Committee Convenes to Plan College’s Fiscal Future

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

This Tuesday will mark the first meeting of the Strategic Planning Steering Committee, an organization whose purpose is to determine the future of Oberlin’s educational and financial endeavors. While College President Marvin Krislov has described the plan as “an opportunity for the College and all the different constituencies of the College … to think about the future,” some students and administrators are skeptical about how accurately the committee will address their needs.

“I’d like to see the College admit that it maintains at least partial culpability — and more culpability than a lot of its peer institutions — in the student debt crisis in the United States, and [that] it commit itself to increasing economic diversity on this campus,”said College senior Zachery Crowell, a student activist who served as a leader in last year’s protests against the financial aid policy change. “I think I can speak for a lot of people who would like to see a more diverse campus — not just racially, not just culturally, but also economically.”

Committee member and Politics Department Chair Chris Howell described the past Strategic Planning sessions as “disastrous.”

“We had a large number of essentially focus group-type discussions of faculty and staff,” he said. “We weren’t asked to talk about concrete issues or concrete challenges, and then the draft report itself appeared to reflect none of the discussions that had taken place. It was unclear who wrote it or how it was written or what conversations it reflected. But it didn’t reflect the conversations in those groups. I think it’s fair to say there is a healthy skepticism amongst the faculty about Strategic Planning, in general, given that experience.”

Howell, like many other students and administrators, is largely basing his opinions on past Strategic Planning sessions, the most recent of which occurred in 2005, when the committee published a plan that was students and faculty later cited as contributing to making Oberlin less economically diverse.

Several of the 2005 Strategic Plan’s initiatives came to the attention of student activists and leaders in April, when the administration made unpublicized changes to the College’s financial aid policy in a way that for many students would drastically reduce the institution’s affordability. Some student activists pointed to language in the 2005 Strategic Plan that called for increasing “net tuition revenue per student” by “gradually lower[ing] the institutional discount rate” and “retain[ing] the same number of full pay students” as an explanation of the administration’s actions.

Asked if raising net tuition was on the forefront of the committee’s initiatives this year, President Marvin Krislov said that financial issues “certainly were a focus of the 2005 [Strategic Plan]” and that they will be a large portion of the 2015 or 2016 report.

“I think the 2005 plan was very successful in terms of framing the direction of the College,” Krislov said. “I think it’s certainly helped guide a lot of decisions, and even during the down- turn, we used it to guide a lot of what we did.”

Certain student leaders are also skeptical as to how heavily the Strategic Plan influences the administration’s decisions in regards to financial, educational and political action. While Howell maintains that the report was “never referred to,” Col- lege junior, Student Senate Liaison and committee member Machmud Makhmudov said he believes that the plan is one of the administration’s larger influences.

“I’ve heard from multiple board members that that’s the document that they reference whenever they make decisions at board meetings. They always look back at the language [in the Strategic Plan],” said Makhmudov.

According to Howell, there have been few attempts to bring to fruition some of the specific initiatives listed in the last Strategic Plan that were important to the faculty.

“There is a specific target in the 2005 Strategic Plan to improve faculty salaries. In the period between the discussion and last year, faculty salaries relative to our peers fell from just below the median to near the bottom of the list,” said Howell.

“As of last year,” Howell continued, “the trustees did come up with a plan for improving faculty salaries, which is now in place.”

Other goals in the 2005 Strategic Plan appear not to have been realized. The past plan proposes reducing total student enrollment to 2,720 by 2010, but the 2014 academic year saw a total student enrollment of 2,930, according to Forbes magazine.

President Krislov said he believes this discrepancy was largely unavoidable.

“How can Oberlin plan for a future that’s inherently unpredictable?” Krislov said. “The challenge is if you don’t think about 10, 20 years out, you could be accused of being not very thoughtful or not very analytical. On the other hand, you could say the future is so unpredictable. At least it feels like the future is very different from what we have today.”

While the current members of the planning committee were hesitant to discuss its details, they did express a desire for more correspondence with the student body.

“We’re going to make a very active effort to reach out to students and have their input, particularly after the first meeting,” said Makhmudov. “Somewhere down the line there will be smaller working groups, and I [think] that students will have some kind of way to get on those,” he said.

For Crowell, this type of student involvement is vital.

“We need to be more attuned to institutional policy and get involved,” Crowell said. “So often it’s a reaction — the College passes something that’s very widely unpopular and there’s a reaction. But there has to be something proactive if we’re going to try to make Oberlin a more economically accessible place.”