Oberlin Must Retain Professors Despite Financial Difficulties

 I recently realized that all four of my professors this semester will not be on campus next year, and two of them are leaving the institution permanently after this semester. My situation is not unique; many students from various departments have echoed concerns of losing an advisor or faculty mentor. 

There is a real and present fear among students that many of the faculty members who are leaving will not be replaced, leaving gaps in our curriculum and threatening certain students’ continuation in their courses of study. And though the One Oberlin plan makes the choice not to cut any departments outright, smaller departments losing faculty due to “attrition” is increasingly resembling an existential threat.

When searching for a college, I was drawn to liberal arts colleges, Oberlin and others, for their promise of small class sizes, an undergraduate focus, and access to and engagement with professors. I was further attracted to Oberlin because of its reputation for having professors dedicated to mentorship — be it in STEM, social studies, or political activism. 

At Oberlin I have felt incredibly grateful for the interactions I have had with my professors. Here, I have found experts in their field who are extremely generous with their time and energy. My professors are responsible for my profound sense of academic and intellectual growth in only a year and a half on campus. I also recognize that the work of mentorship often times disproportionately falls upon female, queer, younger faculty, and faculty of color in ways that are not institutionally valued. Alarmingly, it is many of these underrepresented faculty members who are leaving the institution.

The One Oberlin report, unveiled in May of 2019, outlined a commitment to preserve the integrity of Oberlin’s academic ecosystem, recognizing its fundamental importance to the institution. The document reads, in part, “the Steering Committee favors both preserving the breadth and depth of Oberlin’s current educational offerings and maintaining the capacity of our faculty to be scholar-teachers.” Since the unveiling of the One Oberlin report, I’ve often heard this line repeated by key administrators praising the institution for choosing to protect these areas. Still, as we enter the end of the first semester of One Oberlin’s implementation, I fear this commitment to faculty is increasingly compromised.

The One Oberlin report also outlines a cost-saving plan to eliminate the equivalent of 25 full-time faculty lines by the fiscal year 2024. This is to be done through attrition, retirement, and the elimination of visiting professorship positions. Over the past year Oberlin has lost a number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, many from underrepresented groups, as well as a number of well-loved professors who left their visiting positions before their contracts ended. For me and many of my peers, these changes have meant the sudden departure of some of our most valued professors, advisors, and sources of support on campus. 

In the past two years, the College has also over-enrolled the first-year class — or, in their terms, met or exceeded admissions targets. Additionally, the One Oberlin report recommended transitioning 100 students from the Conservatory to the College over a four-year period. While neither reality is inherently negative, I have serious concerns about our ability to maintain small class sizes, close student-faculty interaction, and a breadth of course offerings in the face of a growing student population and shrinking faculty numbers. Already, some students struggle to find courses that match their intellectual or identity-based interests. 

I understand that this is a difficult financial moment, both for the school and the broader national landscape of liberal arts colleges. Nevertheless, we should reject the idea that balancing the books entails targeting the very academic breadth and depth we claim to be safeguarding. Having more students, fewer faculty, and the same teaching load will necessitate fewer course offerings and larger classes. In this I fear that we are dismantling the very core of what makes Oberlin unique, valuable, and ultimately marketable as an institution: meaningful student-faculty interactions.