members. However, I am largely dissatisfied with Oberlin’s attitude towards student representation on the board.

We’ve had a structural deficit for years that confounds and overwhelms everyone. Our endowments lost tremendous value in the 2008 stock market crash and we are still recovering from it. I’m not so pompous as to claim that welcoming students onto the board will fix any of this, but clearly what we’ve been doing thus far isn’t working. Our fiscal challenges, currently manifesting in low retention and enrollment, will take years to mitigate. I fail to understand how anyone can ignore the imperative role students should play in this process of change.

When it comes to student representation, we should seek to emulate the few institutions, such as Colorado College, that have incorporated students on their Boards of Trustees. Accepting challenges rather than cowering in times of change is the Oberlin way. We didn’t make history by following the norm. Why are we excusing our lack of student representatives on the board by looking at all the schools that don’t? Students are simply seeking participation in the governance decisions of the school that is currently our educator, and will forever be our alma mater. It’s not that radical.