Oberlin Students Must Do More to Engage With Community

Conversations around “town-gown” relationships in Oberlin resurface every few years — most recently in the form of the carshare program paid for by the City. As reported in the Review this week, the ratio of College students to community members using the program is heavily unbalanced. Of the 339 total users, 280 are students while only 59 are community members. City Council decided to subsidize the service specifically so that it would be more accessible for low-income residents. Two years later, however, some members feel that the demographics of carshare use mean that the City is essentially financing students’ transportation needs.

For some City Council representatives, this fact stands to reason that the College should carry the financial burden of the program. This issue is a microcosm of a broader pattern in Oberlin’s internal dynamics — the more the College takes from the local community, the less it gives in return. As with any debate of this sort, people aren’t just thinking about the immediate conflict: they’re thinking about decades of context.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the College is not required to pay property taxes on the huge swathes of land that it owns. Sprawled over more than two million square feet of land, the physical footprint of Oberlin College is undeniably large for an institution of its size. Without a doubt, that also makes Oberlin the largest landowner in the City. According to a 2015 article published in the Review, then-City Council member Kristin Peterson claimed that the College would pay roughly $4.4 million in property taxes each year were it not for this exemption. When that article was written, student activists were pushing for the College to make a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with the City, essentially with the aim of paying back to the City what the College would otherwise save. No such agreement was made. 

Then there is the undeniable burden of the College on municipal resources. For example, every fire alarm set off because of a burnt bag of popcorn, callously cooked piece of meat, or faulty smoke detector results in a strain on the Oberlin Fire Department. Fuel and labor hours aside, the inherent inability of the fire brigade to tend to everything at once means that every bit of attention directed toward students is attention taken away from the City. Consider also that the College doesn’t participate in the opt-in recycling program offered by the City. Aside from institutional burdens on the municipality of Oberlin, the student community also does its fair share of disruption in local life. From loud parties in residential neighborhoods to shoplifting from local stores — and no, we’re not referring to the whole Gibson’s fiasco — students can demonstrate a lack of consideration for the rest of the Oberlin community. Between the long-standing institution of the College and the changing whims of its student body, we are impacting the operations of the municipality in negative ways, and it’s about time we confront that truth. 

There are, of course, passive benefits of having approximately 3,000 excited young adults in the community. For example, students contribute to the economy when they purchase from local businesses and pay the sales tax on their purchases, some of which goes to the town. Every student worker pays Ohio income tax — while that doesn’t go toward the City, it certainly makes us active participants in the state economy. The College is an important local employer, and our administrators consider that a major enough responsibility to document and emphasize in the One Oberlin report. A byproduct of having a thriving Conservatory is the year-round concerts that students and community members alike can attend, not to mention plays, festivals, dance showcases, and a variety of other cultural events. While it is true that most, if not all, of these events occur for the sake of the College, everyone in the community can derive benefit.

What we need now are more active measures that can be taken to support and give back to the community. There are a few ways in which we’re already doing this. For example, Oberlin High School students are eligible for College courses and scholarships, and the Bonner Center for Service and Learning has a number of community based work-study programs that assign College students as tutors in the high school. A number of students also work for local businesses or volunteer their time for various cleanup, charity, and educational events. These are just a handful of ways that we engage with the community directly, and we want to encourage students to explore more of these opportunities. Students can volunteer with Oberlin Community Services, an organization that provides food, financial assistance, and other resources to low-income and vulnerable people in the Oberlin community. Students who speak Spanish can participate in the Spanish in the Elementary Schools program by teaching kids introductory-level Spanish. Really, the potential for community work is limitless in our little town.

The fact is, by virtue of migrating to this town from all over the country and the world, some part of us belongs here. As students, we’re welcomed, celebrated, and cherished by this community, and that alone means we have a responsibility to its people. Yes, we carry a legacy of a less-than-helpful impact on the town, but that only means we should try harder to do better. 

Instead of settling for the passive benefit that we expect to have on the community, we can and should exert intentional effort to listen to the needs of our neighbors and work to ameliorate them. We need to organize around this community that supports and welcomes us through the years we spend here.