Faculty-Led Protests Provide Framework for Student Activism

Activism is so ubiquitous within Oberlinʼs campus culture and reputation that I would argue it figures as a central component of students’ education. In fact, the institution includes the development of “an enduring commitment to acting in the world to further social justice, deepen democracy, and build a sustainable future” in its learning goals. 

With many recent protests being faculty-led, specifically those regarding faculty members’ own treatment by the College, the influence of professors in students’ education extends well beyond the confines of the classroom. Causes such as higher compensation for faculty and the maintenance of their governing power as guaranteed in the College’s bylaws since its beginning are baseline benefits our professors should be entitled to. These causes certainly warrant our solidarity, and I would like to express mine in this article. 

Faculty members engaging in the very activism that is so integral to the Oberlin education further attests to their value as teachers, and it points to why we should join in opposition to the College’s consistent devaluation of our professors and continue to engage with protests to further our learning. I think that we have much to learn. 

I applaud Oberlin students’ impulse toward activism, and I find it far preferable to a culture of complacency. I do not think that our protests should be burdened with the expectation of perfection. Rather, I find them to be a meaningful practice in and of themselves and an area in which, like our studies, we have constant room for improvement. 

Faculty members have, in the past, protested in forms their positions render them uniquely capable of. It’s true that students don’t have the power to cancel classes, as some faculty did in March 2022 in response to the board’s refusal to raise their compensation. The administration argued that the action was harmful to students and contrary to the school’s primary mission of teaching, but I would disagree. If professors’ absence from their regular duties for just one day was so deeply felt, then doesn’t that demonstrate all the more that they deserve the compensation they were protesting for? Given our professors’ importance, isn’t any step toward the retention of our faculty, to which competitive compensation is key per President Carmen Twillie Ambar and the Board of Trustees, actually in Oberlin students’ best interests?

Contrast this with the behavior of students during a more recent protest against the Board of Trustees’ meeting to discuss the potential reversal of the right of faculty governance. The Editorial Board rightfully observed, in the wake of the Board of Trustees’ ultimate decision to go through with the revision, that students acted with animosity at what was a faculty organized event at the expense of its message. I don’t begrudge my peers their rage at the prospect of the reversal, nor the expression of this sentiment. We have a right to be angry, not only on behalf of our teachers, but for our own sakes as well. 

Our successful support of faculty requires deference to their chosen methods of protest. Whereas the faculty-organized protest of the bylaw revision allowed students to gauge how to best advocate for them, both by hearing them speak on their situation and through the example of their conduct, the chanting of the phrase “Abolish the Trustees” lacked both nuance and pragmatism, qualities which I believe are the purpose of a liberal arts education to equip us with. 

My suggestion, then, is that we treat faculty protest as an in-the-field learning opportunity. I suggest that we listen before we shout, that we continue to support our faculty in their ongoing conflicts with the board, and that we let the example of their activism function alongside our education to inform our own so that we may engage in more productive forms of activism and effect more concrete change in the future — both on campus and beyond.