The recent protest in response to Tom Reid’s termination from his former position of associate director of the Student Union seems to be only the beginning of more conflicts as the administration addresses what it sees as difficult financial decisions ahead. What made Oberlin special for me as a student was the courage students showed in speaking up on issues of importance. This tradition continues. When Oberlin describes itself as a place where students who want to change the world go, it speaks to a culture that is unafraid to identify problems but also committed to solving them.
As the Review article describing the protest pointed out, Oberlin’s challenges exist at a high level. Oberlin has an existential problem, borne of financial challenges facing all but a few liberal arts colleges today (“Students, Alumni Present Ambar Tom Reid Petition,” The Oberlin Review, Nov. 9, 2018). Tuition costs continue to rise, while more people question the value of a liberal arts education. Birth rates are falling, meaning fewer college-age students in the pipeline.
Higher education trade journals point this dilemma out. Less competitive liberal arts colleges are undertaking drastic changes in order to survive, especially arcing toward more career-oriented course offerings. This trend began when the technological revolution really took off in the late 2000s and people like former Secretary of Education William Bennett took to the airways to pronounce that the future of careers was in science and technology. To some extent, they were right.
The response to these events might not have happened so soon were it not for the arrival of President Ambar and a changed mindset of the Board of Trustees — but it would have happened eventually. Then again, it might never have happened if Oberlin possessed a much larger endowment than the one it currently possesses — roughly the same per student as Johns Hopkins University, whose financial problems recently disappeared in a day when Michael Bloomberg, entrepreneur and former mayor of New York, bestowed $1.8 billion to his alma mater specifically to fund financial aid. In 2017, Oberlin’s endowment per capita was $290,000, Johns Hopkins’ $245,000, and Pomona College’s $1.27 million. We can hope for a wonderful benefactor, but we should plan as if we won’t get one.
The most important thing happening now is that Oberlin, in part through the ongoing Academic and Administrative Program Review, is taking stock of its assets and coalescing around an understanding of what makes it special. Oberlin has described itself as “a place of intense energy and creativity, built on a foundation of academic, artistic and musical excellence.”
The blending of artistic and musical excellence with a quality academic program is what distinguishes Oberlin. Artists and musicians tend not to see limits in pursuing their goals. Nor are they particularly concerned with the “return on investment” of their education. They only seek absolutes in terms of their performance and creative expression. This single-mindedness of purpose provides a great example for intellectual pursuits and pursuits related to social justice, because unconstrained creativity is crucial to the advancement of society. The key constituent components that distinguish Oberlin have resulted in a particular ethos that uniquely positions us in the liberal arts world.
However painful the coming financial challenges are, Oberlin will survive this Darwinian phase we are experiencing. Oberlin’s traditions and its living community of students, faculty, and alumni are too strong to allow anything else. If I were thinking of college now, I would be so grateful to know there is a school like Oberlin there for me. Fifty years from now others will say the same.
Donn Ginoza, OC ’74
Alumni Leadership Council