Revisions to Oberlin Bylaws Are Necessary for Clarity on College Operations, Future Success

Oberlin’s uniqueness resounds through our history. Since its founding in 1833, Oberlin has become synonymous with academic excellence, world-class musical instruction, and liberal arts as a path to social justice.

The balance of these elements makes Oberlin unique. Oberlin’s community — trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and emeriti — embrace, treasure, and respect this balance. The Board of Trustees has a duty to protect it as we navigate the landscape of higher education.

This landscape is now more complex than ever. We face economic, administrative, regulatory, statutory, and even political constraints that were unfamiliar decades ago. In recent years, a lack of clarity in our bylaws regarding institutional governance and the delegation of authority has hampered our ability to respond nimbly to extraordinary challenges (like a pandemic) and plan responsibly for the future.

The decision to clarify Oberlin’s bylaws is not simply a judgment call. Our existing bylaws are not aligned with the stated criteria of our accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, which specifies that institutions should be clear about responsibility and decision-making, especially with regard to the Board’s delegation of authority to faculty and staff. Our risk management assessment team has identified ambiguity in the bylaws as a liability in need of addressing.

With this reality squarely before us, earlier this year, the Board’s Nominations & Governance Committee invited the General Faculty Council to help us amend six sections of Oberlin’s bylaws. N&G and GFC met weekly for seven weeks. 

All of us participated in good faith and in Oberlin’s best interests. The trustees brought their sensibilities as Obies. The faculty brought insights from experience and their dedication to Oberlin. There were disagreements, but also respect and collegiality. I thank everyone — faculty and trustees — for their diligence and hard work.

Trustees will consider the amendments that resulted from this process at the October board meeting. The original intent was to vote on the updates at the June meeting, but GFC suggested that a vote in October would allow for more deliberation. 

These changes will: 

 – Affirm the Board’s authority and establish a foundation for the delegation of authority

– Clarify the role of the president and specify the president’s authority and responsibility for the effective administration of the College

– Clarify the faculty’s role in the academic affairs of the College

– Clarify the process for the appointment of deans

– Update the Board’s committee structure, combining Student Affairs and Academic Affairs Committees into a single committee, and create a new Tenure and Promotion Committee

– Provide flexibility for the College if it were to establish the position of provost, subject to the Board’s approval

The amendments are meant to clarify responsibilities without eliminating channels for valuable faculty input. Oberlin’s ongoing success depends on faculty advice to the administration and the board on matters of long-term strategic importance. The free flow of feedback from faculty participation in the Academic and Administrative Program Review, which resulted in the One Oberlin plan, was invaluable. 

The amendments confirm the Board’s delegation of authority to the faculty and its representative bodies over such important areas as the curriculum; educational policy; quality and method of instruction; degree requirements and educational standards; faculty status, including the evaluation of the faculty for appointment; tenure; and promotion, research, and those aspects of student life that relate to students’ academic experience. The bylaws remain replete with the term “shared governance” and related references. Faculty representation on Board committees remains unchanged. The General Faculty Council remains listed in the bylaws as an “advisory body to the president on the budget and on such other matters as the president may raise.”

During a Zoom meeting on Wednesday with members of the general faculty, trustees collected feedback from a number of people who wished to comment on the amendments. We will share this feedback with the full board when we meet. 

 I can appreciate that to some at Oberlin, changes to the bylaws can be jarring. The changes going before the Board serve to clarify roles and responsibilities so that Oberlin can continue to evolve as a unique institution known for its outstanding academics, world-class musical instruction, and commitment to social justice. 

The bylaws amendments protect this vision. They offer clarity that complements our institutional strengths. The collaboration, energy, and excitement that imbues campus will remain. Oberlin’s specialness will blossom well into the future.

Lillie Edwards is professor emerita of History and African American Studies at Drew University and a member of Oberlin’s Class of 1975. She currently serves as Vice Chair of the Oberlin Board of Trustees.