Nancy Dye's Presidency, Page 5

Maintaining Integrity

When not tending to the constant needs of an active campus, Dye lends time to the boards of a number of higher education organizations. She chairs the board of the American Association of Colleges and Universities and serves on the boards of Knowledge Works, an Ohio foundation dedicated to improving educational access; the American Council of Learned Societies; and Pomona College. In frequent demand as a guest speaker, she was a respondent to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spoke on racial justice and reconciliation at a Cleveland conference series. She is an outspoken critic of virtual higher education occurring off campus and online, and her 1997 address to the Cleveland City Club on the topic sparked national attention. At the same time, Dye has been quick to support technological enhancements on her own campus: every classroom, office, and dorm room at Oberlin is wired for local network and Internet access and the Oberlin Center for Technologically Enhanced Teaching helps bridge the gap between technology and teaching. She still stands among the leading scholars in women’s labor history, and she has been recognized by the John Templeton Foundation for outstanding leadership in the field of student character development.

Kirsch, the board member who praises Dye’s leadership, admits that he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with her. He doesn’t understand, for example, why she has committed so much energy and resources to intercollegiate athletics. “I could name many decisions she’s made that I disagree with, but even then, I don’t disagree with her process. She never makes decisions because of ‘Nancy Dye’ or from undue pressure or for any other inappropriate or illegitimate reason. She makes them because she believes they are in the best interests of the institution.”

Last spring, Dye struggled with an incredibly difficult decision before expelling two seniors just weeks from graduating. Each was accused of playing a role in a premeditated assault on a student who was asleep in his residence hall room. The alleged attackers, both members of the football team, had been expelled by the Oberlin College Community Board, but an appeals’ panel reduced the punishment to suspension. The “reprehensible” assault and the tumultuous judicial journey that followed, says Dye, ranks as her most difficult and agonizing time at Oberlin.

“I had never seen this campus so unhappy. The more I watched it, the worse it got. Many students and faculty came to me to talk. I came to see the incident as a crisis of integrity for the College.” The president, predisposed at that point to uphold the integrity of the campus judicial process that led to the reduction in punishment, listened earnestly.

“At a certain point, I realized that we had an institutional crisis,’’ says Dye. “Every judicial body from time to time makes a decision that is absolutely incomprehensible to a lot of people. I thought the danger to this community and to its judicial system was greater if I did not say that I would review and decide that case. One of my roles as president is to articulate the mission and the values of the institution when it’s appropriate to do so. This was one of those very rare situations where I used extraordinary authority.”

In an open letter addressed to the “Oberlin College Community,” Dye concluded: “Oberlin at its best is a wonderfully generous, open, and tolerant community. But the generosity, tolerance, and openness of this unique place depend ultimately on our willingness to protect and uphold our standards of conduct and our fundamental values.”

The Perfect Match

One of the keys to Dye’s success, says Koppes, is that she seeks out people who disagree with her. “It contributes to better decision making and consensus building, and it gives Nancy a better sense of the overall landscape,” he says.

William Perlik ’48, former chair and current member of the board of trustees, says that no one pushed harder than he to bring Dye to Oberlin. She has exceeded even his admittedly stratospheric expectations.

“I’ve seen the work of over half of Oberlin’s presidents,” he says. “In my judgment, she is absolutely at the head of the class. She has a magical way of working with people.
“If I have ever done anything good for Oberlin College, it was whatever role I played in getting her here,” he adds. “Oberlin now is as great as it has ever been.”

Kenty says that Dye understands Oberlin at its best. “She just really gets this place. She appreciates what a quirky mix Oberlin is—the academic excellence, the artistic pursuit, the social activism. I can’t think of any other college or university president who is as good of a match with their school as she is.”

Dye likes the match, too.

“I can think of a lot of very fine colleges that have good admissions’ rates, excellent faculty, rich curricula, and wonderful students, but wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun to be president of,” she says. “I really love being Oberlin’s president. There is a lot more I would like to do here.”

“She cares. It’s that simple,” says Dodson. “One of the remarkable attributes that Nancy brings to the presidency is her capacity for joy.”

Mike McIntyre is a staff writer for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

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