CHAPTER IV: THE LIMITS OF COMMUNITY
That is a lot of what we were talking about -- Oberlin as a community as opposed to Oberlin as a corporation.
-- Tim Craine, class of 1965
In April 1963, partly in response to student demands, the faculty passed a plan called Saturday Night Calling Hours (SNCH) for a trial period. This plan allowed men, with two-thirds approval of their section, to invite women into their dorm rooms on Saturdays between 8 p.m. and midnight. Although many in the administration and faculty saw this as a major concession to students, most students saw this as only a small modification of social rules. Nevertheless, it seemed to vindicate the idea that students’ perspectives would be considered in policymaking and thus served to mute protest. There were also some other small changes in social rules. Women’s hours expanded significantly and the prohibition on 3.2 beer was lifted. A Dean of Students position was created to help improve communication between the administration and students.
In May 1964, the faculty voted 77-33 to discontinue Saturday Night Calling Hours. Neither sympathetic faculty nor students had anticipated this decision. In the aftermath of the vote, students attempted to understand why faculty members had voted as they did. It was suggested that abuses of the policy were to blame and that faculty did not think student enforcement had been effective. Interviews by Joint Board with section officers had found a reluctance to turn in offenders. Many faculty members seemed concerned about whether opportunities for sexual encounters had increased with the program, although College physicians had not found conclusive evidence of such an increase. Interestingly, a poll of parents had found that a majority supported the program. Within an hour of the vote, a large group of frustrated students convened to organize protest, but by the following weekend preparation for final exams had taken priority. An Arch 7:30 was held, but it did not draw anything approaching the 500 students who attended the first meeting.
The repeal of SNCH served to convince activists that it was time to stop begging the faculty and administration to listen to them and to start taking matters into their own hands. An editorial written in the days after the decision stated that the rejection,
impresses us only with the near-impossibility of obtaining social change on the campus and the apparent lack of contact the faculty has with the mood and mores of the students . . . the proper ‘channels of social change’... do not seem to afford us any progress . . . we would find it exceedingly difficult to condemn attempts to work above and beyond the channels.
In the eyes of many students, the faculty and administration had now forfeited their right to work with students on these issues, and it was time for students to implement their own solutions.
The idea of holding a Student Congress came from a National Student Association proposal in 1964. Students began attempting to organize a Student Congress that fall, and after the idea was taken up by Student Council members the Congress was planned for March of 1965. Tim Craine remembered that in the back of their minds organizers thought, “If this is done right, it could lead to a big social explosion this spring where we can really mobilize students to get out and demonstrate and really try to influence the Board of Trustees.” The goal of the Student Congress was to “develop the consensus of the student body on problems at Oberlin.” Representation was one delegate for every ten students to ensure that the delegation would truly reflect student opinion. In February over one thousand students attended a rally to kick off Congress activity. Two hundred and eighty delegates were elected. The delegates narrowly elected Tim Craine, Student Council President, to be President of the Congress. His opponent, Pete Anderson, a more conservative student, was selected to be Vice President. The delegates divided into five committees to study specific issues and write proposals. These committees heard from students, faculty and administration in formulating their ideas. In a final session, the entire Congress voted on all the proposals. Those that were approved were compiled into the Student Congress report.
Tim Craine expressed his feeling that one goal “should be to modify the decision-making procedure to give students democratic control.” The ideas about community and student power that had spawned the April 1963 demonstration against Carr’s policies were intimately related to the reasons for the Student Congress. As we have seen, participatory democracy was an important part of what students meant by community, and the Congress attempted to realize this ideal through broad representation. This way there could be no doubt about the desires of the student body and the administration could not argue that only a small percentage of students were unhappy with College policies.
The Congress stimulated discussion on a wide variety of campus issues and generated a range of proposals. On education, the Congress approved non-graded courses, higher average grades, changes in introductory courses, a decreased student-faculty ratio through hiring of new faculty, changes in the academic calendar including the addition of a reading period, increased opportunities for independent study and study away from Oberlin, interdisciplinary majors, and an evaluation of the level of academic pressure. These proposals represented student attempts to improve the educational atmosphere, a major part of their experience. The introduction to this section of the Congress report urged that the College “must be willing to innovate and experiment to find new ways to motivate students and personalize the scope and nature of their study.” The Congress argued that students, not just faculty, had much to contribute to discussions about educational policy.
In the realm of social rules, the Student Congress endorsed proposals for open men’s dormitories, an alcohol policy that matched state laws, judicial boards comprised of two-thirds students and one-third faculty which would have final say over all social rules infractions, expansion of freshman women’s hours, and the elimination of hours for senior women. The report emphasized, “[T]he lack of meaningful student participation in the determination of regulations multiplies student disrespect for those regulations and further retards the growth of ‘social responsibility’ in individuals.” They also stressed the need for more privacy on campus.
The Housing and Building portion of the Student Congress report expressed students’ desire for a third co-op, replacement of housemothers by senior residents, buildings to be used for social functions, continuation of off-campus housing for men at the present level and offering this option to women, four class dormitories, and a wide variety of extremely specific proposals related to particular building projects, including the new dorms, library, and gymnasium. These proposals demonstrated the level of student interest in all the workings of the College and their understanding that small things like dorm room furnishings can have a large impact on students’ experiences.
In retrospect, the two most significant sections of the Student Congress report are those on the changing College and the College power structure because they show how students understood what the College was and should become, as well as the place of students within it. The report opens by stating that “it is imperative for Oberlin to preserve the educational community instituted more than a century ago. It is because we cherish this community that we have convened a Student Congress to investigate its current status.” Student power was essential to this goal because “removing control of local policy from the campus itself discourages the kind of concern for College planning conducive to community spirit.” The Congress criticized the administration’s concern with the image of the College because this attitude went against what they perceived as the ideals of Oberlin. Students saw conscience as more important than popularity and they looked back to the days when Oberlin supported abolition even though it was not a popular position.
Because they valued community, the Student Congress advocated expansion of the co-op system. The report also included ways to improve student communication with alumni, faculty and the administration as a means to enhance community. The most notable endorsement of the community ideal was in the proposal for a Community Council, composed of six students, six faculty members, and three administrations, that would be responsible for all decisions affecting the campus community. The report explained the philosophy behind the Community Council: “Students, administration, and faculty are most immediately involved with and affected by the internal affairs of the community and, therefore, should cooperatively formulate internal college policy.” Students argued that the trustees could not really be a part of the community, since they visited the campus only three times each year, and therefore should only have jurisdiction over financial matters.
The Student Congress was making a direct attack on the power of the trustees because students believed in community control, and because to them, the trustees represented the corporate aspect of the College. This idea of the College as a corporation was embodied in the top-down power structure and the overriding concern with money that seemed to drive many trustee decisions. Considerations about the image of the College were seen as a susceptibility to outside pressure and undermining true community control. The Congress report noted that the spirit of community at Oberlin “has been a joint effort among students, faculty, and administrators.” This statement indicated that student body as a whole was still willing to work with these groups and remained committed to the ideal of community.
There was some tension over the meaning of community in the Student Congress report, however. Radical students were beginning to become frustrated with attempting to work through “proper channels” and were ready to take matters into their own hands. The endorsement of dorm autonomy, in which each dorm would set its own rules, illustrated how community was being redefined. This proposal, rather than seeking to work with the larger Oberlin community, attempted to redefine the relevant community to include only students. The inclusion of dorm autonomy in the Student Congress report, which overall remained oriented toward the larger community ideal, signified the beginning of a shift toward a student-only community and an ideology that focused on student power. It was unclear how dorm autonomy would work in relation to the Community Council, whether the Council or individual dorms would decide social rules. This tension arose because the majority of the student body was not yet ready to give up on working through “proper channels” even though activists were moving in that direction.
In January 1965 the Review ran an editorial reflecting on the April 1963 picket and the seniors who organized it. Seniors of 1965 Jon Lipsky, Anne Speakman, and Roberta Martin Taussig recalled that,
They called for dialogue because they thought they would be heard. Now, their Oberlin has faded, and we, who are the last to have known them, know that they were not heard.... So we no longer argue; we no longer protest; we no longer mourn. The time for disputing the issue is gone, as is the possibility of swaying the decision.
This statement was meant both to echo the sadness of the demonstrators two years earlier and to explain why their efforts failed. The trustees were not interested in incorporating students’ desires. They had already decided the future course of the College and students could accept it or go somewhere else.
This argument that students had chosen to come to Oberlin and could leave if they did not like it appeared frequently. Three trustees expressed this viewpoint in a memo to President Carr in May 1963. Perhaps the best reply was written by Robert Siegel, Class of 1963. Siegel called this the commodity notion of higher education in which, “Like soap, one can shop for the institution that works best. If dissatisfied with one brand, one can always turn to its eager competitors.” He argued that colleges were not like soap, in which there was wide selection on the market and one could simply buy the type one preferred. There were in fact few schools that shared the basic characteristics of Oberlin, an elite, co-ed, liberal arts college with a top-rate conservatory, art museum, and library. According to Siegel, this was where the commodity theory broke down, and why it made much more sense for students to try to change Oberlin than to go somewhere else.
The Student Congress also considered how to implement their resolutions, and decided that Congress leaders should meet with President Carr and the trustees. The Congress wanted to set up a student-faculty committee to consider the resolutions. Toward this end, the leaders requested a meeting with the trustees at their March meeting. The trustees had never met with students before in the history of the College, and President Carr told students that it would be “highly irregular.” One student who met with Carr wrote,
[Carr] compared the College to a business corporation: If a delegation of workers wished to present grievances, he said, they would never appear before the board of directors; instead they would present their demands to the president, or even the vice-president in charge of labor relations. This is the nature of a corporate structure, he told us; the governing board makes decisions by passing on the reports of its officers and its own committees.
This analogy got to the heart of what many students felt was wrong with Oberlin College -- it was being run too much like a corporation. It should be a democratic community.
In the end, under pressure of protest, the trustees granted students a hearing. Students had been prepared to march on the Oberlin Inn, where the trustees were meeting, had their request been denied. After an Arch 7 attended by seven to eight hundred students, Congress leaders gave a thirty-minute presentation to the trustees about the Congress resolutions. At the Arch 7, Tim Craine noted that “Oberlin is an imperfect institution, but it can be made better . . . [the College] is a community of scholars, not a business organization.” While students did not expect immediate action on all their proposals, they hoped that the trustees would set up a student-faculty committee to consider how to implement them.
Students also wanted the trustees to agree to abide by the faculty vote on establishing a third co-op. The faculty had voted over two years before to establish a third co-op, but the trustees had denied the request, requiring that the co-ops first accept housemothers and conform to social rules. Although these requirements had been met, by 1965 a third co-op still had not been established.
The trustees chose not to act on either proposal, which angered many students. A torch-lit march to the President’s house was held in protest of the trustees’ evasion of the proposals and the administration’s failure to adequately explain this action to students. The march attempted to deliver a letter to Carr that requested he address the student body on these issues.
Over 1000 student participated in this march, making it that largest demonstration at Oberlin during the sixties. This high participation was a direct result of the legitimacy of the Student Congress that was achieved through its level of representation. When demands of the Student Council were rejected, students could look on them as an activist minority who had failed. But when the Student Congress, a group that included one delegate for every ten students, was ignored, it was a much more direct blow to the student body.
President Carr agreed to address the campus the following Tuesday, and students were given the opportunity to submit questions. He addressed the issue of community versus corporation:
I have in the past described Oberlin as a “community” to the point where I am beginning to seem overly insistent about the matter . . . On the other hand I am unwilling to see “corporation” consigned to the category of a “smear word.”... I submit that the corporation is one of the western man’s greatest social inventions.
Although Carr made some reasonable points about the virtues of corporation, he did not address the ideas about community and corporation that were meaningful to students. He saw Oberlin as a community because, for example, it was a residential college; he did not consider the democratic element of community that students found so crucial. If he saw any conflict between the ideas of community and corporation, he did not mention them. He attributed the lack of trustee action on the Student Congress’s proposals to the short time for discussion and the great importance of other trustee business. His speech made clear that he thought it was generous of the trustees to meet with the students at all.
Carr appointed a committee to review the Student Congress resolutions and refer them to appropriate standing committees of the College. Made up of four students, four faculty members, and two administrators, the so-called 4-4-2 Committee was similar to what students had asked for with two major exceptions: the members were appointed by Carr instead of selected by the Student Council and the General Faculty, and the trustees had not committed to considering the committee’s findings at their June meeting. Denial of the right to select their own representatives was quite a significant blow to student attempts to achieve more democratic control.
Many students felt extremely frustrated by the outcome of the Student Congress. Nancy McWilliams indicated that the extent of protest was a gauge of that frustration. “It was a very radical thing to do at the time to sit-in, although we did that eventually . . . but we did it only after a long period of trying to ‘go through channels.’” Students believed that they had made every attempt to go through the proper channels over the past two years and had achieved scant results. Some were prepared to give up on those channels altogether, but most still wanted to put more pressure on them. “The channels do not always work in the way they are supposed to, and often they are slow to respond unless under pressure. Thus it is often through extra-channel action or threat of extra-channel action that the channels can begin to flow.”
The shifting ideas about the best way to change the College had important ramifications for ideas about community. According to Craine, “The concept that Oberlin is or ought to be a community rests on the assumption that there are channels through which members of the community can express their points of view and translate their desires into results.” Student activists were no longer satisfied simply to be heard; they wanted to be able to effect change. But most students were not ready to sacrifice the ideal of Oberlin as a community of students, faculty, and administration in order to achieve this goal. “If any single idea has dominated the debate and resolutions of the Student Congress,” observed one student, “it has been that Oberlin College is a COMMUNITY, an independent institution with a distinctive heritage, achieved and maintained through mutual understanding and close cooperation between the various elements of the community.”
One year after the Student Congress, Mitch Cohen, Tom Conrad, Jon Eisen, and Dennis Hale articulated a more radical viewpoint in a paper entitled A History of Student Protest at Oberlin, The Case Against Carr: 1960-66. This paper attempted to present a coherent analysis of Carr’s tenure at Oberlin and the student reaction to it, but it also reflected the rising critique of the community ideal. The authors argued that the power structure of the College in the decades before Carr was feudal in nature, a situation in which power rested primarily with the faculty. They called Carr’s style that of a modern bureaucrat, similar to Clark Kerr, and argued that Carr had attempted to centralize power in the administration.
This structural theory was used to explain the positions of faculty and administrators in the social rules debates. Many older faculty members truly believed in the morality embodied by social rules and genuinely desired to act in loco parentis, caring for the moral development of Oberlin students. For this reason, they desired enforcement of the social rules and were resistant to change. However, Carr, as the bureaucrat, wanted to minimize embarrassing conflicts. Embarrassment could come from lack of social rules or from student protest. This outlook explained why during Carr’s tenure there had not been strict enforcement of rules, which would likely have prompted student protest, nor had there been large changes in the rules, which might have angered parents and alumni. Carr wanted gradual, negotiated change that would minimize unrest.
Cohen, Conrad, Eisen, and Hale went on to argue that the ideal of community was put forth by liberal-moderate students and that the ideal “for most purposes reduces to the theory that an ongoing and mutually acceptable set of power relations exists at Oberlin, and that only minor adjustments are needed to maintain a basically satisfactory arrangement.” It was probably true that most students felt that the power structure of the College was largely benevolent and simply needed to include more student voices, particularly in the area of social rules. Without the conflict over social rules, students most likely would not have pressed the administration so forcefully on other issues.
The emerging radical student viewpoint was that there was not, nor should there be, a true community at Oberlin. Cohen, Conrad, Eisen, and Hale addressed two different ideas of community. The first looked back to the founding days of Oberlin, envisioning the town as one where everyone shared the same values and this value system was enforced. Radicals found this vision of community undesirable because it was harsh, repressive, and stifled individualism.
The second type of community engaged was that of the community of scholars. Cohen, et. al. rejected this vision of community as unrealistic. Instead they argued that Oberlin education was based on professors who knew, students who learned, and little intellectual interplay or excitement. According to this analysis, the community of scholars was meaningless since colleges and universities, including Oberlin, had been taken over by a power structure that wanted to produce a compliant work force and not free-thinking intellectuals.
Finally Cohen, Conrad, Eisen, and Hale suggested that conflict would continue because “it is a real reflection of real differences in values and perceptions.” This statement acknowledged the very different ideas of community held by various segments of the Oberlin population. The conflict over social rules was seen as really about attaining power for students. This paper did not propose a new notion of community to replace the ones it was criticizing. Instead, it advocated a militant notion of student power.
During the mid-sixties the notion of community was in transition. Those who advocated working within the existing power structures of the College were finding this position more and more difficult to defend. After years of attempting change through established channels, frustration was beginning to alter students’ outlook. Community, as students’ had envisioned it, had failed to become a reality.
* * *
The civil rights movement’s efforts to create community were also ultimately unsuccessful. OACR began the fall semester of 1966 by reassessing the role of whites in the civil rights movement in light of the rising black power movement. Although minority enrollment had slightly increased over the past few years, Oberlin, and thus OACR, remained mostly white. For the first time, black students began to take on leadership roles within the organization. Two OACR leaders, Bernie Mayer and William Sherzer, wrote to explain the shifting role of OACR: “We find that a bigger stress is now placed on educational and fund raising functions. We also see ourselves working more now in poor white and integrated communities.”
Combined with the rise of the Vietnam War, black power led to the decrease in civil rights as a major campus issue. Many white students simply took their activist skills to other issues. The most radical students did not cease to be concerned about civil rights, nor were they so naive as to think that the battle had been won. In fact, they realized that for the civil rights movement to move forward strong communities would have to invest in creating change over the long haul. Although short trips South by students had made an important contribution by raising national awareness of civil rights issues, they could no longer be the primary vehicle for advancing civil rights. Communities had to be organized from the inside, not from without.
Oberlin students remained active in service projects within Lorain County and supportive of civil rights activities going on across the country. Had Vietnam not taken much of activists’ energies, it is likely that they would have devoted their time to grassroots work in poor northern communities to an even greater extent. In May 1967, the campus SDS sponsored a conference on poverty. According to Jack Hill, “That was . . . in keeping with the interest in poor neighborhoods, interest in anti-poverty organizing that was going on at that time.”
One event that symbolized this shift in attitude at Oberlin was a trip South over the 1965-1966 winter break. Klansmen shot at a group of Oberlin students, and the students shot back. Members of the Southern community had armed the students for self-defense. Students no longer believed that nonviolence would solve the problems of Southern (or Northern) African Americans. Bernie Mayer, who was one of the students in the group who shot back, recalled this transition:
One of the most painful manifestations of that was at the time that Martin Luther King was assassinated . . . There was a big assembly and there was one guy whose father had actually been an associate of Martin Luther King, but it was a white guy. And he spoke and he was obviously very moved. And then there was basically a black woman who got up there and said look, he had it wrong . . . She criticized his nonviolence, she criticized his willingness to work with whites.
The shift of the movement toward black power was painful to some Oberlin students, but to many others it was understandable. It came directly from the ideas of community control that students had been talking about for years. In the years to come, as black students at Oberlin took on more leadership, black power came to be even more influential in ideas of community and student power at Oberlin.
At the same time the move toward black power was the end of the ideal of the Beloved Community. Accepting this new direction of the civil rights movement meant that the hope for that goal essentially had to be abandoned. To many Oberlin students who had deeply believed in the Beloved Community, this was extremely disappointing. Now the greatest hope for “black and white together” was to be found in occasional alliances between two entirely separate groups. The black power movement rejected the idea that one integrated community was possible or even desirable. At the same time a strong African American community was seen as essential. This shift from one community to separate communities was something that would affect Oberlin students deeply in their understanding of the concept.
During the mid-sixties the student notion of community was undergoing a transformation. There was tension between the hope for an Oberlin community and the failure to fully realize this goal. The most radical students were beginning to reject the idea of forming a singular Oberlin community as impossible and perhaps even undesirable. Yet the outcome of the Student Congress indicated that most students still valued the ideal of an Oberlin community based on participatory democracy. The changing notions of community eventually led to increased emphasis on student power and a separate student community.
Tim Craine, interview.
“Spring 1965: Some New Stirrings,” Oberlin Review, 26 March 1965, 3.
“Evaluation of Saturday Night Calling Hours,” 1964, Committee Files, Dean of Students Records, Box 9, OCA.
Alex Jack, “Arch to Spur SNCH Sign-ins,” Oberlin Review, 26 May 1964, 1 and 4.
“Faculty Rejects Calling Hours Plan,” Oberlin Review, 22 Sept. 1964, 19.
J.L., “Recall of Calling Hours,” Oberlin Review, 26 May 1964, 1.
Tim Craine, interview.
Jeff Bock, “Student Congress Asks for Charter, Sets Date,” Oberlin Review, 15 January 1965, 1.
“Changes Defy Mourners of ‘Old Oberlin,’” Oberlin Review, 12 June 1965, 9.
Bock, “Student Congress,” 1.
“Final Report of the Oberlin Student Congress,” 14-15 March 1965, Student Senate Files, Student Life Group, Box 11, OCA, 10-20.
Jon Lipsky, Anne Sprakman, Roberta Martin Taussig, “Postscript to a Eulogy,” Oberlin Review, 19 January 1965, 2.
Trustees to President Carr, 29 May 1963, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 5, OCA.
Robert Siegel, “The College Commodity,” Counterclockwise, Fall 1964, 25-30.
Mike Faden, “Corporation or Community?” Oberlin Review, 23 March 1965, 2.
“Congress Opens Dialogue with Trustees,” Oberlin Review, 12 June 1965, 12.
Bob Thomas, “Oberlin College Trustees Meet with Student Group,” Lorain Journal, 27 March 1965.
“Congress Opens Dialogue,” 12.
Address by Robert K. Carr to the Students, 30 March 1965, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 7, OCA, 3.
Tim Craine, “On Channels,” Oberlin Review, 2 April 1965, 2.
Nancy McWilliams, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 28 Nov. 2001.
Craine, “On Channels,” 2.
Faden, “Corporation or Community?” 2.
Mitch Cohen, Tom Conrad, Jon Eisen, and Dennis Hale, “A History of Student Protest at Oberlin, The Case Against Carr: 1960-66,” special supplement of The Activist, 1966.
Bernie Mayer and Bill Sherzer, “OACR -- A Reinterpretation,” Oberlin Review, 23 Sept. 1966, 2.
“The Basis of Black Power,” in“Takin’ it to the streets”: A Sixties Reader, ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 152-159.
Jack Hill, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 5 Nov. 2001.
Bernie Mayer, interview.