Students Need More Data

Since the launch of the ongoing Academic and Administrative Program Review, transparency has been an oft-repeated concern of Oberlin community members — and for good reason. The AAPR is the first comprehensive analysis of Oberlin’s finances and was created to address the College’s structural budget deficit. As a recent report from the AAPR steering committee reminded us, their work “is an ambitious effort that touches almost every part of the institution.” This breadth of responsibility, understandably, comes with considerable apprehension.

However, as the Review reported following the initial public rollout of the AAPR’s areas of recommendation on March 13, AAPR leadership has taken important steps toward publicly addressing some of these concerns (“AAPR Announces Areas of Recommendation to Oberlin Community,” March 15, 2019). Their arguments are well-supported by data that has been made available on Oberlin’s website.

Sharing this data publicly is an important step that deserves recognition. The committee’s “Summary of Work to Date” document is available not only to students, faculty, and staff, but to prospective students and families, Oberlin residents, alumni, and any other interested parties — even when such transparency could damage enrollment figures, for example. Further, the committee has promised even greater transparency with the appropriate faculty governing bodies in the coming weeks and months. This openness represents a bold and important confidence from the committee that its process and logic are sound.

While the AAPR committee is not attempting to hide or disguise any of its recommendations, as difficult as their decisions may be, all the data that has been released so far has been in direct support of their areas of recommendations. The committee has made its case well, but community members — particularly the general student body — now need to be able to access more information if they are to effectively give the kind of informed feedback that the AAPR committee is currently seeking.

An environment for informed and engaged campus dialogue has yet to fully materialize. As it stands, one party — a committee of 31 faculty, staff, students, and alumni — currently has access to all relevant information, while nearly all other constituents have access only to relevant information that supports the committee’s conclusions and recommendations.

Take, for example, the recommendations concerning the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. AAPR data has revealed that the College loses $1.9 million in annual revenue from students released to OSCA dining and housing — a figure that creates a compelling case for redefining OSCA’s relationship with the College. However, some students still have questions that cannot be directly addressed by the data currently publicly available, including why OSCA is being singled out when all students pay for many departments and programs that they don’t directly use, such as athletics. It must also be mentioned that OSCA has been less than forthcoming with its own books, leaving administrators to guess about the organizational efficiency of the co-ops — another factor as to why conversations around housing and dining have been so fraught.

In a public AAPR forum on March 13, Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo said that athletics was an area ultimately left alone by the AAPR, due to both the revenue it generates and its relatively low operating costs compared to other departments. She also shared data that revealed that athletics has strong learning outcomes and mission-centeredness.

Raimondo’s response effectively addressed the concern, but the exchange illuminated the broader reality that, without greater access to data, all community members can really do is grasp at straws instead of constructing more substantive and informed critiques. 

Committee members have planned a series of meetings with various campus constituencies and said that they are interested in meeting with campus groups to discuss remaining questions or concerns. At these meetings, committee members will likely be more transparent and forthcoming than they have chosen to be in the public forums. Still, these meetings will not live up to their potential as forums for constructive feedback if community members don’t know what questions to ask — and, realistically, AAPR leaders will be limited in the amount of time they can give to these conversations, making the need for students to come to meetings already informed even more vital.

By making more data available to community members, the AAPR steering committee can fortify its arguments, further prove its commitment to transparency, and allow for deeper, more critical community engagement. Community members — especially students — will benefit from focusing their questions and exploring areas not directly mentioned in the AAPR documentation to date.

To be fair, sharing data is more easily said than done. Numbers must be properly contextualized, which they are in the AAPR documents currently available; a complete and unexplained dump of every spreadsheet compiled by the committee would benefit nobody. Committee members need to find a way to share data and information that does not threaten the integrity of this important process, but they must do it soon, as the window for community members to provide substantive feedback will close in the coming weeks. Community members, for their part, must recognize that transparency is a two-way street, and need to ask focused and direct questions about what data they would like to see — organizing around specific issues is a much more effective approach than loudly shouting for general transparency.

A potential solution to these challenges could look like committee members hosting open office hours where students and other community members could request to be walked through parts of the AAPR data not made publicly available. On the whole, though, greater availability of contextualized information will only serve to elevate the level of campus discourse — a positive outcome for both AAPR committee members and the broader Oberlin community.