Welcome, faculty, students, parents, alumni, staff, members of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees, and friends. This is the sixth presidential address I’ve given at Commencement. Once again, I am happy to stand before you—the extended Oberlin family—and report that the College of Arts and Sciences and the Conservatory of Music are strong and growing stronger.
Our admissions are robust. Our finances are solid. Our students, faculty, and alumni are producing remarkable—and in some cases historic—scholarly, artistic, musical, and athletic achievements. In keeping with our tradition of educational excellence combined with social engagement, the thoughts and deeds of Oberlinians are positively affecting millions of lives in this country and around the world.
Our success as a college and conservatory comes thanks to the wisdom, commitment, hard work, and generosity of thousands of individuals—on campus and off—who believe in and support Oberlin’s mission.
That mission began in 1833, when the Reverend John J. Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart—a missionary and inventor—founded this college and town in what is now Tappan Square. On December 3rd, we will celebrate the 180th anniversary of Oberlin’s founding.
I have been thinking a lot about that historic milestone.
I don’t know what Shipherd and Stewart would make of today’s Oberlin. The community they created was meant to be a Christian utopia. For students, chapel attendance was mandatory. Drinking, dancing, and stimulants such as coffee were forbidden. While those aspects of today’s Oberlin might displease them, I think at some level they would be proud that their collegiate institute—and its mission—live on as one of the world’s great colleges. While our founders cautioned against the sin of pride, I believe they would have rejoiced when our conservatory was awarded the National Medal of the Arts.
What makes Oberlin great? And what enables our college and conservatory to endure? Simply surviving for 180 years is a notable achievement. Very few businesses last that long. Across this continent, countless towns or settlements established in the 19th century no longer exist.
Neither do some schools. Parsons College in Iowa closed in 1973. Antioch College—our kindred spirit in Yellow Springs, Ohio—was founded in 1850. In 2008, it had to suspend operations due to financial difficulties. Antioch only reopened two years ago. Right now, Cooper Union in New York City is in the midst of turmoil because its leaders decided they had to charge tuition for the first time in its 154-year history.
Those may seem like extreme examples. But American higher education today is facing serious challenges. Because of financial, competitive, and demographic pressures some small colleges—including names we all know—will likely not exist in their current form 15 years from now. Or they will disappear.
So why has Oberlin not only endured but flourished?
The success of our college—of any college, for that matter—depends partly on how it responds to crises or short-term problems. Throughout its history, Oberlin has responded to such things by staying true to its mission and by reaffirming its values.
Our mission is to achieve—and to enable our students and faculty to achieve—academic, artistic and musical excellence. And, as our Strategic Plan states: “ Our excellence encompasses the highest standards for liberal and musical education and diversity, inclusiveness, and social engagement.” That is what we stand for and what we do.
We made national news this semester because of something completely antithetical to our mission—a series of racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic incidents here on our campus. Those disgusting acts of vandalism and harassment caused considerable pain to our students, our faculty, our staff, and our alumni. I was a target of some of this hatred.
The media focused on these incidents at Oberlin precisely because of our legacy of inclusion. The media paid less notice when we identified suspects and initiated disciplinary proceedings.
Unfortunately, such events are not unique to Oberlin. Prejudice and ignorance can be found around the world, including at other top colleges. To those of us who live, work, and study here, Oberlin can seem like an idyllic bubble floating in its own orbit. But we, in fact, are more connected to the wider world than ever before—for better and for worse.
What stands out amidst these incidents is not the hatred, but Oberlin’s response to it. Led largely by our students, we came together to teach, to learn, to listen, and to appreciate our wide range of viewpoints and life experiences. Our community turned these events into an educational opportunity.
We suspended classes and held a Day of Solidarity. It included an all-campus gathering here in Finney Chapel. That convocation was emotionally charged, brutally frank, but respectful and moving. That day, and that event, sparked meaningful discussions about the difficult topics of diversity and inclusion at our school and in our society. Those discussions continue.
By reaffirming our values and working together, we will find ways to improve the College and the Conservatory and make this an even stronger community. I think our founders and Oberlin forebears would be pleased that the determination to do good in the world still resonates at the core of our institutional identity.
How an institution of higher education responds to crises in the near term is important. Ultimately, however, a college’s greatness depends on its quality, its reputation, and its continuing relevance.
Oberlin’s quality is outstanding. We are unique among small liberal arts colleges in that we have an excellent college of arts and sciences, a world-class conservatory of music, and one of the top teaching art museums to be found on any campus.
Those assets are employed by our tremendously talented faculty. Our professors are teachers, scholars, scientists, performers and artists who take deep personal interest in their students’ education and development.
I’ve met with alumni of all ages. Time and again, I’ve heard that studying with an Oberlin professor—whether it was history with Steve Volk, biochemistry with Rebecca Whelan, or singing with Marlene Rosen or Daune Mahy—changed that young person’s life.
Graduates younger and older—including some of you—have told me similar stories. Oberlin professors shaped your intellect, your analytical skills, your appreciation of art and music, your determination to excel and to create, and your dedication to helping others. Teachers such as Freddie Artz, Ellen Johnson, Norm Craig, Helen Hodam, Milton Yinger, Ben Lewis, George Simpson, Booker Peek, and Adrienne Lash Jones pushed you, challenged you, and inspired you to work harder than you thought possible. Another theme I often hear from alumni is that the depth, breadth, and rigor of their Oberlin experience gave them an advantage in graduate or professional school over students from other colleges.
Great teaching is the cornerstone of our reputation as a leading liberal arts college. The opportunity to study directly with brilliant teachers is why top-flight students come to Oberlin.
This year, for example, the College of Arts and Sciences received a record number of applications. In the fall, we will welcome 780 students as the Class of 2017. The quality of that class is excellent. It includes 27 National Merit Scholars and 37 extraordinarily qualified double-degree students. The Conservatory of Music also had an exceptional admissions year. Forty-six percent of its incoming students received the top audition score. In the Class of 2017, 24 percent identify as American students of color. We expect to enroll 61 foreign students. And we have already enrolled 56 sons and daughters of Oberlin graduates.
Those results are typical for Oberlin. We attract strong students. Once here, they do amazing things. This year, for example, our students received 16 Fulbright Fellowships, and another seven Oberlin students remain on the alternate list. According to our records, this is the highest total ever awarded to Oberlin. Beyond that, two of our undergraduates have won United States-United Kingdom Fulbright Commission Summer Institute awards.
Congratulations to our students, their faculty advisers and mentors, and Dean of Studies Kathryn Stuart and her staff on this brilliant showing. The Fulbrights also speak to Oberlin’s long-standing international orientation.
Our science students have also received impressive awards. Graduating senior Gail Schwieterman , a biology major from Columbus, Ohio, will spend a year as a Watson fellow traveling the world to investigate conservation efforts to curb the overfishing of sharks and other marine life. Her classmate Billy Broderick, a neuroscience and mathematics double major from Wilmington, Delaware, has been named a 2013 Luce Scholar.
Rising senior Molly Martorella is a neuroscience and chemistry double major from Winchendon, Massachusetts. She is also one of greatest track athletes Oberlin has known. Molly competed in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races at the NCAA Division III National Championship meet. This summer she will be at Johns Hopkins University working with the leading expert on memory as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer intern.
Our conservatory students also do remarkable things. The conservatory’s winter-term residency in New York City—including a concert by the orchestra in Carnegie Hall—was a tremendous success. The New York Times gave the concerts a very positive review.
Oberlin soloists have also received accolades recently. Just a few weeks ago, Oberlin swept the viola category at the 2013 American String Teachers Association National Solo Competition. Violists Aaron Mossburg ’13 and Daniel Orsen ’16 won—respectively—the junior and senior divisions.
Our art history students are always an impressive group. In April, a number of them presented at the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s spectacular, interdisciplinary symposium, “Religion, Ritual and Performance in the Renaissance.”
Just a few days after that symposium, the country’s top labor economists, including several generations of alumni, gathered here for Learning and Labor Economics. That conference marked three milestones — the 100th anniversary of the economics major at Oberlin; the 70th anniversary of the graduation of Albert Rees ’43, one of the giants of labor economics; and the 50th year of Professor Hirschel Kasper’s teaching at Oberlin.
Since this is Oberlin, and many of you are Oberlinians, these events and accomplishments may seem routine. But that is not true. Yes, we expect our students to excel. Yes, there is always so much going on here. But we must not forget how the arts and sciences, and the museum, and the conservatory energize and enhance each other. Each leverages the other’s strengths to create a unique intellectual and educational climate where excellence and innovation grow and flourish.
It is important that we not take those synergies for granted because they are part of what sets an Oberlin education apart. What other liberal arts college in this country—or anywhere in the world—has the teaching, the talent, the resources, and the resolve to stage events such as those symposia or the residency in New York City? What other liberal arts college can offer such powerful educational assets to its students, faculty, and alumni?
The accomplishments of Oberlin’s students, faculty and graduates have given us an international reputation as a serious, rigorous school where the students work very hard. I knew Oberlin’s reputation when I came here. Still, I was amazed by how serious and earnest most of the students are. Mudd Library always seems full, even on weekend evenings. Classroom discussions regularly continue in the halls of King or Peters or in Decafé.
Oberlin’s science departments make huge contributions to our reputation for excellence. Since the late 19th century, Oberlin has consistently produced outstanding chemists, physicists, biologists, zoologists, geologists, and neuroscientists. Three became Nobel laureates. Another four were awarded MacArthur Fellowships, popularly known as genius grants. Oberlin grads have received a total of nine MacArthurs since the awards were created in 1984. The most recent awardee was Clair Chase ’01. Ms. Chase is not a scientist. She is a flautist, new-music pioneer, and arts entrepreneur. She received her MacArthur in October 2011.
Oberlin’s strength in the sciences was highlighted a few days ago, when I received information about the number of Oberlin graduates who are currently members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. This data was compiled by Bill Schopf, from the Class of 1963, and Rich Lenski, from the Class of 1977. Bill is a professor of evolution and paleobiology at UCLA. Rich is a MacArthur winner and a professor of evolutionary biology at Michigan State.
Both are members of the academy. So are 19 other Oberlin grads including Nobel laureate Stanley Cohen—the great biochemist and physiologist from the Class of 1945.
Those 21 scientists account for one percent of the total National Academy of Sciences membership. For a school Oberlin’s size to produce so many top scientists is astonishing. No other liberal arts college comes anywhere close.
Why does Oberlin produce so many superb scientists? Because for more than a century, we have had science professors who are committed to teaching, to research, and to staying current in their fields. That means from the day a student walks into an Oberlin science classroom or lab, even for an introductory course, he or she is working closely with a first-rate scientist.
That also means that even as first-years, our students get opportunities to become engaged in independent research. Students at larger universities usually don’t get those opportunities until they are juniors or seniors, if then.
So at Oberlin, students start becoming scientists the moment they enter an introductory course. But that is only part of it. Because this is Oberlin, students are also engaged with the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts. That engagement broadens their thinking. It pushes them to look at the world from multiple perspectives. They learn to see connections between disciplines. They come to see how science, music, history, politics, economics, art, and literature interact. That enhances their creativity and their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.
More of our graduates go on to earn PhDs than those of any other four-year baccalaureate college in the country. We have led that category for many years. One-third of those PhDs are in science.
Those benchmarks of Oberlin’s excellence in teaching, scholarship, and musicianship provide major support for our reputation as a great college. They also attest to the third pillar of our greatness as an institution of higher education: Oberlin’s enduring relevance.
By relevance, I do not mean that everything we teach is aimed at preparing Oberlin graduates for specific jobs. That would be shortsighted and contrary to our tradition of educating the whole person. Studies show that current college graduates will likely change careers 15 times in their lives. They will make 11 career changes before turning 40.
That is why what we do is so important. Our goal, and our mission as a unique liberal arts institution, is to help our students have meaningful, considered lives, to enable them to flourish in multiple careers, and to encourage them to be engaged citizens of their communities and the world.
We do this by teaching our students to become lifelong learners who are their own best teachers. We teach them to take intellectual risks and to think laterally—to understand how the humanities, the arts, and the sciences inform, enrich, and affect each other. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across the academic disciplines, Oberlin students learn to better reason, analyze, and express their creativity and their ideas. They are capable of thinking and acting globally and locally.
Those attributes are worth attaining in and of themselves. They are also critically important for our graduates’ future success in this globalized, technologically driven economy. A survey in April of this year of 318 executives at private sector companies and nonprofit organizations by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, underscored the importance of what Oberlin does. It showed that the attributes of Oberlin alumni are exactly what those leaders value in their employees and seek in the people they hire. Four out of five employers said each college graduate should have broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
Because Oberlin has the conservatory and the art museum, the education we offer is of unparalleled breadth and depth. The Conservatory of Music’s world-class professional training, for example, is enriched and enhanced by the curricular and cocurricular offerings of the College of Arts and Sciences. That enables the con to produce leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs such as eighth blackbird, the contemporary classical group, which recently won its third Grammy award. Or Jeremy Denk, the acclaimed pianist and blogger from the Class of 1990. Or Robert Spano, Class of 1984, the brilliant music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Aspen Music Festival.
In recent years, we have worked to give our graduates an edge in the highly competitive job market by expanding our cocurricular opportunities. In addition to winter term and summer internships, these now include the Cole Scholars internships for electoral politics, the Oberlin Business Scholars, the Oberlin Law Scholars, the Health Careers Program, and our entrepreneurship program, the Creativity & Leadership Project. These programs give our students an insider’s view of specific fields and direct contact with Oberlin alumni who are leaders in their fields.
How Oberlin prepares students for life in a world of rapid technological change and exponentially expanding knowledge is not a new topic. William E. Stevenson, the college’s eighth president, spoke about it at a special Convocation in October 1958, celebrating Oberlin’s 125th anniversary. Looking to the future, President Stevenson said, Oberlin must resist anything that might dilute the quality of education, lower educational standards, or divert from Oberlin’s mission.
He also expressed his hope that Oberlin would show leadership “in reconciling the finest inheritances from the past with the most compelling needs of the present and of the future—and—most important of all—in aiming high in hope and in deed and in meeting—without smugness or complacency—new challenges with resiliency, with imagination, with vision, and with fortitude. With such a resolute spirit, Oberlin will continue to be an important safeguard of a dynamic democracy.”
I believe William Stevenson would agree that today’s Oberlin is fulfilling his vision. As an example of the continuing relevance of our mission, allow me to quote from a speech by one of our faculty members, Steven S. Volk, professor of history. These words are from Steve’s acceptance speech when he was named Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year in 2011.
Yes, I speak from a privileged position of teaching at a highly selective liberal arts college, but the roots of our educational system are deeply grounded in the promises of democracy not in the amount of tuition a student can pay.
Our job as teachers, at every level and in every circumstance, is to cultivate the creativity of all students who come through our doors; to link education to democratic values, to teach our students as if our future depended on it—because it does. Our students are not products, commodities or statistics—they are the future and it is our job—no, it is our privilege—to teach each one as if he or she were our own child; to dream no less for them than we do for our own children.
That is who we are and what we do at Oberlin College and Conservatory.
What distinguishes Oberlin from so many other top colleges and universities is our fundamental belief in providing worthy students, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances, with access to our educational excellence.
An Oberlin education has never been just for children of the wealthy. Throughout our history, we have welcomed thousands of young people from low income and middle class backgrounds. Many of them are the first generation of their family to attend college.
Along with the attributes of greatness—quality, reputation, and enduring relevance—Oberlin has a wonderful place in history. We were the first college to admit students of color as a matter of policy, and the first to admit women to a coeducational experience.
Dr. Johnnetta Cole ’57 is director of the Smithsonian Institution's African Art Museum, and president emerita of Spelman College. She shared her thoughts on what Oberlin’s history, quality and values have meant in her life:
“I remain profoundly grateful for three priceless gifts that my alma mater gave me. When I arrived at Oberlin I was 16 and had lived all of my life in the segregated south. At Oberlin I experienced the power and the joy of living and learning among diverse people. Oberlin affirmed what my family and my community had taught me about the importance of service to others and social activism. And it was at Oberlin that I discovered Cultural Anthropology, a field that continues to inform how I live and work.”
Another hallmark of a great college is that it nurtures great teachers, great scholars, and great leaders, such as Dr. Cole.
This year, two of our leaders, our academic deans, will depart to become presidents of other institutions. Both made a real difference here and shall be missed.
David Stull, a member of the Class of 1989 who earned a double-degree in tuba performance and English, returned to his alma mater 13 years ago as associate dean of the conservatory. He has served as dean for the past nine years. During that time, he elevated the conservatory’s reputation to new heights around the world. He was an outstanding fundraiser and the visionary force behind numerous initiatives, including construction of the remarkable Kohl Building, which is home to our jazz studies program.
Sean Decatur has served as dean of the college for five years. He has also made significant contributions to the college as a professor of chemistry, as a mentor to 55 students, and as a thoughtful public voice commenting on trends in higher education and the liberal arts.
As dean, Sean has strengthened faculty, led efforts to reinforce the rigor of our curricular and cocurricular offerings, and helped bring about the adoption of a new course-credit system across the institution. He was also instrumental in securing major funding for initiatives throughout the College of Arts and Sciences from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
I know they will be outstanding leaders. We are blessed to have fine interim deans—Joyce Babyak for the college, Andrea Kalyn for the conservatory. And we are launching full national searches for permanent replacements.
While many good things are happening, we must never take for granted Oberlin’s standing as a great college. This is a perilous time in American higher education. Every day, iconic, historic institutions are disappearing or fading away. Oberlin’s greatness and its survival are not guaranteed. We are facing challenges. Some—such as high cost—are shared by all small liberal arts colleges. Others are specific to Oberlin.
Oberlin’s two biggest challenges are our location and finances. As you know, Oberlin is a small place built on the flat, glaciated landscape of northeast Ohio. We love Oberlin. And, in all modesty, we are the best school in Ohio, and one of the greatest in the world. But only about 8 percent of our students come from this state. And the population of northeast Ohio is declining.
The families of most of our students do not live within a day’s drive of campus. Technology helps us recruit, and helps our students stay in touch with their loved ones. But these days, most students and families prefer to visit. So, we have to do more to entice people to visit.
That is why we continue to invest in building this community. The fates of the college and the city of Oberlin are inextricably linked. Making Oberlin even more dynamic helps us attract and retain the best students, faculty and staff. Through the Oberlin Project and the plans to create a Green Arts District we are working to make Oberlin a global model of carbon neutrality and sustainable economic development centered on education and the arts.
I want to acknowledge and thank David Orr for his remarkable vision and tremendous leadership in creating those initiatives and moving them forward. Thank you, David.
The renovation of the Apollo Theatre is an example of our commitment. With support from our students, faculty, alumni, parents, and friends, we’ve made it a beautiful, state-of-the-art theater and much more. It is now home to our cinema studies program, and has a dynamic media education center benefiting the entire community.
Contemporary Oberlin’s greatness depends on the individual and collective efforts of thousands of people. Some work or live here, while others are scattered across the globe.
These men and women use their talents and resources to help keep us strong and to build a bright future for Oberlin. Many of them are involved in multiple ways. They are donors. They are alumni volunteers, including those who interview prospective students. They organize our alumni clubs and events. Some are members of the Alumni Council and Alumni Association.
Others serve as trustees, or members of the President's Advisory Council, or the Parents and Families’ Council, or the Friends of the Library, or the Visiting Committee of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Some actively support the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival or the Friends of the Apollo Theatre.
Oberlin athletics have been steadily improving, thanks in part to support from the Heisman Club. Its members raise funds and serve as mentors to our student-athletes.
Alumni volunteers power the Cole Scholars, the Oberlin Business Scholars, and the other internship programs I mentioned earlier.
Jacqueline A. Berrien, Class of 1983, is chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At an alumni event in April in Washington, D.C., she spoke eloquently about how she was supported and mentored by a number of Oberlin alums, especially Bill Robinson, from the Class of 1963. Bill was on the Board of Trustees and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee when Ms. Berrien was at Oberlin.
Writing to a young alum she now mentors, Ms. Berrien said of Bill Robinson:
“He was one of the first lawyers I ever met and the first person who talked to me about working on civil rights cases. He has been, and remains, very supportive of me and my professional pursuits. I am now blessed to be in a position where I can do for others what Bill and other mentors did for me. I pray and trust that you will do the same when have the opportunity. ”
I know many Oberlin alumni, including many of you, serve as mentors and participate in so many more ways. This is very important because a relatively small number of our alumni and friends live within easy driving distance of Oberlin. So your help in bringing talented students to campus, as well as in building an attractive, thriving downtown and community is very much appreciated. Enduring institutions need many supporters.
Finances are Oberlin’s other big challenge. Being a residential liberal arts college is expensive. We not only teach our students. We feed, house, care for their physical and emotional health, support and entertain them. We are proud that the student support we provide today is greater than ever before in Oberlin history. But providing it is expensive.
We also take great pride in our commitment to providing access and financial aid to deserving students. But that, too, carries a high price.
About 75 percent of our students receive some form of aid. The cost of that aid will be about $59 million in the coming academic year. Some of that money comes from alumni giving. But a significant portion comes from our endowment.
It currently stands at approximately $720 million. While it is moving in the right direction, it still trails the endowments of some of our peer schools.
Moving forward, it is crucially important that we maintain our commitments to access and financial aid, and to providing the very best in undergraduate teaching. We need to pay competitive salaries if we are to recruit and retain high quality faculty.
Oberlin’s single greatest benefactor remains Charles Martin Hall, who invented the modern process for extracting aluminum from bauxite ore. His genius and largesse—just over $250 million in today’s dollars—surround us: Tappan Square, Hall Auditorium, the Arboretum, and the art and artifacts in the collections of the Allen Memorial Art Museum.
Today, no single Oberlin donor rivals Charles Martin Hall. It is going to take all of us to equal his generosity and create a lasting legacy of our own. This past September, we launched Oberlin Illuminate—a comprehensive campaign designed to address the challenges I’ve outlined and ensure Oberlin remains a great institution for the next 180 years.
Oberlin Illuminate’s goal of $250 million was set during the Great Recession. While that is a considerable sum, we need to surpass that goal to safeguard Oberlin’s future. We have raised approximately $180 million and are about a year ahead of schedule.
That success is the result of gifts from nearly 31,000 donors, including alumni, faculty and staff, parents, organizations, and friends of the college. A majority of our faculty have given to the campaign. Our students are also supportive. This year’s senior gift is $16,892, and for the fifth year in a row our seniors have set a new record for participation.
We thank all of you who are part of this campaign for the future.
What will these funds do? The campaign’s five priorities center on Oberlin’s mission and values. They are:
Oberlin’s mission is as compelling today as it was when Shipherd and Stewart founded the town and college. The institution that has grown from their vision is extraordinary. We still believe in offering an outstanding liberal education to students regardless of their race, creed, color, gender or socio-economic circumstances. We still believe that an Oberlin education is the best way to create tomorrow’s leaders.
As it has since 1833, Oberlin creates leaders by teaching students to respect and learn from their differences, and by preparing them to engage with the most difficult issues facing humankind. Oberlin’s continuing leadership in promoting sustainability and social progress grow from those historic roots.
Our quality, reputation, and continuing relevance were built by generations of Oberlinians. Like you, they took the education and ethos of social engagement that Oberlin instills and used it to transform the wider world.
Your lives were transformed here. You, in turn, transformed other lives in historic, profound, and important ways. That is why Oberlin is great. With your help that greatness will endure. And Oberlin, our Oberlin, will continue to educate, illuminate, and inspire people the world over for centuries to come.
Marvin Krislov is president of Oberlin College and Conservatory.
He delivered the 2013 State of the College Address on Sunday, May 26, in Finney Chapel.