Constructive Institutionalism Includes Diverse Perspectives

Oberlin has reached many milestones this year — some deserving of celebration. Among those was the beginning of Carmen Ambar’s presidency. Ambar has worked to be more transparent and communicative than former President Marvin Krislov, whose time at Oberlin was marked by campus tension and administrative opacity.

Ambar’s presidency has begun at a time of great financial uncertainty for Oberlin. To her credit, Ambar has made an effort to be candid about those challenges, carrying out a series of campus presentations regarding the College’s financial outlook this winter. She has also called upon all of us — students, staff, faculty, and alums — to be Oberlin’s stewards, institutionalists concerned not only with Oberlin’s present but also its long-term stability.

We agree with Ambar’s assessment: Now is truly the time to be institutionalists. However, that term demands some analysis. What does it actually mean to be an institutionalist, particularly when cuts and deficiencies in the short run can make Oberlin’s long-term outlook seem a little less urgent, particularly for those most impacted in the present?

We feel that recent advocacy on behalf of unionized College employees — particularly those employed in Campus Dining Services — carried out by both individual students and members of the Student Labor Action Coalition represent the best that the Oberlin community can offer in terms of active citizenship and informed institutionalism.

Following the announcement that Dascomb Dining Hall will close at the conclusion of this semester, College sophomore Caitlin Kelley began collecting testimonials from current and former College staff members, conducting 47 interviews in total — 42 with individuals currently or formerly employed by CDS.

The result is an impressive compilation of narratives that paints a disheartening picture of the current state of CDS under management company Bon Apétit. In the short-term, Kelley and SLAC leadership have indicated that their goal is to improve worker conditions and ultimately move towards a model of CDS self-management.

More broadly, their work is incredibly inspiring and should be heartening to Ambar and other administrators urging community members to emphasize the institution in crafting paths out of our current turbulence. It should also stand as a shining example of meaningful and effective institutionalism for anybody who cares about Oberlin’s future.

Part of being an institutionalist is upholding an institution’s values — especially when the going gets tough and it could potentially be easier to sacrifice those principles or look the other way as corners are cut. Oberlin has a rich and robust history of being at the forefront of progressive activism among colleges and universities, as well as the United States more generally. We were the first four-year institution to admit women and African-American students; we were also a stop on the Underground Railroad. This is our legacy, and is why so many of us care so deeply about this school’s future.

Now is the time to hold more strongly to those principles than ever before. Otherwise, as cuts continue and restructuring begins in earnest, we risk sacrificing the most important parts of Oberlin — the intrinsic, intangible elements of our cultural and social identity that bind Obies together, often across great difference.

When Kelley and SLAC compile interviews and circulate petitions challenging decisions that Oberlin’s administration has made, it may be tempting to label their actions as institutionally counter-productive. To the contrary, we feel that they are engaged in the important work of not only standing by this institution’s rich history of social justice advocacy, but of prefiguring a future where values of equity and inclusion are still very much a part of Oberlin’s identity. It is difficult to imagine a more generous act of institutionalism than this.

This Editorial Board has advocated regularly over the past year for community engagement exactly like this in important discussions and processes. For its part, Ambar’s administration has publicly maintained interest in collecting community input. In responding to this testimonial project and other constructive activism on campus, administrators need to put their money where their mouths are and show that these affirmations are not just platitudes.

SLAC and other activist groups are engaging in good faith with Ambar’s emphasis on institutionalism — the question that remains is whether her vision for Oberlin will be responsive to the institutional commitments of other community stakeholders, which may challenge her own. Particularly as Oberlin moves into the Academic and Administrative Program Review, which will undoubtedly conclude that difficult changes must be made, we hope that Ambar will value institutionalism that both supports and challenges the direction she wants to move in.

So, kudos to SLAC and Kelley for their spirited advocacy. As they work tenaciously to preserve workers’ rights on campus, they also contribute to a larger Oberlin conversation about what it means to be an institutionalist and provide an outstanding example of how all community members — students, faculty, staff, and alums — should help shape Oberlin’s direction in the difficult years to come.