One Oberlin Implementation Compromises Catholic Values

 Many voices have already spoken up regarding the austerity measures recommended by the Academic Advising Program Review steering committee, an effort now known as One Oberlin. In the interest of highlighting a plurality of views on the subject, we want to speak against the austerity measures as Catholic alumni and former community members of Oberlin College. We do not claim to have all the answers and we certainly don’t claim to be experts in economics. We want to speak out from a moral and ethical perspective, supported by the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is a well-established axiom in the social teachings of the Church that the economically disadvantaged among us deserve, and are indeed entitled to, preferential treatment in economic matters. The weight of austerity under the AAPR recommendations will be borne primarily by the most vulnerable members of Oberlin’s community. This is unethical. The economic crisis we are in is, in part, the result of mistakes made by past administrations; as such, the administration should bear the brunt of the fiscal cuts we need to make. There is not a single member of the upper administration of this college that would have difficulty finding another job, let alone have their financial future thrown into uncertainty by the loss of their job. This is not true of many of the hourly paid staff at the college. 

As Christians, we are called to recognize that all people, regardless of class, race, gender, or any other signifier, are equal in human dignity and equally deserving of respect. The true evil of capitalism, especially in relation to our calling as Christians, is that it values people not as inherently equal children of God, but as producers or consumers alone. 

To be clear, the veiled threats within the AAPR recommendations clearly point to the College’s intent to cut staff positions and benefits for hourly wage employees. This decision implies that these people are more of a burden than a boon to our community. However, there are no recommendations to cut the benefits of the wealthiest members of the Oberlin administration. As Pope John XXIII says in Mater et Magistra, “[Work] must be regarded not merely as a commodity but as a specifically human activity. In the majority of cases, a man’s work is his sole means of livelihood. Its remuneration, therefore, cannot be made to depend on the state of the market. It must be determined by the laws of justice and equity.” 

To claim that the hourly staff is a burden and then to plan to strip them of their livelihood is nothing less than a refutation of their dignity. As One Oberlin is implemented, we, the Oberlin community, need to ask the administration why they view a president or a dean more worthy of respect than a member of the DeCafé staff. 

We don’t want to come out against the implementation of One Oberlin without suggesting alternatives, as we understand Oberlin faces an economic crisis. Perhaps instead of reducing pensions, the dean’s office could stop its practice of eating lunch at the Hotel at Oberlin and charging the bill to the College. Furthermore, trustees could also start paying for their accommodations and food when they stay at The Hotel at Oberlin for trustee weekends. While we know that a $15 salad will not make the difference between financial solvency and bankruptcy, the fact that administrators and trustees can eat beetroot and arugula salads for free while janitors are facing unemployment constitutes a blatant disregard for the human dignity of those workers. 

As Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum (1891), “according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain … that is truly shameful and inhuman.” Leo XIII’s words speak to One Oberlin’s problem: The committee did not treat these people as people, but reduced them to nothing more than numbers on a page. The committee spent no time considering the human cost of their proposed cuts and the danger they pose to the lives of our staff and their families.

In conclusion, we submit that the most ethical way to face our financial crisis would be to adopt a model that protects the lives and livelihoods of the greatest number of people. That model would require those who are currently most enriched by Oberlin to tighten their belts before the benefits of a single hourly worker are touched. To finish with another quote from Mater et Magistra: “Any adjustment between wages and profits must take into account the demands of the common good of the particular country and of the whole human family.”