Inside Oberlin
Our Place in History

The United States Supreme Court will soon hear two University of Michigan cases that will determine the constitutionality of affirmative action in the college admissions process. Knowledge of Oberlin's experience might be instructive as this important question is deliberated.

Upon its founding in 1833, Oberlin opened its doors to men and women, thereby inventing coeducation. A year later, the trustees decided to enroll African Americans. Oberlin
was not the first institution to matriculate African Americans (Princeton, Union, and Bowdoin had one or two black graduates by 1834), but Oberlin did do something new: it made central to its mission the education of black, white, male, and female students together. Why Oberlin's trustees took this path will never be entirely clear, and we know that their motives were not entirely noble. But knowing their motivation is far less important than acknowledging the results.

As early as the 1830s, Oberlin had discovered that bringing together students with different backgrounds and experiences brought about learning and positive social change. The College's history clearly illustrates how a diverse student body, in and of itself, can enrich the education of every student.

In the three decades before the Civil War, Oberlinians distinguished themselves by their abhorrence of slavery and their abolitionist zeal. In the years of war and reconstruction, Oberlin led all American colleges and universities in the number of students and alumni who helped establish schools and colleges for freedmen throughout the American South. Long before the Civil Rights Movement reached the consciousness of most white Americans, Oberlin students--black and white--recognized and acted to redress racial inequality at the College, in the town, and elsewhere in the nation.

Oberlin's history also illustrates the importance of an ongoing affirmative commitment to interracial education: throughout the 19th century, Oberlin granted fully one-half of all baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans. After the establishment of black colleges and universities in the South late in the 19th century, Oberlin could claim, well into the 20th century, to have graduated one-third of all African Americans who earned bachelors' degrees.

Oberlin has retained its commitment to inclusion and diversity throughout its history. Few campuses are as accepting of difference as ours. Like most of America's leading colleges and universities, we use race as one of many factors in our admissions process. We do this to ensure that Oberlin continues to be a richly inclusive and diverse academic community. We also practice affirmative action to help redress the still-prevalent social and economic inequalities in American life that are rooted in race.

Oberlin must continue to lead the way in speaking out in favor of affirmative action and the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity that it helps ensure throughout higher education. The educational benefits brought about by diversity of all kinds--religious, political, intellectual, and racial--assume heightened importance at this moment in our history. As our country and others prepare for war, it is especially important that students learn there are different ways of seeing, experiencing, and thinking about the world, and that there are ways to both appreciate and respect each others' differences and respectfully negotiate our disagreements.

Nancy S. Dye
President, Oberlin College

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