College’s OSCA Stance Inconsistent With One Oberlin Recommendations

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 When the Steering Committee of the Academic and Administrative Program Review released its final One Oberlin report in May 2019, a number of its recommendations concerned changes to the College’s relationship with the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. This Editorial Board was reassured then, by what appeared to be a commitment from administrators, to engage in a process to learn more about the value OSCA brings to the institution. Now, nearly a year later, we’re not so sure that administrators are committed to such a process — and recent developments have troubling implications for the future of a transparent and good-faith One Oberlin implementation.

The One Oberlin report recommended engaging “in assessment of the learning outcomes from different residential experiences [including OSCA] and to identify a strategic pathway to the strongest possible residential education curriculum.” This week, without the College and OSCA having engaged in anything resembling such a process, Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo told the Review that she believes the College has enough information about OSCA to proceed with contract conversations. Vice President for Finance and Administration Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings appears to agree, saying that the College already has qualitative data about OSCA’s value.

The issue with Raimondo’s claim is that there have been no real developments with regard to data examining OSCA’s value since the One Oberlin report was published. The one attempt to collect further data — an independent survey proposed over the summer by College third-year Bhairavi Mehra, who is also OSCA’s membership secretary, and Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology John Petersen — has been unilaterally rejected by College administrators with no clear path toward a future data collection process. More coverage of the survey is included in this issue (“Halted Survey Sparks OSCA Concerns”).

Mehra and Petersen undertook their project as a collaborative, independent research project — true to Oberlin’s spirit of creative and impactful academic inquiry. Their survey received the endorsement of Oberlin’s stringent Institutional Review Board. Then, when administrators pulled the plug — blindsiding Mehra and Petersen — they claimed that the survey was not structured to successfully produce the kind of results Mehra and Petersen sought.

This Editorial Board is not an expert in survey methodology. But when we reviewed the questions produced for the survey, we were sure that they were produced by a research team committed to conducting a balanced and thorough assessment.

The College’s conduct — both regarding the lack of initiative to collect the data suggested in the One Oberlin report, as well as the unprofessional lapse in communication regarding the independent survey — is incongruous with the transparency promised and upheld in other aspects of One Oberlin changes. It is not consistent with the high standard of communication typically seen from President Carmen Twillie Ambar and her senior staff.

Furthermore, excluding students and alumni from the process of evaluating OSCA’s value is disrespectful to those who believe OSCA has been an integral part of their Oberlin experience. Several alumni wrote letters to the editors of the Review last semester expressing all the ways OSCA enriched their student experience and prepared them for life after Oberlin. These are people who deserve to have their voices heard in a contract negotiation process that essentially seeks to evaluate OSCA’s value to the institution. It is difficult to believe that the College truly understands OSCA’s value when, without providing a coherent reason, it does not support a process to evaluate it — especially after appearing to very publicly support such a process less than a year ago.

It’s true that the College is not obligated to support any one specific survey by sharing it through its official communication channels. Still, the argument that sending the survey would disrupt pre-established communication strategies with alumni does not carry water. The current conversations between the College and OSCA represent extraordinary circumstances, as acknowledged in the One Oberlin report. If the College is going to meet those circumstances in good faith, they must be prepared to support efforts to illuminate as much information as possible.

Further, discouraging the pursuit of sound, institutionally-relevant research is a serious slap in the face of Oberlin’s educational ethos as an institution with a purported commitment to student-led initiatives and research.

We recognize that gathering financial information about OSCA is challenging because OSCA exercises its right as an independent third-party vendor to keep their books private. The organization has been notably less transparent than the College in terms of disclosing financial information. However, the College recognized this challenge in the One Oberlin report and intended to overcome it through engaging in a thorough assessment. Without doing so, it seems unlikely that the College is truly committed to proposing an equitable, informed relationship with OSCA moving forward. 

At a time when the College is asking the Oberlin community for a great deal of trust amid drastic institutional changes, the conduct surrounding the OSCA survey has not inspired confidence. By looking past relevant recommendations in the One Oberlin report, the College is not engaging in good faith. We are forced to conclude that the core reason Mehra and Petersen’s survey did not go out is that the College simply did not want to hear what alumni had to say. 

We urge the College administration to reaffirm their commitment to transparency and accountability. They should engage in a process to gain the relevant information that will allow for a full and accurate assessment of OSCA’s value, otherwise they sacrifice the original spirit and vision of the One Oberlin recommendations.