Among Oberlin’s new efforts to increase enrollment and retention rates are some much-needed renovations of Oberlin’s buildings. A key example of this is Wilder Hall lobby. The administration decided to begin these renovations after Student Senate conducted a survey that revealed that Oberlin students want far more accessible and communal spaces on campus.
Oberlin is in desperate need of more communal spaces and major building renovations. However, the administration’s priorities are out of order. I am on the management team of SWAP: The Book Co-Op, which is located in the basement of Harkness House. SWAP is an amazing place where students can exchange textbooks without exchanging money. The co-op’s main goal is to make Oberlin a more financially accessible place. Unfortunately, over the past week, our mission has been to clean mold.
SWAP’s headquarters is located in the room that contains much of the piping and heating for the building. Toward the end of Winter Term, one of our management team members opened the co-op to find that the heating system was leaking large amounts of water onto the floor and our English books. We’ve had to throw out at least 20 books and will most likely have to buy a new bookshelf due to water damage and mold. Furthermore, more examination of the area around the leak revealed that the entire wall behind the bookshelf was moldy, and another wall was covered in bubbling paint.
To renovate perfectly functional and safe spaces such as Wilder and Philips gym is uncalled for when other buildings are struggling with mold and the college faces a financial crisis. Mold is an allergen and can be toxic, and is therefore a danger to students. Luckily, Facilities is going to fix the leak, and Harkness House is being renovated this summer. However, I’ve heard from other students that there is mold in village housing and other structural issues in dorms.
I am glad that the administration listened to student concerns and responded by renovating Wilder Hall. However, Wilder is a very visible space on campus and is often featured on campus tours. That fact could have motivated the renovation as much as the student survey did. We all know that enrollment is down and the College needs to do more to attract prospective students, but retention rates have also decreased. Students are far more likely to stay at Oberlin if they have safe living spaces. Plus, prospective students often spend the night in dorms and will be equally unlikely to enroll if water drips on their face as they sleep or the book co-op they visit has bubbling paint.
The administration needs to address the physical condition of the school as they strategize ways to improve the College’s financial situation. Yet simply making the school look better won’t solve the underlying problems. Prioritizing student health and safety is not only the most effective solution but also the only truly ethical one.