College has never built a wall around its campus. In this it is
significantly different from many other American colleges. This
lack of a wall gives architectural expression to Oberlin's conviction
that an excellent education is grounded in engagement with the larger
community. The New York Times put this well in 1983 when commemorating
Oberlin's 150th anniversary: "In its century and a half, while Harvard
worried about the classics and Yale about God, Oberlin worried about
the state of America and the world beyond."
Last year I had ample occasion to appreciate this remarkable aspect
of Oberlin's mission. Griff and I spent the fall and early winter
of 2000 on sabbatical in Asia. Wherever we went, we found people
who knew Oberlin.
Closer to home, many of us are thinking anew about the College's
original covenant with its surrounding community and the ways in
which the College's future health and the health of this small town
are inextricably intertwined.
Oberlin, Ohio, is a town of some 8,200 people. Since the 1830s it
has been a richly interracial community. But Oberlin has never been
affluent, and over the past decades, due to the deindustrialization
of much of the Midwest, Oberlin and all of Lorain County have suffered
chronic economic stagnation.
A year ago we launched the Oberlin Partnership. This initiative,
ably directed by Daniel Gardner '89, is a systemic effort to engage
the College and community together to improve local education, recreation,
housing, and economic development. Our most notable success over
the past year has been the collaborative effort to keep the Allen
Memorial Hospital in operation.
Nowhere are Oberlin's economic and social problems more apparent
than in our public schools. Forty-five percent of our school children
are eligible for the federal free-lunch program; 45 percent live
in single-parent households; and up to 10 percent are growing up
in foster care. Two years ago the State of Ohio declared Oberlin's
public school system to be in a state of "academic emergency" based
on student performance on state proficiency exams. This past spring
test scores improved significantly, and our schools' rating was
changed to "academic watch." But clearly, much more needs to be
One of the College's recent contributions is the Oberlin High School
Scholarship Program. Starting this year, any four-year graduate
of Oberlin High School who is admitted to the College or Conservatory
will receive a tuition-free education at Oberlin College. This is
one way of giving back to our community while helping to raise the
expectations and aspirations of Oberlin children.
Another long-term goal is the reintroduction of a teacher-education
program at the College. The confluence of a severe national teacher
shortage, the vocational interests of our students and the needs
of our local schools make a new and innovative teacher-education
program a good fit for Oberlin.
2003 we hope that at least 20 of our graduates each year will stay
on at Oberlin for a fifth year of teacher preparation and thereby
be eligible for certification. In so doing, they would participate
in a rigorous and experimental program grounded in the belief that
a liberal education is the best preparation for teachers. They would
also gain rich experience as student teachers in local public schools.
Given the critical shortage of teachers and the needs of our local
community, many of us on campus are very enthusiastic about extending
Oberlin's contemporary mission to include teacher education and,
more broadly, a far greater College presence in Oberlin's public
schools. I hope that you, as Oberlin alumni, will agree with me
when I say that every child growing up in Oberlin, Ohio, should
have an education immeasurably enriched by our College.