Student Activism Must Work Toward Solutions

After entering this academic year with significant under-enrollment contributing to a $5 million deficit, the Admissions Office has emphasized the importance of ensuring that Oberlin hits its enrollment goals. A large part of that effort, as President Ambar highlighted in a campus-wide email in February, has been in emphasizing the persuasive power of All Roads Lead to Oberlin — a program in which admitted students visit campus. This weekend is the third and final All Roads event, and compared to last year’s All Roads, which was littered with student protests against the 2017–2018 tuition hike and room and board changes, this year was significantly more successful. However, we must remain cognizant of our actions in regards to prospective students even as conditions worsen.

A sudden and poorly-communicated April 18, 2017 email from then Vice President of Finance and Administration Mike Frandsen sparked last year’s All Roads protests. Although we supported current students’ work in informing admitted students of the conditions and costs that came with the announced changes, we saw fault — especially in retrospect — in the accompanying message students conveyed to prospective students: Don’t come to Oberlin.

This message is one that highlights some of the shortfalls of Oberlin activism: protest the problem but fail to work constructively toward a solution. Obies are passionate about social justice and increasing accessibility, but the reality of this institution is that it depends heavily on tuition income. Deterring students from enrolling at Oberlin rather than working toward revising policies as well as irresponsible spending surely contributed both to this year’s drop in enrollment and the College’s ballooning deficit. Housing, dining, resources, and conditions on campus will not improve on their own, and without the income to rectify the problems we face, they will only continue to worsen.

The financial deficit has indeed sparked very tangible consequences across campus. Dascomb Dining Hall is closing. Staff who we interact with every day, who work hard to provide us with food, keep our dorms clean, and maintain our facilities, are losing their jobs. All employees of the institution face salary freezes for the second year in a row. Our professors are given fewer opportunities to work on their research as the administration cuts back on research status grants. Our Student Activity Fund has less money in it than in previous years, so student organization budget allocation will likely become more stringent.

Telling admitted students not to come to Oberlin directly affects the financial strains and realities we collectively face on this campus, and will only inflame the problems cited above. Too often, students protest against changes without actually envisioning a solution. The protests at last year’s All Roads programming certainly illustrate this, so we applaud the campus effort to create a more welcoming and productive series of All Roads weekends this year.

Oberlin is projected to meet its enrollment goals next year. If students really want to protest effectively to support and improve the conditions and resources of workers, professors, and fellow students on this campus, we should not simply inform prospective students of the realities on this campus. Rather, we should also proactively work toward rectifying the obstacles we face.

There are several ways students can act productively. Students should remain vigilant and engaged during the upcoming Academic Administrative Program Review, especially given the concerns that faculty members have expressed in recent weeks. Students can engage with administrators, asking questions and proposing solutions they feel are right for this campus. They can apply to serve on committees, and ask staff, faculty, and other students how they can best support each other. Ways to engage are many and incalculably more constructive than deterring prospective students from enrolling.

We feel fortunate that many Oberlin students care for the people around them, including prospective students. While it is important to engage with admitted students honestly, discouraging them from enrolling works counteractively toward the big picture. Further drops in enrollment will only hurt current and matriculating students, staff, faculty, and administrators.

Moving forward, let’s continue to build transparency, inclusivity, accessibility, community, and solutions to the obstacles this institution faces. In doing so, we preserve the values we consider integral to Oberlin while also welcoming the future generations of Obies who will carry on that legacy.