Over the past 177 years, Oberlin alumni have played leading roles in endeavors around the world that have benefited millions of lives. Our graduates’ readiness to learn, to work, to serve, and to lead grows from the powerful sense of social purpose that Oberlin’s faculty instills in our students. That spirit is one of the hallmarks of an Oberlin education.
Oberlin’s activist spirit and commitment to excellence and access were vividly evident during the celebrations surrounding the opening on May 1 of the new Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, the permanent home of jazz studies at Oberlin. The outpouring of admiration, respect, and love for this institution from the wider Oberlin family, and from friends such as Drs. William and Camille Cosby and Dr. Stevie Wonder, was deeply moving.
The centerpiece was the Kohl Building, which Steve Litt, architecture critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, described as “one of the best new buildings in Northeast Ohio designed by any architecture firm—local or otherwise—in recent decades.” But the events also spotlighted Oberlin’s record of producing important jazz players who contribute to their communities not just as performers, but as teachers and mentors.
Our jazz students and alumni spoke of what a strong, positive influence Wendell Logan, professor of African American music and jazz studies, has been on their lives and work. Professor Logan built our jazz program. The concert in Finney Chapel featuring our illustrious jazz alumni, special guest Stevie Wonder, and the students in the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble directed by Professor Logan, was a thrilling and resonant reminder of the power of an Oberlin education.
That power begins with access. Drs. Bill and Camille Cosby, who along with Stevie Wonder received honorary degrees as part of the Kohl celebration, are not Oberlin alums. Yet they believe so strongly in Oberlin’s mission that they have funded a scholarship here for many years. Keeping Oberlin accessible for worthy students regardless of their socio-economic background is a top priority in building a strong future for Oberlin.
Here on campus, students’ lives are transformed by our faculty members’ teaching, thinking, scholarship, and engagement. The leadership abilities of our students and alumni are a product of Oberlin's traditions of outstanding teaching, student-faculty collaboration on research, and mentoring.
Julie Taymor ’74, the great film and stage director and producer who gave this year’s commencement address, spoke at our honorary degree dinner about how Phyllis Gorfain, emeritus professor of English, helped her craft an independent major involving theater, English, and anthropology. “Oberlin set me on a course. Oberlin kept me grounded,” Taymor said. “I had really delved into the origins of theater, history, language, and culture by the time I left here. This really is a place of the soul. People here really do care. Its history is important. At Oberlin, we find our way to help, to add just a little bit to make the world better.”
That is the essence of Oberlin. I am proud to be part of it, and I hope you are, too.