OSCA: The Problem and Opportunity

 “Oberlin’s relevance as an institution is more important today than it’s ever been.” So said President Carmen Twillie Ambar in the pages of the Review at the time she became our 15th President (“Off the Cuff: Carmen Ambar, President of Oberlin College,” Sept. 1, 2017). I think just about every student, alumnum, and faculty member strongly agrees with her on this point. 

And at the same time, I think most of us have also been convinced that Oberlin College needs to tighten its belt in order to achieve financial sustainability so that we retain our ability to positively impact the world well into the future. So the question that the Academic and Administrative Program Review steering committee members and the rest of us have been grappling with is, what exactly is it that makes Oberlin special? What are the elements of this institution that we need to preserve and to augment to retain our Oberlin distinctiveness? 

Members of the AAPR steering committee deserve credit and appreciation for grappling with these questions. They produced a set of potential areas of recommendations designed to, in the words of the AAPR draft, “leave intact the fundamental and distinctive elements that make up Oberlin and an Oberlin education.” 

In my mind, the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association is one of the distinguishing features of this institution. That’s why I find myself perplexed by the recommendation that the College seek to “work with the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association and the Kosher-Halal Co-op to develop a financial relationship that eliminates the $1.9 million annual negative impact on Oberlin’s budget.” The report expresses a commitment to working collaboratively with OSCA to identify cost savings to accomplish this goal. However, I fear that the conclusion that this large of a sum can be saved represents an existential challenge to the future of OSCA and to OSCA’s ability to continue to contribute to Oberlin’s distinctiveness. 

While I am otherwise favorably impressed by the AAPR steering committee’s commitment to data-driven analysis, it is not apparent to me that data was gathered to assess the value of OSCA to the Oberlin experience, or to consider how OSCA might contribute to many of the report’s creative suggestions for enhancing the Oberlin experience in the future. 

As an example, with a multi-million dollar annual budget, OSCA is surely the largest student-run business among any small liberal arts college in the country. The fact that the business is cooperatively owned and operated is all the more remarkable. One of the investments the AAPR envisions is a new “integrative concentration in Business.” The report further recommends that a “co-curricular experience will provide an additional set of skills and career-oriented training” for students in this program. Yet nowhere in the report is it recognized that this is precisely what Oberlin student cooperatives have been doing at Oberlin since the 1940s! 

I’ll confess that I am biased. In 1983, when I visited Oberlin as a prospective student, it was the co-ops that sold me on coming — I was flabbergasted that this unique ongoing experiment in grassroots democracy and entrepreneurship had not been featured in the College’s promotional materials. No other school then or now has anything comparable. 

I did well in my courses at Oberlin and benefited from excellent teaching. However, I still maintain that the most important professional skills I developed at Oberlin — skills such as how to facilitate a meeting, how to manage a budget, how to follow through on major projects, how to organize a disparate group of people to achieve a common goal — were developed and honed through my experiences in Oberlin’s co-ops. 

Many of my closest friends at Oberlin and many of the students I have worked with during my 18 years on the faculty here tell me the same thing. As former OSCA President Stewart Kohl, OC ’77, is quoted as saying in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, “Co-ops touch the lives of a significant percentage of students who come through Oberlin. … If you were to list the institutions that really make a difference in the lives of students in their years at Oberlin, I think the co-ops would rank pretty darn high.” 

If the name “Kohl” sounds familiar, it is because of his enduring commitment to the College — he served as a member of the Board of Trustees for 12 years from 2003–2015 and stepped in at a crucial fundraising moment for Oberlin with a $5 million gift to complete the Jazz Studies building which now bears his name. Like Stewart, many former OSCA members have leveraged their co-op experiences in leadership positions in nonprofits, government, academia, business, philanthropy, and the corporate world.

To be fair to the AAPR steering committee, their charge was to consider how Oberlin College might achieve sustainable excellence. The strength and also the weakness of OSCA is that it is not, in fact, Oberlin College; it is a student-owned and run cooperative business which makes its own decisions. This is what I believe explains the absence of a clear consideration of the unique current and future value of OSCA to the Oberlin experience. And I believe that the solution to this problem is a commitment on the part of both Oberlin College and OSCA to a rigorous assessment of OSCA’s value and the articulation of a clear and shared vision moving forward. 

I support a data gathering process that surveys and interviews alumni and current students to determine the ways in which careers and life choices have been affected specifically by OSCA and the myriad ways that OSCA might be more fully integrated into College programming. I am convinced that OSCA has much to contribute to many of the proposals put forward in the AAPR report — a Business concentration, a Public Health concentration, capstone experiences in a variety of majors, Winter Term opportunities, ExCo courses, novel programming with Center for Innovation and Impact and LaunchU, better integration with Career Services, etc. I am not suggesting that discussions can’t include creative ideas for cost savings. But I worry that the assumption that $1.9 million can be recovered by the College from OSCA is not a very collaborative or cooperative place to start.