Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Summer 2007 Vol. 103 No. 1 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Taking Office

President Marvin Krislov with (from left) son Zachary, wife Amy Sheon, daughter Evie Rose, and son Jesse.

Marvin Krislov has always understood the power of education. His father was a professor of labor economics at the University of Kentucky; his mother a social worker. His was an upbringing that blended the drive to learn with a desire to effect change.

“I’m passionate about higher education and its ability to change people’s lives,” said Krislov, while packing up his office at the University of Michigan, his move to Oberlin still weeks away. “I’ve benefited from my own education and from working in higher ed for the past nine years. I’ve seen education make a difference—not only in teaching students, but in bringing about social change, inclusion, and access.”

Oberlin’s 14th president graduated from Yale, summa cum laude, in 1982. He studied at Oxford University’s Magdalen College as a Rhodes scholar, earning an MA in modern history in 1985. He then returned to Yale for law school, editing the Yale Law Journal and earning his JD in 1988. At a young age, he worked in the White House Counsel’s Office, serving as associate counsel to the president. He went on to become acting solicitor for national operations at the U.S. Department of Labor, overseeing 700 employees and a budget of $70 million. In 1998, at the University of Michigan, he became the first person to hold the title of vice president and general counsel; there he managed legal affairs for three campuses, as well as a complex health system and athletics department.

As Krislov talks, it is easy to see how well he fits with Oberlin. Yalie? Top lawyer at a Big Ten school with 40,000 students? Any prejudice dissolves as he discusses his passion for diversity, social justice, and the liberal arts. He also wasted no time in putting some of his plans for Oberlin into action—arranging visits with national media outlets, finalizing the 2008 Commencement speaker, and even meeting with prospective donors—weeks before his official start date.

“My initial reaction to Marvin Krislov was that he was almost too good to be real,” says Alumni Association President Wendell P. Russell Jr. ’71, who served on the 11-member Presidential Search Committee. “Marvin has drive and ambition and will push Oberlin to be better. Everything about his background seemed such an obvious great fit.”

Krislov’s most notable achievement came in 2003, when he led the University of Michigan’s legal team in successfully defending the university’s diversity-based admissions policy before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“To make the case, Marvin had to articulate what education means now, and why diversity is essential,” says Eric Inglis, associate professor of art at Oberlin and member of the search committee. “He also had to help build a broad and strategic alliance willing to embrace that understanding of education and diversity. This speaks volumes about the educational values he shares with Oberlin.”

Kumiki Gibson, who collaborated with Krislov on the court cases, describes him as “wicked smart. Oberlin is lucky to have him.” A commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights, Gibson has known Krislov since 1992, when both were prosecuting hate crimes and police brutality cases for the U.S. Department of Justice.

“He’s an intellectually honest man of integrity and compassion who is adept at building consensus,” she says. “He also cares about people; about the views of people, even those with whom he disagrees; and he cares about doing the right thing. You will always know that Marvin is guided by doing what is right and what is best—not for himself, but for those whom he serves.”

Even while serving in a demanding administrative position at Michigan, Krislov made it a point to stay connected with students by teaching courses and seminars in political science and in law and public policy. He also advised students on academic and career decisions. “It reminds you of why you are here,” he says. And it left an impression on his students.

“He was engaging in the classroom, always valuing open discussion, challenging us to learn from a vast array of sources, and encouraging us to think beyond the boundaries of the subject at hand,” says Michigan alumna Amber Lowden, who took upper-level political science courses with Krislov.

Michael Simon, who took undergraduate and law courses with Krislov, sees him still as a mentor. Simon worked in the war room for the John Kerry presidential campaign and recalls a knock at the door the day after Kerry lost. It was a deliveryman.

“He was dropping off a giant crate of comfort food from the famous Ann Arbor deli, Zingerman’s. It was from Marvin,” Simon says. “He created a network of former students who now rely on each other for advice on jobs, applying to graduate school, and the like.”

Krislov already has impressed some Oberlin students, as well. Courtney Merrell ’09, a double-degree student who served on the Presidential Search Committee, admits that she tends to be critical of people on first impression.

“But Marvin introduced himself with warmth, intelligence, and a genuine nature,” she says. “I’ve had the privilege of talking with him several times about his hopes for Oberlin, and he’s always expressed his enthusiasm to learn as much as he can from as many people as he can. He assured students last spring that he still has a lot to learn, but I know he will astound everyone with his knowledge and ability to assess Oberlin quickly and thoroughly.”

Oberlin Board of Trustees Chair Robert S. Lemle ’75, who led the search effort that attracted 80-plus candidates, says it became apparent early on that Krislov was an excellent choice.

“His personal warmth, professional modesty, and lively sense of humor made a strong impact on the search committee. He is an excellent listener with the capacity to build consensus around the strategic direction of the College,” says Lemle. “He appreciates the importance of inclusiveness and process, while also recognizing that at a point, you need to move the institution forward.”

Krislov says he plans to do a lot of listening and fact-finding. Addressing the College’s strategic plan and assuring sound financial footing is key. “Oberlin faces the same challenges that most higher-education institutions are facing: people want more, and costs are rising for things like energy and health care. Students want to have a variety of experiences. Professors want to do their research in addition to spending time in the classroom. There is going to be a challenge in meeting all of these goals and trying to maintain financial sustainability. We need to remember there are real bottom-line challenges here.

“There are lessons we should learn from the Antioch experience,” he continues, referring to the liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio, that announced it will close next year, at least temporarily. “Antioch had a strong commitment to social justice and some of the same values Oberlin has. If you think about the future of a liberal arts college in America, you have to think about financial sustainability—creating a culture that is sustainable.”

To that end, Krislov says he relishes the challenge of fundraising and plans to reach out to many constituencies to further grow Oberlin’s endowment. He urges alumni to continue to support the College financially, but also to become even more engaged in the life of the institution. “I encourage alumni to visit the campus often and understand what is going on,” he says, noting that his inauguration in November will offer thoughtful, intelligent symposia and community-oriented activities.

“I can see alumni participating in many ways, raising the profile of Oberlin in the community, encouraging prospective students to apply, and encouraging students to matriculate once admitted,” he says. Alumni also can act as mentors to help guide students, he says—their ideas can make Oberlin stronger.

“Alumni can help me and other folks think about opportunities for Oberlin to make a difference, particularly internationally. We might partner with people, arts organizations, foundations, schools. The ‘fearless’ campaign is really about leadership—creating the ability to take risk and do innovative things to improve education and make a difference. Alumni are in a position to help us identify those opportunities and make them a reality.”

First up, says Krislov, is looking at whether Oberlin can do better in attracting students from certain areas of the world and diversifying the student body. He is also committed to athletics.

“I played a leadership role in the athletics department at Michigan, and I know how wonderfully athletics contributes to a college campus,” he says. “It teaches the players all sorts of great values: discipline, working with others, and the sheer joy of being physically active. To have people represent you in sports is very enjoyable. There are other ways people represent a college campus: people who perform, people who do interesting research, people who go abroad. But there is something visible about athletics that represents the institution to the outside world.”

Carving out time daily for running and exercise, Krislov says he and his family place high value on physical activity, fitness, and a healthy way of living. He predicts that his wife, Amy Ruth Sheon, a biomedical researcher, as well as sons Zachary, 14, Jesse, 9, and daughter Evie Rose, 6, will be active in the Oberlin and greater Cleveland communities.

Amy and Marvin are both well known to Oberlin alumnus Richard Lempert ’64, a law and sociology professor at the University of Michigan. Marvin is top-notch, says Lempert. But his wife makes his hiring even better. “She is intelligent, organized, creative, very easy to work with, and a good judge of people,” he says. “If Oberlin hired Amy, I would be just as thrilled as I am that they hired Marvin.”

Krislov and his wife are passionate about the arts, serving on several musical and theater boards. Most impressive, says Ken Fischer, who heads the University Musical Society at Michigan, is Krislov’s ability to tie the arts with a social cause.

As Fischer tells the story, Krislov had an idea about how to inspire rally goers in Washington on the eve of Michigan’s Supreme Court appearance. “He was imagining a series of speeches, but believed that speeches alone wouldn’t be enough to inspire those arguing the cases the next day,” says Fischer. So Krislov asked Fischer to arrange a performance by a beloved Ann Arbor gospel group, the Grammy Award-winning Sweet Honey in the Rock.

“Marvin knew that what we needed to go up to the Hill with our hearts and minds filled with the rightness of our position was the music of Sweet Honey,” says Fischer. “They came to the rally, and just as Marvin had envisioned, they sang a few numbers and had us all join in. Every time I’ve seen the performers since, they’ve told me that singing at the rally was one of the most important and inspiring moments in their history as a group.”

As Krislov now rallies the troops at Oberlin, many expect great things. Bill Samuel ’78, who worked with Krislov at the U.S. Department of Labor, says he’s proud that his alma mater made such an inspired choice.

“Marvin’s mixture of practical experience and idealism is a perfect fit for Oberlin,” says Samuel. “He’s made a name for himself in both the political and academic worlds, and yet he is incredibly unpretentious and down to earth. He’s like your favorite uncle, the one who took you seriously when you were a kid and remembered to ask about your special sport or hobby.”

Echoing the sentiment is Philip Singerman ’65, managing director of Toucan Capital Corporation in Maryland. He taught Krislov in an urban policy course at Yale, and says his former student has grown wise. “Marvin interestingly combines the intellectual with the practical. He has a consistent set of principles that makes him perfect for Oberlin.”

Mike McIntrye is a writer and columnist for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

The Search for a President: A Timeline

  • January 2007: The presidential application process officially opens, resulting in more than 80 applicants whose materials are thoroughly reviewed by all 11 members of the Presidential Search Committee. Presidential Search Consultant Tom Courtice says that alumni response to the call for nominations is the highest he has ever encountered at any school.
  • March 2007: Search committee members narrow the pool and conduct in-person interviews with 11 candidates. Four finalists are selected for further interviews and extensive reference and background checks.
  • April 18-19, 2007: A second, larger group is formed to gain input from a broader cross-section of the Oberlin community. Three members each from the Arts and Sciences faculty, Conservatory faculty, administrative and professional staff, and the student body, plus the president-elect of the Alumni Association, the president’s senior staff, additional trustees, and class trustees have the opportunity to interview the four candidates.
  • April 20, 2007: Search committee holds a seven-hour meeting to review feedback from the Oberlin community and references. The committee agrees unanimously to recommend Marvin Krislov as the sole finalist in the presidential search.
  • May 4, 2007: The Board of Trustees formally endorses Krislov as a finalist.
  • May 9-11, 2007: Krislov visits campus to meet with members of the Oberlin community. Open forums are held with students, faculty, and administrative and professional staff; Krislov also meets with faculty councils, Student Senate, town leaders, and union officers. Faculty and staff have the opportunity to meet and socialize with the Krislov family at a reception.
  • May 14, 2007: The Board of Trustees votes unanimously to appoint Krislov as the 14th president of Oberlin College, effective July 1, 2007.
  • May 15, 2007: Krislov’s appointment is publicly announced.

Q & A With Marvin Krislov

What most attracted you to Oberlin, given your lengthy career in law and in academics at a large public research university?

My son attended a summer program at Oberlin, and I was really struck by the welcoming, engaged community and the spirit of intellectual and artistic endeavor. Oberlin has a proud history of excellence and inclusion, plus a strong commitment to social justice—all of that appeals to my own set of values. Oberlin’s mission—to promote the study of liberal arts and sciences as a path to individual growth and development—inspires me, and its philosophy of moving beyond traditional disciplinary lines mirrors my own approach to liberal education. And finally is Oberlin’s emphasis on the arts and the central role of the Conservatory; both speak to my belief in the importance of creative expression and appreciation.

How will your background in law aid in your presidency?

By helping me to understand and analyze various perspectives on issues, and allowing me to think about the processes for making decisions. I’ve worked inside many institutions, and I’ve learned how to listen to people with different views and how to try to mediate those perspectives. I’ve been privileged to teach courses in the undergraduate political science department and in the law school at the University of Michigan, and I would draw upon those experiences as a teacher and mentor as well. I should mention that I’m not the first lawyer to serve as an Oberlin president. William Stevenson, Oberlin’s eighth president, was a corporate lawyer. Stevenson and I share an Oxford education and a background in the federal government … but no one would confuse me for the Olympic gold medalist in track that Stevenson was!

What are your thoughts about Oberlin’s new strategic plan, specifically its focus on our educational and financial future?

The strategic plan lays out a compelling vision for educational excellence and promoting close teacher-student working relationships. It also emphasizes the importance of financial sustainability, which seems all the more relevant in light of Antioch College’s recent announcement.

You have said that you enjoy fundraising. What development role will you play at Oberlin?

Oberlin must continue to increase its fundraising dollars and its endowment. I relish that opportunity. We plan to devote considerable time and energy to enhancing Oberlin’s financial strength by building support from alumni, parents, friends, and foundations. It is vital that we build a strong foundation for the future. To that end, as we think about the 175th anniversary of Oberlin’s founding, I urge the Oberlin family to consider the enduring value of a transformative Oberlin education. I look forward to working with all parts of the Oberlin extended family in addressing such vital needs as financial aid, faculty support, facilities, and programs.

When you met with the Oberlin faculty last spring, you expressed your deep personal commitment to diversity. Can you elaborate?

In addition to spearheading the University of Michigan cases where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of diversity considerations in college and university admissions, I am committed to diversity on an international level. I helped organize a two-part international academic conference cosponsored by the University of Cape Town that focused on educational policy and diversity in the U.S. and South Africa. I am also co-editing a book tentatively titled, The Next Twenty-Five Years: Higher Education and Affirmative Action in the United States and South Africa, under contract with the University of Michigan Press.

You’ve talked about the importance of image and staying on top of national trends in higher education. What will you do to promote Oberlin and enhance its image nationally and internationally?

Oberlin must compete to attract the best and most interesting students, faculty, and staff. The challenge is to be strategic in how we portray our College and community and to do so in a way that is true to Oberlin’s strong values. We can all help tell the Oberlin story. I have been struck by the number of people who tell me that Oberlin has transformed their lives and has been the most significant influence on who they are today. The number of Oberlin couples seems staggeringly high to me, and the number of multiple-generation legacy families attests to the power of the Oberlin experience. I would ask that all Oberlin alumni and friends join me in spreading the word of the amazing life-changing experience offered by our superb College and Conservatory.

Presiding over a conservatory of music will be something new for you. Have you played any leadership roles in music or the arts?

I grew up in a family where the arts were prized and supported. I acted and sang in productions and concerts through high school and at Oxford. I have long been an avid patron of all forms of the arts—visual and performing. In Michigan, I have served on the board of the University Musical Society and the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit (as vice chair). Oberlin offers a stunning array of performances, overwhelmingly free and open to the public, as well as plentiful opportunities for arts education. In this way, Oberlin is a national and international leader in the arts at a time when public support for the arts is often curtailed. I am thrilled to be part of this vibrant creative community.

What do you most want Oberlin alumni to know about you?

I believe my core values and beliefs complement those of Oberlin College. I look forward to learning more about the people and traditions of Oberlin, and to sharing my thoughts with you over time. On an individual level, I enjoy people and learning about them. We all have stories to tell and are enriched by listening to others. My parents grew up in Cleveland, in working-class families that believed in the important role of education. My father retired from the University of Kentucky as a labor economics professor. My mother was a social worker and activist. I look forward to meeting and to hearing from all alumni and to learning about their attachments to Oberlin.

At Michigan, you taught two upper-level undergraduate courses in politics each year. Do you plan to teach at Oberlin?

I do plan to teach at Oberlin. I find teaching intellectually stimulating and look forward to getting to know Oberlin students inside the classroom as well as outside. The exact timing is being discussed.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Sure. My family is my greatest joy in life. I adore my accomplished wife, Amy Ruth Sheon, a public health researcher, and my three wonderful, lively children—Zachary, Jesse, and Evie Rose. Our family loves to travel and have adventures. My favorite cities include New York, London, Jerusalem, and Cape Town. I also have traveled extensively in the U.S., including all regions and communities large and small. I love to exercise, particularly by jogging and playing tennis. I am also passionate about theater and politics.