Efforts to secure publicity for Oberlin College occurred as early as 1835 when the corresponding secretary of the Board of Trustees published the announcement of two appointments and reported on the establishment of professorships in Pastoral Theology and Sacred Rhetoric (Trustees Minutes, May 29, 1835). In 1856, the first concerted effort to reach the general public was made when the Prudential Committee raised the subject of the Faculty writing articles about the College for newspapers in the East and West (Prudential Committee Minutes, March 27, 1856). These occasional forays into developing publicity for the College illustrate the sporadic and haphazard nature of the activity.
Throughout the late 19th century local newspapers (e.g., Oberlin News, The Owl, The Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer) offered infrequent coverage of College events. In order to remedy the situation, a Faculty press committee (Committee on Outside Representation and Newspaper Correspondence) was established to explore possibilities for spreading the word about Oberlin. The student body chipped in as well, when it chartered the Oberlin College Press Club in 1892. The stated goals of the Press Club were to encourage the study of journalism and "secure and control representation for college events in outside journals" (Oberlin Review, December 7, 1892, p.205). The Press Club achieved a modicum of success the following year when the Cleveland Plain Dealer began regularly publishing College news in the Monday edition. That same year the Faculty voted to grant credit on required work in rhetoric "for correspondence concerning Oberlin sent to local papers" (Oberlin Review, May 17, 1893, p.558).
During the administration of President John Henry Barrows (1847-1902), the College employed James H. Ross to insert occasional Oberlin news items in eastern papers. Ross was perhaps the first paid publicist in Oberlin's history. The creation of the Office of the Secretary in 1900 shifted some of the publicity burden to this new Corporate Office. In 1908 President Henry Churchill King (1858-1934) and Secretary George M. Jones (1870-1948) reviewed the handling of publicity at Oberlin. They streamlined the Faculty Committee on Newspaper Correspondence and named newly appointed Professor of English Philip D. Sherman (1881-1957) as the Committee's chairman.
Sherman gave some ten hours per week to publicity activity. In recognition of the growing newspaper work, the Board of Trustees authorized a desk to be set aside for Sherman in the office of the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. He also was provided stenographic help. By 1912-13 the work of the Committee was expanded. Frederick Stiven (1887-1947), a member of the Conservatory of Music Faculty, joined the Committee. He acted as the publicist for the Conservatory. Stiven also began the practice of sending special items to home newspapers, "placing Oberlin before a new and important constituency, hitherto wholly neglected by the Committee" (Sherman Staff File). All athletic publicity, however, was left up to area newspapers to contract with Oberlin students to report on athletic contests.
In 1914-15 the Faculty Committee was renamed the News Bureau Committee. Sherman continued as chairman. In the annual report for that year, Sherman reported that 403 columns equivalent to 67,000 aggregate lines of Oberlin news were printed during 1913-14, in 51 newspapers and magazines. Sherman's document, which included the results of a survey sent to over 50 representative colleges and universities, reported that a majority of these institutions had well organized and fully staffed publicity bureaus. The press was increasingly being seen by these colleges, concluded Sherman, as a useful and legitimate aid in their development.
The paid position of College Photographer was created in 1917. The role of the photographer was to portray campus events, organizations and faculty and students. Pictures were used in the Alumni Magazine and in calendars produced by the College. The first photographer was Arthur Ludwig Princehorn (1870-1931). He was assisted by his son Arthur E. Princehorn (b.1904), who took over following his father's death and served until 1969. At the time many of the faculty and staff portraits were prepared in local studios (e.g., Andrew Stofan and T. J. Rice).
During Professor Sherman's absence on sabbatical in 1919-20, Presidential Assistant William F. Bohn (1878-1947) served as the chairman of the News Bureau Committee. Bohn's service was not a radical departure from his routine duties. In fact, when the position of presidential assistant was authorized in 1902, the by-laws stated the main duty as expanding the College's supporting constituencies and cultivating new sources of development. By 1920 it was estimated that the value of the News Bureau's work for one year was equivalent to $34,000 worth of paid publicity.
The financial and developmental campaign of 1923, Oberlin's first concerted effort at fund-raising, relegated the News Bureau to obscurity. The Cleveland firm of Tamblyn and Brown was contracted to handle the College's public relations services during the campaign. In his annual report for 1923-24, the College Secretary called attention to the omission of the valuable work done by the News Bureau and recommended that the College should consider restoration of the Bureau.
Beginning with the 1928-29 budget, costs for the News Bureau were transferred from the Office of the Secretary's budget to the Assistant to the President's budget. The Trustees made additional appropriations for the work of the Publicity Bureau, which made possible the appointment of the first full-time assistant. Dorothy Hall (b.1908, A.B. '27, AM '28) held the position for five years, from 1930-35, and reported to Bohn who was chairman of the Publicity Bureau. Between 1932 and 1935 her duties also included charge of the Alumni Office.
Allen Bailey ('36), named as the secretary of the Publicity Bureau in 1936, held the position until 1942. Using the assistance of WPA (Works Progress Administration) and FERA (Federal Emergency Recovery Administration) student assistants, Bailey set about organizing the Publicity Bureau. He developed a "morgue file" of photographs and clippings, sent out biographical forms for faculty and students to complete and updated the lecture bureau. He also managed radio programs for Oberlin College which appeared on Mutual Radio and NBC, began the chapel news service to mimeograph and distribute chapel speeches. Bailey's most significant
accomplishment however, was his office's handling of the celebration for the Centennial of Coeducation in 1937. The Centennial's public relations effort called for sending out releases to hundreds of newspapers, agencies and individuals. The celebration was covered by radio stations and reporters from major newspapers.
In 1952, as a result of an administrative survey of Oberlin College made by the management engineering firm of Cresap, McCormick and Paget, President William E. Stevenson (1900-1985) authorized a restructuring of the Publicity Bureau. The Bureau was reconfigured as the Public Relations Office and made a separate administrative office. News releases were overseen by a Director of the News Bureau, with the remaining publicity work dealt with by the Director of Public Relations. Ella Parmenter (1892-1991, '15), who had been the Secretary of the Publicity Bureau from 1943 to 1952, became the Director of the News Bureau, serving until her retirement in 1958. Paul M. Douglas (b.1918) was named as the new Director of Public Relations in 1953. Douglas came to the position after serving as Assistant to the President the previous year, primarily handling public relations.
Discontinuities within the directorship contributed to a succession of short-term directors of Public Relations between 1953 and 1971. In addition to Douglas, the Department was run by J. Robert Williams (1958-62), Walter E. Reeves (1963-69), and Phil Tear (1969-71). Along with the problems associated with changing directors, the functional duties and responsibilities of the Office were also frequently changed. The department assumed a larger role in preparing and producing College publications. Responsibility for many established handbooks, bulletins and catalogs were turned over to the Department from other administrative offices, such as the Office of the Secretary, while other new publications were started, including Oberlin Today, and The Oberlin Letter. In 1962, as a direct result of the administrative reorientation outlined by the Board of Trustees in the "Gladieux Report," of 1960, a new position, Director of Publications was added, increasing the full-time staff to four members.
In 1971, a measure of stability was provided through the appointment of James Lubetkin (b. 1942, '64) as Director of Publications. Lubetkin's return to campus occurred at a crucial time, in the midst of campus unrest, and at the beginning of the Robert W. Fuller (1971-74) administration. Lubetkin's tenure was characterized by the increasing need to make Oberlin attractive to the diminishing number of college-age students, bringing Oberlin into the national eye. Throughout Lubetkin's tenure the Public Relations office was plagued by the demands of a national institution with the constraints of a small college budget.
Among the first actions taken by Oberlin's twelfth President, S. Frederick Starr (b.1941), was in the area of elevating public relations. Starr's plan was to have college communications and public relations joined into the Office of Communications. The reorganization consolidated the independent offices of information into one building, a house at 153 West Lorain Street. Program units housed there included the college relations office, news services, college photographer, graphic design, the Observer, and the #Alumni Magazine. The new Office was administered by a Director of Communications. The first director was Barbara Chalsma, who was appointed as the successor to Lubetkin in 1984. Chalsma left in 1990 and was replaced by Al Moran that same year.
During the 1980s staff functions were increasingly specialized within the Office of Communications. Additional writers were added to the staff to increase national awareness of Oberlin and attract new students in a time of renewal. Utilizing modern technologies production of College publications was centralized. The Office of Communications began working closely with other campus offices such as the Admissions Office to create a new series of viewbooks, and admissions videos.
In 1997 the unit was renamed the Office of College Relations, under which it operated until the end of the 2007-2008 academic year. At the beginning of the 2008-2009 academic year the name was changed back to the Office of Communications.
For a history of the Alumni Magazine, see “Oberlin Alumni Magazine- Celebrating 100 Years,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine (Fall 2004), pages 16-22.
DIRECTORS OF COLLEGE PUBLICITY
(1908-29 Publicity handled by Committee on Newspaper Correspondence)
Secretaries of the Publicity Bureau
1930-35 Dorothy Hall
1935 Gratia Sharp
1936-42 Allen C. Bailey
1943-52 Ella C. Parmenter
Directors of Public Relations
1953-57 Paul M. Douglas
1958-62 J. Robert Williams
1963-69 Walter E. Reeves
1969-71 Phil Tear
Director of College Information
1971-84 Jim Lubetkin
Director/Vice President of Communications
1984-90 Barbara Chalsma
1990-2008 Al Moran (College Relations, 1997-2008)
2008- Ben Jones