EPILOGUE: IDENTITY POLITICS AND THE LEGACY OF THE STUDENT MOVEMENT
As the sixties approached a close, Oberlin students had lost much of the idealism that characterized their predecessors early in the decade. In the early sixties the causes of civil rights and free speech had united Oberlin. Conflict between students, faculty, and administrators first arose over social rules. This protest was expressed as the desire for a more perfect community, and not as a bid for student power. In 1964-65 the Vietnam War became an issue on campus, and for the first time the campus was divided over an off-campus issue. At the same time, students’ hope for community was disappointed by lack of change in social rules and developments in the civil rights movement. The urgency of the Vietnam War and the frustrations of students’ efforts led to increasing militancy and decreased concern for other members of the community. By the late sixties, in order to achieve a sense of community, students found that they had to separate themselves into small groups that could share the same values. Through these groups students attempted to attain power in the College. The result was a fragmentation of the ideal of community.
The Oberlin student movement did not end at graduation in 1968, but there was a lull at this point. The Placement Office was closed and dormitories had visiting hours. In the fall the General Faculty also approved a Black Studies program and student membership on faculty committees.
In December 1969, President Carr resigned. His tenure exactly spanned the decade of the 1960s. It is a testament to the conflict of that era that his resignation was given under pressure from students and alumni. Students’ relationship with Carr had been strained almost from the beginning. The new president, Robert Fuller, was younger and the trustees hoped students would be more able to identify with him.
In 1970, the Kent State shootings rocked the Oberlin campus. Only a short drive away, anti-war protesters were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard. Oberlin closed down. Students, faculty, and administrators struggled together to deal with their shock and mourning. Community was to some extent restored. A poll in February 1969 showed that a majority of students wanted to bar military recruiters from campus. In the wake of Kent State, the General Faculty passed resolutions calling for “immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam,” and sent a letter to President Nixon that expressed “grave concern.” They also called for the President and Board of Trustees to join the faculty in this stand. Although agreement on Vietnam never reached what it was on civil rights, by 1970 a majority of both students and faculty opposed the war. This agreement was a major change from 1965 or even 1967.
In the same year, Oberlin made the cover of Life Magazine as one of the first colleges in the country to have co-ed dormitories. The first co-ed dorm was Hebrew House, set up as winter term project to operate similar to an Israeli kibbutz. The limited duration of this project doubtlessly made receiving approval for the plan easier. The success of this project and of having more open dorms made the faculty and administration more open to considering further changes. Oberlin had come a long way from the rigid social rules of 1960. A decade of student pressure finally resulted in a more tolerable system of social rules and greater autonomy for residential groups to create their own rules. The current system in which Hall Councils decide on many of the rules for the dorm is an outgrowth of the sixties student movement.
Finally, in the late sixties and early seventies, identity politics came to Oberlin. The rise of the women’s movement, the power movements of many minority groups, and somewhat later, the gay liberation movement, made identity a crucial concept in politics at Oberlin and in the rest of the nation. The idea that identities such as race, gender, and sexual orientation often have crucial importance to people’s experiences still has an important place in the current debates at Oberlin. Identity politics, based on forming small communities based on identity, was the extension of the new conception formed by Oberlin students in the late sixties.
For Oberlin women, identity politics led to increased consciousness of their situation within the student movement. Phyllis Palmer remembered,
We followed the classic gender pattern we had set up on campus, which was the men students were the public speakers, the women students typed the mimeographed stencils and ran them off and did all the clerical work. And on the Washington trip . . . I, of course, was carrying a sign walking around in front of the White House while a guy I had dated in the past was over at the State Department meeting with a South African desk official. And this was the classic pattern of work assignments in student organizations.
Many women reflected that they had not been aware of the sexism of the Oberlin student movement at the time, but only after the women’s movement developed the analysis and language to explain these issues did they look back and realize the discrimination they had faced.
The formation of communities based on gender allowed women to become empowered in a way that was not possible for them in the broader Oberlin community. This was true for other groups as well and helps to account for the persistence of this smaller notion of community into present-day Oberlin. The need for this type of empowerment is still keenly felt by many groups on campus.
During the sixties the co-ops were an alternative structure in which student community could exist. By 1977 there were six co-ops on campus. Today co-ops are run by consensus demonstrating that participatory democracy is still an important element in their structure.
The in loco parentis notion of community espoused by many faculty members lost its hold over Oberlin during the late sixties. Faculty members had to accept that they could no longer control the moral and social development of students. Students are no longer considered children who are unable to make decisions for themselves. The corporation notion of Oberlin, advocated by Carr, did not disappear with Carr’s departure, nor did it ever gain complete ascendancy.
I have tried to demonstrate the importance of conceptions of community to the Oberlin student movement during the 1960s. The sixties were turbulent years for the Oberlin community, but despite the failure to form a larger Oberlin community, the decade left Oberlin with smaller but more meaningful communities. It remains to be seen if a united Oberlin community can ever be a viable goal without sacrificing the diversity and individualism that these smaller communities have fostered.
Archives and Manuscript Sources
Oberlin College Archives, Mudd Center, Oberlin, OH:
Robert K. Carr Presidential Records, 1960-1970.
Dean of Students Records, 1964-70.
Student Life Records, 1960-1970.
Sent to the author by Ann Stromquist, Iowa City, Iowa:
National Campus Political Parties Conference, Oberlin: Oberlin College, 13-15 April 1962.
Papers of Progressive Student League, 1961-62.
Sent to the author by Jonathan Seldin, Lethbridge, Alberta:
Papers from National Campus Political Parties Conference, Oberlin, OH, 13-15 April 1962.
Oral Interviews and Personal Communications
Aron, Nan. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 13 Dec. 2001.
Aronoff, Marcia. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 6 Dec. 2001.
Blood, Peter. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 29 Nov. 2001.
Chandler, Susan Kerr. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 5 Dec. 2001.
Chang, Isabel Tapper. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 10 Dec. 2001.
Craine, Tim. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 7 Nov. 2001.
Finke, David. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 4 Dec. 2001.
Gordon, Paula. Interview by author. Tape Recording. 15 Dec. 2001.
Gross, Joe. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 20 Nov. 2001.
Guest, Pete. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 3 Nov. 2001.
Hale, Dennis. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 13 Nov. 2001.
Hauss, Charles. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 13 Nov. 2001.
Hill, Jack. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 5 Nov. 2001.
Hughes, Yvonne. Letter to author. 22 April 2002.
Langeler, George. Interview by author. Tape Recording. 29 Nov. 2001.
Magdoff, Fred. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 3 Dec. 2001.
Mayer, Bernard. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 7 Nov. 2001.
Mitchell, Thomas. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 12 Nov. 2001.
McQueen, Albert J. Interview by author. Tape Recording. 5 Dec. 2001.
McWilliams, Nancy and Carey. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 28 Nov. 2001.
Osterman, Paul. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 20 Nov. 2001.
Palmer, Phyllis. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 20 Nov. 2001.
Reichard, Anita. Interview by author. Tape Recording. 11 Dec. 2001.
Rinaldi, Matthew. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 4 Dec. 2001.
Seldin, Jonathan. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 25 Nov. 2001.
Stromquist, Ann. Telephone interview by author. Tape Recording. 11 Nov. 2001.
Yinger, Milton. Interview by author. Tape Recording. 26 Nov. 2001.
Newspapers and Periodicals
Activist, Oberlin, 1960-1970.
Cocktail Hour, Oberlin, 1967.
Counterclockwise, Oberlin, 1964-1965.
General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1961-1968.
Independent Oberlin Other, 1966.
Oberlin College Annual Reports, 1962-1969.
Oberlin College Hi-O-Hi, 1960-1970.
Oberlin Review, 1960-1970.
Avorn, Jerry. Up Against the Ivy Wall: A History of the Columbia Crisis. New York: Atheneum Press, 1969.
Bloom, Alexander and Wini Breines, ed. “Takin’ it to the streets”: A Sixties Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Breines, Wini. The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982.
Burns, Stewart. Social Movements of the 1960s: Searching for Democracy. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Cohen, Mitchell and Dennis Hale, ed. The New Student Left: An Anthology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.
DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Anti-War Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
Evans, Sara. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantham Books, 1987.
Isserman, Maurice. If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Rorabaugh, W.J. Berkeley at War: the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS. New York: Random House, 1973.
Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement. New York: Plume, 1990.
Delia Pitts and Marcie Berman, “An End to ‘Business As Usual,’” Oberlin Review, 23 May 1970, 9.
Karen Thorsen, “An Intimate Revolution in Campus Life,” Life Magazine, 20 Nov. 1970, 32-41.
George Langeler, interview.
 Phyllis Palmer, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 20 Nov. 2001.