Finney Compact Integral to Oberlin’s Future

Dear Chris Canavan and Oberlin’s Board of Trustees,

When — in 1964 — I accepted a position to teach at Oberlin, I was reluctant to do so because I knew that I had been awarded a Fulbright grant to carry out research in Rome. My mentor at Princeton, in hindsight, wisely advised me to accept the job and to try to take an early leave because, he said, there aren’t many positions like the one at Oberlin.

Once on campus and proud to be part of what I regarded to be the top liberal arts college in the country, I gradually understood why Oberlin enjoyed its distinguished reputation — not only because of its historically liberal activism, its outstanding Conservatory and Allen Memorial Art Museum, and its solid endowment, but also, above all, its excellent, dedicated faculty and exceptional students. What I might call the ethos in which all of that thrived was the sense that Oberlin — whose very purpose is, after all, education — was to an unusual degree steered by its educators; that is, by its faculty who obviously know more and care more about the College’s educational success than anyone else. This, I knew, was the result of the Finney Compact.

During my 35 years at Oberlin, I sadly watched from the inside the College’s fall in national standing, first due to the unpreventable loss of its unique position as a top co-ed liberal arts college and, in conjunction with that loss, the impact of its adverse geographical location when compared with many of the other co-ed colleges. 

Concurrently, Oberlin’s endowment suffered greatly due to its poor management at a time when the endowments of many of the colleges that Oberlin liked to compare itself with grew greatly.

What I have outlined is, to be sure, a simplistic explanation of Oberlin’s decline in national standing, but it nonetheless points to some fundamental reasons that, from its position in the 1960s as the best liberal arts college in the country Oberlin has fallen to, according to the latest U.S. News & World Report’s ranking, an embarrassing 39th place. One might question the basis of such rankings, as I do, yet I do not think we can dismiss the accuracy of the general trend it tracks regarding Oberlin. This leads me to Oberlin today, which suffers from the Gibson’s affair. Thankfully it is over, although its short or long-term fiscal fallout, the extent of which is yet to be seen, is not, nor is its impact on the College’s relationship with donors.  

Certainly, the last thing the College needs at this critical time is more negative publicity and further acceleration of its decline. That, I fear, is exactly what the board is inviting by proposing bylaw changes that eviscerate the Finney Compact and the General Faculty’s authority as stated in Article XV, Section 2. The change, to no small degree, will destroy the Oberlin that it has long been.

I will leave it to Oberlin’s active faculty to spell out in detail the consequences of the board’s rewriting of this section. But speaking from the position of an emeritus professor who has loved and supported the College, I am deeply disturbed by the board’s planned action, fearing the damage to Oberlin that surely will ensue.


Richard Spear

Mildred Jay Professor of Art History, Emeritus, Oberlin College

Affiliate Research Professor, University of Maryland, College Park