Watching the fireworks go off over the athletic fields Saturday night was a bit like listening to the band play aboard the sinking Titanic. The extravagant display marked the end of Homecoming Weekend, but also seemed to signify a larger dissonance for an institution currently grappling with existential questions about financial stability, how to treat community members with fairness and respect, and more.
The reality is that, in many ways, this is a difficult time for Oberlin. The College is staring down a $25 million dollar judgment resulting from a lawsuit filed by Gibson’s Bakery against the College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo. Further, a structural budget deficit has already resulted in some hourly employees being let go, with more layoffs likely on the horizon.
Against this backdrop, the decision to set off celebratory fireworks — the first time Homecoming has featured such a display in recent memory — comes across as tone-deaf, at best. While the cost of the fireworks wouldn’t directly address any other concerns on campus, including employee compensation, their extravagant nature starkly contrasted with the difficult realities of our present moment.
In a similar vein, the recently-released “Our Community: 2019 Oberlin College Community Impact Report” is 24 pages of self-congratulatory rhetoric about the College’s positive impact in the surrounding area, and the economic elevation that it provides to local residents and businesses. The timing of its publication with the announcement of the College’s appeal in the Gibson’s case is likely coincidental, as both processes have unfolded over a matter of months, but is nonetheless noteworthy. By the end of the report, readers are not left totally clear why it was published at all, save to provide more fuel for the argument — in court and in the media — that the College does far more good than bad as a community partner.
While this statement is certainly true in our eyes, the manner in which the report calls attention to its impact is not tasteful. The report also doesn’t engage with any critiques of Oberlin College and its students — many of which can be contextualized or refuted, yet are nonetheless deserving of attention. A community impact report that disregards such issues feels unbalanced and incomplete.
Disguising complex, difficult moments behind a shiny facade won’t make our collective challenges any less real. It’s true that hardship does not — and, indeed, should not — define this moment in Oberlin’s history. Hard times are perhaps the most opportune moments to seek community, mutual understanding, and even moments of celebration. However, those moments must be genuine and grounded in what actually connects us, rather than in the need to prove our worth and value to those around us.
The President’s Welcome Carnival is an excellent example of how community-building can be inclusive and engaging. The event highlighted partnerships with local vendors, gave students and community members space to relax, and didn’t attempt to make itself more than it was.
There’s a line to be walked between finding ways to band together through challenging moments and ostentatious displays of institutional celebration. None of us have been here before, and we’re not proposing a hard-and-fast rule for what falls on each side of the line. The Homecoming fireworks and recent community impact report fell too far on the side of being boastful, but plenty of other events — the carnival and many student-led efforts — represent opportunities to build and maintain a sense of community without losing a sense of gravity around our current moment.
This moment is truly a difficult one for many people in our community. To their credit, administrators have not shied away from acknowledging this reality, both in the One Oberlin report published in March and elsewhere. These challenges don’t need to constantly weigh us down, but we must remember that, for every community member who can enjoy carefree fireworks, there is another one for whom this campus is a much less comfortable space. We must hold all of these people close moving forward.