Community Engagement Should Be Academic Priority

The City of Oberlin and Oberlin College have always been very closely connected, as can be expected of the relationship between a small liberal arts college and the small, rural community it shares a backyard with. Indeed, the two were founded together — the town and then-Oberlin Collegiate Institute were one and the same, reveling in shared triumphs and coming together in difficult times. However, in recent years that relationship has faltered, and interactions between the town and College have become strained.

These divisions have doubtless come with heavy cost, and silos that seemed unimaginable early in Oberlin’s history now too often feel deeply entrenched. Clearly, work must be done to rebuild those bridges — a well-recognized reality that is more easily identified than addressed.

Fortunately, some at the College have recognized the missed opportunity for community connection and solidarity, and are working to build equitable and sustainable partnerships in and around Oberlin.

A good chunk of that work is happening at the classroom level. To their credit, many Oberlin professors do an excellent job incorporating community-based learning into their syllabi and making off-campus engagement a core focus of their classes.

The Environmental Studies Program is an excellent example of this kind of advocacy in action. All students in the program’s intro class, Environment and Society (a required course for majors), choose local community partners to collaborate with over the course of an entire semester. Partners include Providing Oberlin With Energy Responsibly, the George Jones Memorial Farm, and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, among others. These projects provide students — often first-years and sophomores searching for connection early in their college careers — opportunities to connect in tangible ways with their community outside the context of a traditional classroom project.

The program also manages the Environmental Dashboard, which provides a calendar of community events, features the “Community Voices” series, and maintains real-time information on the City’s electricity and water usage. The consumption rates are tracked not just for College facilities, but in buildings downtown and in Oberlin public schools.

Many classes in other departments — including Philosophy, Comparative American Studies, Creative Writing, Biology, Geology, Latin, and Spanish, among others — involve students in important community engagement, broadening their academic experiences and simultaneously leveraging the College’s resources for positive outcomes.

Given that many professors and departments have identified the need for stronger community engagement in their curriculum, now is the time for the College to invest more institutional resources in recognizing community engagement as a legitimate academic pursuit. Strong community-based learning allows students to apply skills and concepts learned in classrooms to real-world situations. It also has the power to connect students to organizations and people in fields they are interested in, providing them with valuable connections and experiences long after the course is over.

Further, community engagement builds life skills in ways that more traditional classroom experiences don’t. Transferable skills in strategizing, agenda-setting, and developing solutions to direct, tangible challenges is vital — particularly in a rapidly changing job market. This Editorial Board has previously argued that the changing nature of higher education will compel Oberlin to set itself apart from its peers; embracing community-based learning from an institutional standpoint is one way the College can stand out.

The College is entering a season of change. President Ambar’s tenure signals a plethora of new institutional possibilities, particularly as the College begins to revise its financial model. The recommendations of the Academic and Administrative Program Review are close to being revealed, representing a significant challenge and also a major opportunity to evaluate and direct the College’s priorities.

There are many steps the College could take to more fully support the community engagement work that faculty across many departments are already undertaking. One could be creating a community-based learning concentration — a potential selling point for prospective students drawn to Oberlin’s strong social justice reputation but who aren’t quite sure how Oberlin stands out from the state school closer to home. Given the number of courses already focusing on community engagement, creating this concentration would require minimal investment of resources. Instead, the main task would be identifying and institutionalizing the good work that is already being done.

There was once a time in Oberlin’s history when professors were leaders not just on campus, but for the community at large as well. There are certainly still professors here who value their roles in both the College and the town communities, but their work needs greater institutional recognition and support in order to achieve its full potential. With that, we can move toward addressing town-gown conflict and setting Oberlin apart from its competition in a powerful and responsible way.