Bylaws Revision Fundamentally Contradicts Oberlin’s Values

Editor’s note: Earlier today, the Board of Trustees voted to approve proposed changes to the bylaws. Click here for information on the revision.

A sea of people gathered in Wilder Bowl yesterday evening for a teach-in and protest against the Board of Trustees. Faculty, staff, and students stood together and expressed their lack of confidence in the board. The protest was conceived to challenge the board’s proposed revisions to the College’s bylaws, but as time passed, each new speaker introduced ever sharper critiques to the board’s conduct over the past few years. This Editorial Board stands in solidarity with each of the protestors and every single member of Oberlin’s faculty and staff who has suffered at the hands of this misguided board.

Students from around the world come to Oberlin every year to enjoy its classes, facilities, and culture. A great number of us signed on to the idea that Oberlin College was a place where individual voices mattered. It seemed, at first, that we were right; in classrooms, faculty saw us as individuals and catered to our needs, our advisors understood our ambitions and hopes, and we were surrounded by people with strong values and the willingness to stand by them. As first-years, our guides through this place were our faculty, and it is still our professors who remind us what we’re capable of. We accept their counsel in part because they worked hard through years of their own education, but equally so because they were here before us and will be here long after we’re gone.

Faculty are the living memory of any institution, and it should go without saying that they deeply understand the realities and needs of the institution, both from their own experiences and from the experiences of their students. They see things unlike anyone else, which is why faculty governance exists as a separate level of discretion within academic institutions. Oberlin faculty have performed this responsibility with pride and poise, and, year after year, they have introduced, deliberated, and voted on matters concerning the holistic experience of working and studying at this institution. As the bylaws stand pre-revision, faculty can take actionable steps to lead the College in a direction they see fit — for example, by enacting various environmental and student conduct policies as they have done in the last decade. Their concerns can be voiced within a structure that has some discernible feedback loop — if the conversation matters enough, they can make proposals and put them to vote.

Faculty can hear, see, and understand Oberlin as it exists today, with all its complications and curiosities. They exist on this campus on a daily basis, witnessing the College at its best and its worst. The Board of Trustees, by contrast, has not set foot on campus in the past three years due to the pandemic, and when they do, they visit for two days, four times a year. Everyone understands that the board is the final decision-making authority in Oberlin, but we understand equally well that the board does not hear from students, attend classes, or dine on campus. Its members are entirely unaffected by the consequences of their decisions. Their disconnect may have its advantages, as it allows them to be impartial and see the big picture, but neither of these things matter if they can’t be reasonably contextualized within the day-to-day experiences of those on campus. 

This brings us to the big question: who asked for the bylaws to be revised, or, as the board insists, “clarified?” It was certainly not students, faculty, or, by any visible means, people outside Oberlin, save maybe the third-party risk assessors hired by the College. According to members of the board, these revisions will protect the institution from certain liabilities; Trustee Chuck Birenbaum, OC ’79, told the Review last week that Oberlin apparently has more litigation against it than other comparable institutions of its size. Based on our understanding, litigation most often occurs because of dispute over a decision or outcome thereof, and as long as the decision-maker can reasonably be said to represent the organization, the organization itself is open to litigation. The root problem isn’t who gets to call the shots so much as it is the substance of the decisions themselves. If we need to reconsider those decisions, then it can only help the situation to have more deliberate levels of accountability in the decision-making process. Decisions made by the General Faculty already go to the board for final approval, and if it comes to it, the board can reject them. 

The board has a precedent of bypassing the General Faculty on its decision-making, already having rejected major faculty decisions prior to the bylaws revision. Faculty pay has been a longstanding issue with numerous public comments on the lack of competitive benefits; faculty have written, spoken up, and taken every step to give feedback and use their voices to be a part of this decision. In December of last year, a faculty motion to improve pay passed with 82 percent of voting General Faculty members in favor, but the board outright rejected it. If the status quo going forward is that faculty can only present their opinions, with no platform to make actionable decisions, then the future of Oberlin College is grim. The board already refuses to listen when people speak up, and the proposed bylaw changes will only enforce this in writing — compromising the organizational structure designed to give faculty voices some authority.

In the short term, this means the board has no actual counterbalance in large scale decision-making. The line of reasoning with these proposed changes also reflects a definite misalignment of the board’s values with Oberlin as an academic institution. For starters, the revised process for the appointment of deans almost entirely negates faculty involvement. The president will now handpick a portion of members on the selection committee, and even though the panel will consist primarily of faculty members, the president can unilaterally decide on a nomination even if it contradicts the committee’s view. Further, with the combining of the Academic Affairs and Student Affairs committees into one broad “Student and Faculty Success Committee,” the board is muddling the specific and entirely separate needs of students and faculty. More than that, by setting competing priorities for this new committee, wherein the same panel will deliberate on a variety of topics such as residential life and counseling, academics will inherently occupy a relatively muted space in the new charge. Academic success is what drives an institution, and for generations, students have taken any shortcomings in residential spaces in stride because we’re in this for an excellent education, not amenities that look good on brochures. 

The only conceivable reason for this revision is an apparent consolidation of authority within the board. The board can encourage people to voice their concerns all they want, but if no one’s opinions or ideas are ever heard in a meaningful way, what’s the point? Faculty governance holds administrators accountable for their actions and, at the very least, can provide a different perspective, if not an altogether unique approach to the situation. Forget a centuries-long legacy of faculty governance — the past decade alone has validated the importance of authoritative faculty interventions. The board, in essence, is moving to severely limit the only body capable of tempering its decisions. This consolidation of power completely goes against the values we thought Oberlin possessed when we first arrived. The board needs to hear us and reassess their priorities.