College Administers Student Life Assessment Amid Division’s Leadership Losses

The College is conducting an assessment to evaluate the structure of the Division of Student Life, which oversees 12 departments including the Counseling Center, Student Health Services, Residential Education and Dining Services, Campus Safety, and Student Activities. The Student Life Assessment began at the start of the summer semester, and will culminate in a series of recommendations to improve the division and student experiences. 

This new initiative comes in the wake of abrupt turnover in student life leadership; five student life deans have left the division in the past three months, including the vice president and dean of students. As the ongoing search for the next dean of students continues, the College hopes the assessment will be a helpful tool for the incoming dean. 

“The Student Life Division is experiencing some turnover,” Chief of Staff David Hertz said. “Some flux, if you will — and whenever a key part of an organization experiences that kind of flux, it’s an opportunity for that organization to do an assessment of its ongoing activities. It’s a strategic move to really take a step back and see if there are aspects of the work that can be done differently. [It’s] an opportunity to do more with the people you have, and in our case, [an] opportunity to assess with fresh eyes how we serve our students.”

To conduct the assessment, the College is partnering with the Peterson Rutgers Group, a consulting firm that also led the 2019 Academic and Administrative Program Review and its resulting One Oberlin report. While AAPR was focused on long-term cost management, academics, and institutional organizing, the team did not have a specialist for Student Life. However, Peterson Rutgers recently brought Dr. E. Royster Harper, who previously worked as the vice president for the Office of Student Affairs at the University of Michigan, on board to consult on this area.

According to Hertz, the assessment team is already in the process of collecting information and gathering data. So far, the team has interviewed a total of 46 people among staff leadership, faculty, and students.

“The value of this kind of assessment is that you ask for good conversations, insightful conversations with stakeholders, and you do a series of [interviews] with people who are familiar with student life,” Hertz said. “Then you are able to identify patterns based upon that information, and then make recommendations. We are right now in the recommendation formulation phase.” 

Chair of Student Senate and College third year Darielle Kennedy thinks the assessment needs to consider contemporary realities as it relates to student experiences.

“What is important to acknowledge about all of these aspects of student life is that one’’ identity and positionality can impact the outcomes of each of these areas such as: race, income, disability, sexuality, gender, religion, and or whether a student is an international student,” Darielle wrote in an email to the Review. “For these differing identities and positionalities there have been different outcomes that can impact success in student life in general.”

After former Assistant Vice President of Student Life Adrian Bautista’s departure last month, Clare Rahm was appointed to serve as the interim head of the Dean of Students Office under the title special assistant to the president for Student Affairs. Rahm initially joined the College to work on student retention as a project manager for Student Success Initiatives, and has previously worked as the vice president for Student Life and Development in an interim capacity at St. Cloud State University.

“Since I arrived in June at Oberlin, I have observed the professional staff in Student Life seem dedicated to supporting students through their daily work,” Rahm wrote in an email to the Review. “With the 5–6 vacant positions, there are less persons here to accomplish that work. Despite that, there are fun, engaging programs scheduled for summer term students, the annual housing room assignment process is underway, and support services like the Counseling Center and SHARE [the Student Health and Resource Exchange] continue to meet with students.”  

Hertz emphasized that, particularly with the departure of multiple leaders in the Division of Student Life, the assessment will aid the incoming dean of students navigate the College and address its current needs. In a June 21 email to students participating in the assessment, Executive Assistant to the Vice President and Dean of Students Debra Herzog expressed a similar sentiment.

“With the search underway for a new vice president and dean of students, President [Carmen Twillie] Ambar felt this would be a natural time to bring in a fresh set of eyes to assess student life functions at Oberlin, to understand what is working well, where there are opportunities to do more, and how to prioritize Oberlin’s needs under a new leader,” Herzog wrote.

Rahm is also optimistic about the assessment and is confident that it will help with a smooth transition for the incoming dean of students.

“I see the assessment as a very positive step,” Rahm wrote in an email to the Review. “Generally, this type of project is helpful when there is a change in leadership. The information will allow a new dean of students and President Ambar to have a thoughtful commentary by an expert in student affairs, Dr. E. Royster Harper, as a component of the new dean’s onboarding.”