Presidential Initiative Model For Administrator, Student Collaboration

In summer 2020, President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced a Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity that “seeks to address issues of violence, police-community relationships, and racial injustices.” By establishing an umbrella for future projects to fall under, President Ambar encouraged the campus community to start an ongoing conversation about diversity and equity. Notably, by September of that year, the Conservatory released a plan to increase diversity and equity within programming and pedagogy.

The latest project from the Presidential Initiative is the recently announced Center for Race, Equity, and Inclusion. According to President Ambar’s announcement of the Center, it “will bring together academic opportunities, co-curricular experiences, career programming, mentorship, community building, and civic engagement.” Every one of those elements will have direct benefits to students on campus and, crucially, make Oberlin a hub for pressing conversations.

After a college experience marked by financial cuts and pandemic precautions, this Editorial Board is heartened to hear plans for this new Center. The Center brings together everything that Oberlin professes to be: justice-oriented, committed to racial and social equity, and rooted in the community. The Presidential Initiative itself is led by a commission of administrators, faculty, and students. The Conservatory action plan was made in consultation with the Black Musicians’ Guild. Once the new Center for Race, Equity, and Inclusion is up and running, students will be invited to work in or engage in fellowships through the space.

In addition to its own merits as a necessary articulation of the College’s commitment to racial justice and equity, the Presidential Initiative is a model for how administrators can work with students in an engaging and productive manner. Often, students say they see a pattern of crucial work falling on their shoulders. In the past five years, students have seen elements of student life that should be handled by the College being neglected. The JED Campus mental health program was deprioritized by the College and mostly fell on student workers. When students’ belongings were lost in the shutdown of campus due to COVID-19, Residential Education was unable to work out the logistics to reconnect students with their belongings. A year after students first left campus in March 2020, the College increased its efforts to return student belongings, yet it only did so after months of urging by Student Senate and other Obies. However, the Presidential Initiative marks a new precedent: administrators and students working together, non-adversarially, in pursuit of a common goal.

What’s most exciting about the Initiative’s ongoing work is the prospect of what’s to come, with a slew of updates slated for release in the upcoming months. For us, it’s also meaningful how President Ambar — the most prominent face of the College — directly interacts with the community. Be it through Instagram updates from Organ Pump and the Hanukkah Dreidel tournament or workout sessions with various sports teams, students have the opportunity to interact and connect with her in a way that transforms this institutional figurehead into a leader who cares. These are more than the public appearances administrators are wont to make; they’re deliberate acts of engagement with the variety of microcosms within our college. It means that students aren’t just dependent on the availability of office hours to share their thoughts with their president, and the head of our college isn’t waiting passively for input from others.

While, as we have previously written about, criticism is crucial to consistently evolving as a community, it is equally important to reflect on the movements toward positive change. This Editorial Board takes heart in the steps the Office of the President makes — particularly in its Presidential Initiative. The direct, open, and student-centered approach of the Office serves as an example of a transparent relationship between students and administrators, and provides a means through which to strengthen these relationships. We hope that this project is the first of many opportunities for open collaboration between administrators, students, and faculty on issues of deep importance to our community.