Activism on Campus Must Be Revitalized

Oberlin has a national and historical reputation for its politically active student body and campus that is constantly abuzz with activism and protests. We have noticed, however, that besides a few gatherings in Tappan Square with chanting and posters, there have been few, if any, sustained protests or movements since the College shut down due to COVID-19 in March 2020. Observed from a distance, the trend of protests growing fewer and farther between reveals a disconcerting pattern in the spirit of activism on campus.

Last fall, Nancy Schrom Dye Chair of Middle East and North African Studies Mohammad Jafar Mahallati was investigated by the College for alleged war crimes during his time as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1980s. When the College finished its investigation into his alleged wrongdoing and concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated, an activist group mostly consisting of members from outside the Oberlin community took to Tappan Square to express their discontent with this decision. Considering that the protest was organized by people outside Oberlin, College students needed only to educate themselves and show up. Still, very few students participated in these protests, despite the severity of the allegations and numerous disputes to the College’s investigations. The same activist group held two more protests against Mahallati — one in March and one over Commencement Weekend in June — both of which drew limited student involvement. In addition to the virtual absence of students from protests, there was scant, if any, conversation among students about the allegations against Mahallati during this period, and little conversation has occurred since. A prior Editorial Board commented on this lack of student engagement in “Evidence Against Mahallati Irrefutable,” The Oberlin Review, Nov. 5, 2021.

In the past year, we have continued to witness the lack of a campus response in the face of other massively consequential issues that directly affect students, contradicting Oberlin’s rich history of student activism. Thus far, there has been little organized activism against the College’s decision to contract with Harness Health Partners, despite HHP’s recent announcement that it will not provide students with certain essential reproductive and gender-affirming services. Many students will tell you that they are upset even though the College has since contracted with a new provider for reproductive and gender-affirming services. In our conversations with peers, we have heard lamentations about the injustice of HHP’s change in position; many believe that the College supporting a Catholic health provider is problematic regardless of the quality of care they expected.  

This widespread anger and concern, however, has yet to bring anything larger to fruition. There have been few public statements or actions from students on the situation, despite the fact that this change has deeply shaken and infuriated the student body. There have been no protests against HHP for going back on its agreement with the College, and even more surprisingly, there have not been any fliers or posters condemning HHP or the College distributed around campus. 

When Ohio legislators introduced HB 454, a bill that required school officials to out transgender students to their parents and prohibited public funds from being given to organizations that provide gender-affirming care to minors, campus discourse was once again scarce. When the bill passed, there was no large-scale response, save for people posting infographics on their Instagram stories about the bill and the damage it would cause. While this practice does educate viewers who are unaware of the issues at hand, it is hollow in the absence of continued action. Hosting information sessions, posting fliers around campus, and organizing in protest are just some of a variety of approaches we could have taken to gather momentum against this intrusive and problematic bill. Each of these actions produces media attention and demonstrates support that adds to the broader symposium of voices fighting against injustice.

The Review inherently plays the role of disseminating information on campus ,while also creating a platform for members of our community to comment and educate each other on the goings-on around campus. In the past year, the Editorial Board has repeatedly used this column to comment on issues such as faculty pay, abortion restrictions, and the College’s failure to recognize its problematic history, but we also understand that there is more that every individual on this Editorial Board can do to promote positive change. We, along with the rest of the student body, must hold ourselves accountable and work with one another to revitalize campus activism. Actions speak louder than words, and in the past few years, Oberlin students have whispered at best.