After College President Marvin Krislov refused to suspend the standard grading system and call a school-wide meeting addressing recent national instances of police brutality against Black communities, a group of students of color decided they would hold one themselves.
Roughly 200 students huddled in Wilder Bowl this Saturday to attend the three-hour “emergency convocation,” which was preceded by weeks of student-led protests, demonstrations and other actions.
At the meeting, students called for the administration, which many have accused of remaining inappropriately silent in the past weeks, to take action.
“There a number of ways these violences are enacted on us every day, every minute,” said College junior and organizer Kiki Acey. “This institution should be held accountable to that. I’m done with the excuses.”
The convocation started with the performance of raps, songs and spoken-word poetry by several Black students who expressed their personal reactions toward the systemic oppression, brutalization and dehumanization of Black and brown bodies.
“Everywhere I go, I’m where the danger lies,” rapped College first-year Justin Jimenez. “My skin tone don’t come equipped with blue angel eyes. So whenever I’m outside I keep my hands deep in my pockets, ’cause just a stop and frisk could rip my soul from its socket.”
Though the convocation was focused in part on sharing experiences, students of color also used it as a space to update their peers on their attempts convince Krislov to suspend the standard grading system.
Acey, in conjunction with other students of color, authored a petition demanding the suspension of the standard grading system this semester. The petition, which was circulated widely among students last week through email and social media, called for the College to institute a “no-fail mercy period” that would eliminate all failing grades and make a “C” the lowest possible grade a student could receive.
The request came directly from students disproportionately affected by the recent cases of police brutality, many of whom had been continuously missing classes and study time to work within their own communities and to protest the non-indictments.
After meeting with Krislov on Friday, a group of seven student organizers told the crowd that Krislov “didn’t understand” why they felt that his decision not to endorse the petition demonstrated a lack of solidarity that was detrimental to their efforts.
“He spent an hour telling us that he was on our side, that he loves ‘kids of color,’ but that he did not have the power to endorse a petition,” College senior Khalil Habrih said. “We tried to explain to him that it was not about him as a president making everyone abide by the petition, but rather that about him — as a human being, as a 50-something white man — [he] could endorse a petition and say that he supported students who wanted to do good work, but that couldn’t have the stress of school with them.”
The students then played back a recording of the meeting, in which they highlighted several of the reasons why they believed that Oberlin College, an institution that regularly cites its “commitment to diversity and social justice” throughout its mission statements and strategic plans, should be putting more effort into supporting students of color.
“What I heard in this meeting was a lot of nothing,” said College junior and organizer Amethyst Carey. “I heard the president making excuse after excuse after excuse after we presented emails from faculty that were ridiculously racist.”
In the recording, Krislov said that the administration was doing “the most it could,” and that he did not have the authority to tell professors what grades they should give their students.
However, the students in the meeting — as well as many of their peers in the crowd — found this to be an unacceptable answer.
“What are you afraid of? Who are you protecting?” College junior and organizer Dyaami D’Orazio could be heard asking Krislov in the recording.
Acey told the crowd that Krislov said he did not have the power to make such an overarching decision. However, Acey and other students expressed frustration that professors, faculty members and administrative staff had also claimed to lack the power to extend academic leniency.
“Who is this invisible person that can make these decisions?” asked College junior B.J. Tindal, who had performed a spoken-word poem earlier in the convocation. “We have no other option.”
Others pushed back against Krislov’s claims by citing former College President Robert K. Carr’s decision to suspend the standard grading system, institute “education for liberation”–style projects and support student activism in 1970 as a commendable precedent.
President Carr suspended the grading system after students pressured the administration to take action regarding the National Guard’s killing of four unarmed students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
“What is different today?” Habrih asked the crowd. “The U.S. is waging war all over the world, and Black people are not subjected to the same laws as white people in this country. What is different? We have the precedent for the administration [and] the College to stand with us. Now it’s on their side to make this happen. And if they don’t, it’s up to us to make them.”
After playing back the recording, several Black students took the microphone to share their personal experiences. Some spoke to the lack of institutional support that they have experienced at Oberlin and explained that the emotional toll of recent events may result in their academic suspension.
The meeting was held in conjunction with other nationwide “Millions March” actions, during which tens of thousands of individuals took to the streets in New York City, Washington, D.C. and other major cities to demand justice for the deaths of all innocent people of color killed by the misuse of police force.
“This is just the beginning,” Acey said. “These are all just the beginnings. We leave this place and it’s just the beginning and we must all be just as invested. It can’t be one person; it can’t be five people; it can’t be ten people. All of us.”
The day after the convocation, Krislov sent an email to the student body publicly announcing that he would not endorse the petition. In his email, Krislov announced that the Pass/No Pass and incomplete application deadlines would be extended until the end of final exams.
“We are in firm agreement that suspending grading protocols is not the way to achieve our shared goal of ensuring that students have every opportunity and resource to succeed,” the email said.