Students Present Concerns to Trustees
An unusually large number of both trustees and students attended last night’s Class Trustees open forum. Twelve trustees heard students’ concerns on four major issues: new marketing ideas that are already causing controversy, better compensation for RAs, the College’s adherence to environmental building standards and funding for a student-run arts center.
Although student interest was well-distributed among the four issues, the largest group came to discuss the phrase understood to be the new marketing slogan: “We are Oberlin: Fearless.” Most students present believed that the phrase was intended to replace “Think one person can change the world? So do we” as Oberlin’s slogan, and students were almost unanimously opposed to the idea.
Class Trustee Elizabeth Welch, OC ’80, took a moment to clarify the phrase and its context.
“What you’ve done is caught us midstream on one of the very important parts of the Strategic Plan,” she said, explaining that the College had hired a consultant to address the issue of Oberlin’s marketability. The consultant did research to present a picture of where Oberlin stands in relation to its prospective students and came up with some possible ideas for new ways of presenting the college.
“‘Fearless’ is not a motto — not something that will be decorating people’s chests,” said Welch, speaking to students’ voiced concerns that the new phrase sounds like a sports team’s slogan. “It is part of a mission statement that is much more robust and complete than that single word.”
“This phrase is not close to being real yet,” Welch added, “so it is hard to compare it [to the current slogan], but it is great to hear from you.”
Although students seemed appeased by this information, they still expressed concern over the phrase, saying that it reflected a trend in the administration’s attempt to change the image of the college. College sophomore Brendan Morris spoke about this concern.
“I want to get beyond that word,” he said. “I have a general anxiety about the way the school is changing — and these changes to the mission statement are happening at the same time — our message as a school means more than marketing and it is the message that we are all here by as students.”
Students emphasized that they wanted to be involved in the process of determining the college’s image.
“We want to be involved,” said College junior Morgan Pitts. “I hope that when I graduate and am applying for jobs, Oberlin still means the same thing it did when I came here. Oberlin is a very unique thing.”
Morris led a large group of the College RA’s and student ResEd staff members in advocating an increase in the compensation that RA’s receive for their jobs.
Currently, he said, RA’s receive a smaller stipend than the bill for their housing. In a thick pamphlet of information they presented to the trustees, Morris and others compared these statistics and others with those of colleges similar to Oberlin and found Oberlin almost consistently lacking. He said that while most schools compensate their RA’s with the full cost of room and sometimes board, Oberlin does not even compensate fully for board.
College sophomore and RA Leah Gage suggested that increasing RA’s compensation would also increase the retention rate, which is currently very low.
“Improving retention rates fits into the strategic plan’s goal to build community on campus,” said Gage. “The plan involves bringing everyone back into dorms, and we need to build communities there. Dorms are an integral part of the Oberlin experience.”
“RA’s traditionally get paid room and often board,” said one RA. “Not paying that is kind of a discrepancy from what being an RA universally means.”
Morris, Gage and the other RA’s proposed a gradual increase in RA’s wages over 12 years that they hoped would improve application and retention rates. They developed their proposal through working with ResEd.
Pitts introduced a lengthy discussion on Oberlin College’s green building standards. He spoke at last semester’s trustee’s forum to advocate that phase-two student housing that was being planned adhere to national green building standards. At Thursday’s meeting, he asked that the same standards be applied to all campus buildings.
Pitts, who was supported by a large group of vocal students, advocated that the college obtain at least a “silver” ranking for its buildings in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. The LEED system is a national standard for sustainable buildings, and its silver rankings is the lowest of three after the basic “certified” rating.
Pitts explained that he spent his winter term touring six other colleges’ environmental policies to compare them with Oberlin’s.
“Coming back, I was pretty disillusioned with Oberlin,” he said. “In policy and implementation, [some of the schools] are so far ahead of us.” Pitts added that achieving the LEED silver rating was a very important step in Oberlin’s achieving its environmental goals laid out in the strategic plan.
The trustees responded that they were very interested in LEED-ranked construction and that one aspect of their meetings this weekend would be to gain a better understanding of LEED.
Adam Sorkin, OC ’04, added that the College had not built anything new since passing the strategic plan.
“Now we’re going to be more intentional,” he said. “That’s our commitment. When we send out requests for proposals on phase two housing, we are going to pay particular attention to environmental friendliness.”
Senior Josh Luxenberg and junior Jon Levin spoke on behalf of the SPACE Committee and numerous other students who came to advocate a student-run arts center. The idea for the project grew from an initial desire for a student-run black box theater. Luxenberg and Levin introduced their group’s expanded concept to the trustees at last semester’s open forum, backed by a large group of supporters. At Thursday’s meeting, they spoke specifically to the need for financing.
“What we really want to push for,” said Levin, “is to enlarge the new capital campaign’s vision to encompass all the arts at Oberlin.”
Levin re-emphasized that the new building, if realized, would distinguish Oberlin. “The type of thing we’re proposing would be totally unique among our peers,” he said.
Trustee Bob Frascino, OC ’74, responded that he saw two ways to achieve the funding necessary for such a project: through a large capital campaign such as the one Levin and Luxenberg suggested, or through finding one generous donor who identified with their cause. Frascino suggested that the latter method could be more expedient and successful.
“While that would clearly be the best solution,” said Levin in
response, “it seems to us that we’ve been looking for a donor for
quite some time [without success], and that maybe we need to begin to think of
some things to do in the meantime.”