Institutional Change Difficult, Requires Student Input, Resilience

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.

At this point, it should be no surprise that things are changing at Oberlin. Faculty and staff have taken benefit cuts, several staffers have been eliminated, and students are seeing all sorts of differences in dining and living spaces. Hell, even the albino squirrels have returned to reclaim their piece of the Oberlin pie.

Students shouldn’t be alarmed at these changes. President Ambar started her tenure last year laying bare the financial landscape of the College, implying that our current fiscal trajectory is unsustainable. In the spring, the General Faculty Committee met to establish a group that would holistically evaluate the College’s inner and outer workings and provide recommendations for a sustainable future. Much of this has been on the horizon; the lowered credit ratings, retention issues, campus conflicts, questionable debt assumption, and expensive capital projects should have rung bells many years ago.

This can be frustrating to experience from a student perspective — we are this institution’s primary source of funding, and yet sometimes we seem like the least influential constituency on campus. Many of the changes students will experience on a daily basis are rooted in financial feasibility, and students should use their voices and resources to better understand the fiscal reality here. Doing so allows us to be better activists.

For example, housing and dining is a revenue stream for the College. Residential Education’s inability to inform first-years of their housing status in a timely manner represents not only a lack of capacity, but a strained institution that needed to bring in an exceptionally large first-year class to pad years of enrollment decline. Some are asking, “What happened to DeCafé?” Think about a meal swipe this way: it’s more than the food. It’s the food and labor costs. Meaning that when you swipe for a meal, you’re swiping for the process that brought you that food. So, in theory, when you swipe for a meal at DeCafé, you’re making a comparable transaction to grabbing a meal in Stevenson Dining Hall or elsewhere. However, buying groceries on a meal swipe is not comparable because of the labor differences.

Is the DeCafé switch the best idea? Not in my opinion. I loved swiping at DeCafé for groceries and miss having that option. I also understand the rationale behind it. The bigger move for Oberlin should be identifying a financial model that is less tuition-dependent, specifically on the seemingly exploitative dining model. In the interim, though, the College must balance its books. Deficits will only increase if we don’t continue to change our course. Our ship isn’t going to sink tomorrow or in the next 10 years. However, if we fail to fix the ship’s frame, we could eventually sink. And then the problem would be bigger than DeCafé, Stevie, Wilder Hall, etc.; the value, reputation, and credibility of our degrees (which we will have already paid for) would be at stake.

So how do we survive this year of institutional change? Student Senate will continue advocating for the parts of Oberlin that are most important to students. All students should fill out the many (too many) surveys that will come out this year — this is the most efficient way of making sure all students can have a say. Sadly, this year of change will be tough. But Obies are resilient, kind, and committed to a more just world. We’ll make it.