High Administrative Turnover in The Division of Student Life Is Cause For Concern

Like all institutions of higher education, Oberlin has a plethora of different offices and organizational structures with many people working behind the scenes to keep our lives — both personal and academic — running smoothly. The Division of Student Life, for example, oversees eleven different offices including the Counseling Center, Student Health Services, Residential Education and Dining Services, Campus Safety, Student Activities, and more. Student Life encompasses so many of the aspects that make or break an Oberlin experience, which is why it is so concerning that the four most senior administrators in the division have all left in the past two months. 

After the announcement of the division’s most recent departure, Assistant Vice President and Senior Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives Adrian Bautista, President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced that Clare Rahm, who started working at Oberlin just three months ago, will temporarily fill the senior leadership role in the department. While Rahm — who has led student life offices at other institutions — certainly has the credentials to fill the role, we’re still left with a sense of unease as summer semester shakily progresses without a dean of students and missing three additional associate and assistant deans in Student Life. 

There are still plenty of passionate, competent, and hard-working people in the various offices of Student Life, but it feels highly unlikely that the division will be stable after losing almost all of its senior leadership in such a short time. Despite their efforts to assure us that there is nothing to worry about, the College knows this. We can see it in the way that the Career Development Center was temporarily moved under the direction of the Office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, clearly to take pressure off of Student Life. We can see that administrators are overwhelmed when the Review reaches out to Residential Education for comment on a news story, as they cannot seem to get back to us even after numerous calls, emails, and appearances at their office. 

To be sure, the sudden staffing exodus isn’t explicitly anyone’s fault. Personnel changes happen — people coming and going from positions in higher education is a relatively unremarkable occurrence; however it is notable that this change is occuring as Oberlin proves an uncompetitive employer in compensation. Regardless, Oberlin has repeatedly identified improving quality of student life as a priority, and rightfully so: prospective student interest in Oberlin and first-year retention are heavily influenced by the quality of campus activities and residential life. Yet this feels like a particularly bad moment to have an unstable Student Life division, as we are just now emerging from a year in which “student life” on campus was nearly unrecognizable. For the first time in 15 months — or three semesters — students can have their normal college lives back, and it is crucial that there is institutional support to guide Oberlin back to this semblance of “normalcy.” We need to uphold the traditions of campus life that, at the end of the day, define students’ experience at Oberlin.

In the first three weeks of the summer semester, there have already been plenty of gripes from students about various student life concerns. The quick turnaround between spring and summer semester made housing changes chaotic. The scaling-back of popular dining options like the Rathskeller and Umami illustrate more than a mere inconvenience: Fewer late night options and proximity to dining impact students’ ability to have flexible schedules and maintain their workflow. What’s more,  a significant portion of the campus has been uprooted as construction vehicles roam about during mounting renovations. This means that students are living primarily in North Campus housing, and many had hoped this could mean air conditioning for the summer semester. However, the reality of this situation is that second- and third-years are reliving their early Oberlin days in Dascomb Hall and Kahn Hall with spotty air conditioning in most dorms — if any at all. The sanctuary of identity housing is being violated as Afrikan Heritage House, Asia House, and Latinx Heritage House are being crammed into spaces on North Campus that are significantly less comfortable in nature for Black and Brown students; women and trans students who applied to live in Baldwin Cottage are being housed in Asia House as if their experiences are intrinsically comparable.

We know that the severe leadership shortage makes solving these problems swiftly a daunting task. We suspect there are probably a lot of overworked and overwhelmed administrators at our school right now, and we understand that. As students, we are worried about how these dramatic shifts  are going to affect the community we love so much. And we are deeply grateful for the administrators who led us through the COVID-19 pandemic and for those staying with us as we emerge on the other side.

The bright side is the updates we’re hearing on the search for a new Vice President and Dean of Students. According to President Ambar, we could hear an announcement of our new dean in just two months. From there, with the help of a new dean, the College will begin the search to fill the roles left vacant by Bautista and Associate Dean of Students Matthew Hayden. We’re simultaneously anxious and hopeful that the search committee will find us a dean of students who is ready to take on the task of rebuilding our Student Life Division. We’re desperate for some certainty, some respite from the apparent administrative fragility we’ve become accustomed to. This Editorial Board believes that Oberlin’s student life should match our academic excellence — and despite this chaotic moment, we believe it’s possible to make that happen.