Academic and Administrative Review Process Not the Enemy

 As of yesterday, a year has passed since President Carmen Twillie Ambar shared the list of Academic and Administrative Program Review Steering Committee members with the Oberlin community. The AAPR is daunting because it indicates that hard decisions will need to be made to secure Oberlin’s long-term financial future. However, the fact that we have a dedicated program to address our serious deficit shows that Oberlin’s administration understands the gravity of our current financial struggle. 

During this process, I have come to see a pattern of Oberlin students leveling sweeping criticisms of the AAPR rather than meaningfully confronting the potential danger we face. While there are plenty of reasonable concerns to be had about the changes to Oberlin’s future, there comes a point when a reality check is needed. 

Our challenges are many and varied, and the AAPR Steering Committee is working tirelessly to come up with helpful solutions. The faculty, administrators, alumni, and our peers on the committee have poured energy into ensuring Oberlin College will live to see its 200th anniversary. Perhaps instead of stonewalling them and lobbing accusations of secrecy and lack of transparency, concerned students could embrace a modicum of patience and cooperative spirit. The AAPR is not the enemy. They are trying to save this school, and are finally ready to engage with the broader community on the merits of their areas of recommendation.

Personally, I consider it unacceptable that OCOPE and hourly workers currently have no voice on a committee that is making recommendations concerning their wages and institutional future. There is no universe in which choices that will affect College employees should be made without their input. An article in the April 12 issue of the Review explained why labor laws made it complicated for hourly employees to sit on the committee, but the AAPR should have figured out a way to make it work (“AAPR Prompts Concern Among Union Supporters,” April 12, 2019). If this lack of representation leads to hourly workers and unionized staff footing the bill for the College’s future, it goes against every tenet of Oberlin’s mission. This is a problem that needs immediate attention.

Student outrage over a lack of transparency, on the other hand, is entirely unfounded. Since the program began, the AAPR has been clear that they plan to open up the program review for outside dialogue. Over a year ago, in late March 2018, President Ambar sent an email explicitly encouraging students to recommend students for the then-forming AAPR committee. 

Since then, the Office of the President has been utterly clear that this process will incorporate student insight. While it is true that the AAPR has been on radio silence for most of this academic year, our financial challenges are inordinately complex and require multi-pronged solutions — it would have been unreasonable to ask for a half-formed idea when there are so many ways this process could go. I do not doubt that the areas of recommendation from this past month look very different from the ideas generated in September.

I often hear complaints that the possible changes to Oberlin’s academic options will compromise its character as a liberal arts institution. Rumors of incorporating public health and business curricula date back to last spring, but, for some reason, connected them to the AAPR caused some to clutch their pearls and decry these potential academic additions as contrary to Oberlin’s liberal arts mission. 

Those who take up this view should recall that students took a detailed survey in September — as the AAPR was getting underway in its comprehensive review — that sought student feedback en masse. The survey inquired into student public opinion about the academics here at Oberlin, the resources on campus, and all other notable aspects of student life, including dining options, facilities, and more. There were also surveys that went out to faculty, staff, prospective students, and admitted students who declined to attend Oberlin College. The AAPR’s March 2019 recommendation to create concentrations in Business and Global Health is a reflection of student interests, and likely also addresses part of the reason certain admitted students decided not to accept their offers of enrollment.

Often, students will also argue that the AAPR is anti-democratic. Some claim that there has never been an opportunity for student voices to be heard. While I do agree that it is not necessarily representative for students to comprise of only three of the 31 members of the steering committee, the perception that student voices have not been part of this process is absurd. There have been many small group listening sessions and faculty governance listening sessions. Additionally, two of the students on the committee have served on Student Senate, either currently or in the past — that is to say, they were already elected democratically by their peers to represent student interests. 

College seniors Kameron Dunbar and Sadie Keller and double-degree junior Janet Wu represent so many different interests on campus: both the Conservatory and the College; academic departments in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences; and organizations spanning from El Centro Volunteer Initiative to Bonner Scholars to Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. These three Obies are experienced in being heavily involved on campus and in the community. I would encourage others to follow their example, and to not undermine their work — and the work of the AAPR at large — to keep this school’s doors open.

I do not dispute that there are severe problems with the AAPR, and I do believe it has the potential to threaten members of this community. My hope, however, is to raise the concern that Oberlin activism is taking on a character of non-involvement and uninformed indignation. For our concerns to change anything, they have to have direction.

Liberal arts colleges across the country have been consolidating or shutting down. This is the time to look at the big picture and step up to ensure the survival of Oberlin College and Conservatory. The information on AAPR is readily available, and so are the tools to offer our opinions, raise our concerns, and do our part. Participation is key, and it is crucial to acknowledge that this process is not about those of us who attend Oberlin at this moment. The point of the AAPR is to make sure that, for future students in the decades to come, there remains an Oberlin to attend at all — let’s make sure that, when we look back at this moment, we are proud of the way we advocated for this institution’s future.