Presidential Initiative Report Released, Proposes DEI Recommendations


Khadijah Halliday

The Carnegie Building currently houses many administrative offices that will work to implement the Presidential Initiative.

After nearly two years of data collection, focus groups, and reviews of campus life, the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity committee published a comprehensive report on Wednesday. The report provides recommendations to make Oberlin more racially equitable, including hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer; reviewing the Academic Standing process; establishing the Center for Race and Equity throughout a three-year plan; creating more conscious hiring processes, and more. 

President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced the creation of a Presidential Initiative in August 2020 following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin. President Ambar stated that the relevance and timeliness of the initiative has only grown in the past two years. 

“This is ongoing work that never really stops and ends,” President Ambar said. “We have to be committed as an institution, as a nation, as a world to this work around inclusion and diversity. … We have what’s happened in [Laguna Woods,] California or what’s happening in Buffalo, [New York], where we have these explosions of visceral hate and disdain that leads to loss of life in these horrific ways — it reminds us that this work, if we don’t stay committed to it, has consequences that are really unimaginable.” 

The report reflects on the work of each subcommittee: curriculum and pedagogy, personnel, student life and learning, and student success. 

Below are some key recommendations from the 70 page report.

Hiring a DEI Officer

In order to specifically address issues with personnel and hiring practices, the College will be hiring a DEI officer to work in Human Resources. According to the recommendation, this individual will play a critical role in creating the Center for Race, Equity, and Inclusion; lead search committees; write job descriptions using DEI language; and develop recruitment strategies for more diverse applicant pools.

President Ambar is particularly hopeful that the DEI officer position at Oberlin will be given access to campus resources and granted the authority to make a difference. 

“Positions like this oftentimes can be figurehead positions that don’t really have a lot of ability to make change,” President Ambar said. “I was concerned about that. … So we’re gonna spend our time on that particular role to embed it in this Human Resources position.”

The report also details how the College intends to revise its hiring practices and standards. Appendix D: Personnel Committee: Hiring, Retention, and Promotion lays out a set of strategies and policies the College could employ to facilitate a more diverse workforce with the goal of improving equity and retention. Changes to the hiring structure include asking candidates pre-approved DEI-related questions in an effort to map their previous and planned efforts in workplace equity. Additionally, the appendix recommends considering non-punitive measures to address all employee-related interventions. In order to publicize these goals, the College aims to emphasize its DEI commitments on its website and social media platforms. 

In order to effectively gauge the efficacy of these hiring measures, the report proposes a “rubric for assessing personnel’s awareness, experience and plans to advance DEI efforts at Oberlin College.” The rubric assigns numerical values between one and five that correspond to specific skills or experiences of the candidate in understanding, promoting, and planning DEI work.

Academic Discipline 

The report also outlines a data-driven finding highlighting the impact of academic standing actions and interventions on students of color. From fall 2017 to fall 2020, Black students made up 27.3 percent of all students who were dismissed and 16.6 percent of students who were suspended, even though only around 5.5 percent of Oberlin’s student population is Black.

“Review of our academic standing system through a DEI framework is part of the ongoing work of the academic standing committee,” Associate Dean for Academic Standing Laura Herron wrote in an email to the Review. “The committee strives to ensure that benchmarks for progress toward the degree, while applied equally to all students, do not inadvertently disadvantage any individual or group. Student appeals are reviewed from a holistic perspective with the goal of determining the most pedagogically sound and productive path forward for each student. This process creates opportunities for students to identify their specific needs and challenges and for the College to offer appropriate support resources.”

Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies and Special Assistant to the President for Racial Equity and Diversity Meredith Gadsby considers the recommendations in the review of the academic standing system one of the most important aspects of the report. 

“I would like the recommendations there to be implemented as soon as possible,” Gadsby said. “I think that there are some items that can be implemented sooner rather than later, because they don’t involve the relocation of resources — that’s not something that we need to spend more money on.”

Additionally, Gadsby explained that this work builds on Oberlin’s commitment to a high-quality education with fewer barriers to success. 

“For those people who are kind of dubious and suspicious of this work, and may feel as though it means that we are gonna make changes that have to occur at the expense of excellence: I challenge those people to really reframe their notion of excellence and what excellence connotes,” Gadsby said. “If your definition of excellence is connected to exclusion, then that’s not one that I think is a mission-centered approach to the work that we do here at Oberlin.”

ABUSUA Demands

The report addresses each of the demands that ABUSUA, Oberlin’s Black Student Union, made of the College in June 2020 and later updated in February 2021. The report outlines each demand and the status of the work done to address it. 

College third-year and ABUSUA Administrative Chair Jillian Sanford, and Jasmine Mitchell, ’OC 21, created a living document to keep both ABUSUA leadership and the Presidential Initiative committee updated on the demands that were completed, in progress, or revised. Once Mitchell graduated, Gadsby continued to update ABUSUA on progress made on the demands.

“As a student leader, I am extremely happy to see the College open to making some changes,” Sanford wrote in an email to the Review. “As someone who was here and on the ABUSUA board when the demands were first released, I am happy that progress has been made and that, especially through the initiative, progress will continue to be made. I would like to add, though, that while this report is a great starting point for change on campus, we, as students, must continue to hold the administration accountable for what we want and hope to see in the coming years!”

Center for Race, Equity, and Inclusion

In December, President Ambar announced plans to create a center on campus to synthesize community building, civic engagement, and academic and career-related opportunities, all in pursuit of racial equity and inclusion. Now, the release of the report provides a more in-depth account of CoRE’s goals, as well as a three-year timeline for their implementation. 

In year one, the committee hopes to create an institutional committee for CoRE, find a space for the Center, and hire a director, among other things. Year two will include career development opportunities to support students of color, collaboration on programming with the Division of Student Life, and the inauguration of a postdoctoral fellows program to be mentored by Oberlin faculty and gain teaching experience while working on research or creative endeavors.

Unlike the 2019 One Oberlin report, the Board of Trustees will not be required to approve the Presidential Initiative report in order for work to start on the recommendations. In fact, fundraising for the Center has already begun, and various committees have already met to discuss implementation. 

“Some of the things will have some ways that are easily implemented and some of the things won’t,” President Ambar said. “This is the type of work that you just have to accept that it is an ongoing, persistent, diligent march toward an unclear destination, meaning you don’t end it. … There can be some things that are depressing about that. But the other side of it is that there’s always good work to do and we all get to have a part in it.”