An Oberlin President in Retrospect
Oberlin’s future looks uncertain. The president has just resigned after a long and controversial tenure and rumors are flying over the real reason. Faculty and student discontent is high. A contentious Strategic Plan has been adopted. The College seems uncertain about its image and core strengths. Alfred MacKay is the dean. The year is 1993 and College President Frederick Starr has just resigned.
On the surface the similarities look striking. Perhaps the departure of a president at the height of administrative unrest is just one of those cyclical Oberlin occurrences, like Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees labor disputes and occupations of Cox. Look again, however, and it becomes apparent that Nancy Dye is no Fredrick Starr and the Oberlin of today is quite different from the Oberlin of the 1990s.
The Oberlin that Dye inherited from Starr in 1994 was one that seemed to have lost its way financially, academically and culturally. The College was $3.5 million in debt and Starr reported that “dozens of layoffs” might be necessary. Its admittance rate had reached 72 percent, of which only 25 percent chose to attend.
The relationship between students and Starr’s administration reached its low point in 1990 when he called the Oberlin town police to arrest students protesting on his lawn. During his last year, students of color occupied the lobby of Cox to protest what they perceived as a racist atmosphere on campus after the word “chink” was graffitied on the Tappan Square arch and there were reports of a cross being burned in front of Harkness. (The second incident turned out to be a misunderstanding.)
A strategic planning process culminated with campus-wide protests over a planned move away from need-blind admissions. A consultant hired by the College recommended that the College cut its most “politicized” classes, eliminate its football team and sell $40 million worth of art from the Allen Art Museum.
When the presidential search committee settled on Vassar College’s Dean of Faculty and Acting President Nancy Schrom Dye as Starr’s replacement, hopes were high that she could work to heal some of the divisions that had developed during the previous decade.
Dye was not a popular choice with everyone, however. She had actually removed herself from consideration during the search process stating, “I had some misgivings about my goals and priorities and Oberlin’s.” She was eventually coaxed back by the search committee.
Most students, including those on Student Senate and The Oberlin Review editorial board, had endorsed Princeton Provost Ruth Simmons, who is currently the president of Brown University.
“I would like some explanation from the search committee as to why they chose to ignore student opinion,” student senator Michael Bastado OC ‘93 told the Review.
But on her first visit to campus after being selected, Dye reassured many students by emphasizing her commitments to Oberlin’s core values.
“Physiologically and philosophically, it’s really important for Oberlin to realize that this place is different,” she said. “It’s important to go with these strengths rather than go around and say, ‘Oh, we have to change the nature of the place to get more students.’ That will not get more students.”
She also assured faculty she would not play an active role in the creation and elimination of positions, saying that these were “academic decisions that the faculty must make.”
One of her first actions as president was to scrap the controversial Strategic Plan that had begun under Starr, and to begin a new round of discussions that culminated in the “Broad Directions” document.
Some of Oberlin’s accomplishments over the last 12 years are obvious from a brief stroll around campus. The Science Center and Adam Joseph Lewis Center have helped to put Oberlin on the map scientifically. Oberlin now has departments in Comparative American Studies and Cinema Studies.
The Oberlin College Dialogue Center and Ombudsperson’s Office operate with power and autonomy unheard of at most comparable institutions. Oberlin has worked to improve its relationship with the town as well, helping to rescue Allen Medical Center and instituting the Oberlin Partnership to make the College accessible to local students.
And the athletic department, which was once the laughingstock of the NCAC and on occasion cancelled football games for fear of its players being injured, has established – if not dominance – at least respectability in most men’s and women’s sports.
The numbers tell an impressive story as well. The admission rates are down to the 30s and yield has increased dramatically as well. Fundraising has improved as well and Oberlin’s budget is back in the black.
Other priorities have unfortunately fallen by the wayside. The much vaunted Science Center remains nameless because much of it has still not been paid for. SPACE committee members have, for years, lobbied the administration for more performing arts space in vain. The College’s commitment to Middle Eastern studies, which have taken on enormous importance in light of current world events, have faltered since the departure of Professor Khalid Medani and the promised classes in Arabic have not materialized. The uproar last year over the College’s slow response to the flooding in Afrikan Heritage House and the proposed elimination of an Asian American studies position have also revealed that a certain degree of racial tension still simmers beneath Oberlin’s cozy liberal surface.
One of the great ironies of Dye’s presidency is that many of what were initially seen as her strengths have been the areas under which she has come under the most fire. Who could have predicted that a former women’s labor historian would have her administration criticized as sexist and insensitive to workers during the 2004 contract negotiations? (It was rumored at the time that OCOPE President Diane Lee once ironically brought a copy of Dye’s book, As Equals and as Sisters, with her to the negotiating table.)
The president who came to Oberlin emphasizing her commitment to Oberlin’s values of social justice and making education available to all has often been criticized by students for trying to move Oberlin in a more “mainstream” direction. Critics point to the College’s move toward partially need-based admissions and the recent adoption of “Fearless” in place of Oberlin’s old slogan, “Think One Person Can Change the World? So Do We.”
The former dean of faculty, who promised to stay out of faculty affairs, has been criticized by many professors for undermining faculty governance, particularly during the painful faculty reduction process which is currently underway.
Perhaps most damaging, the president who promised to be more accessible than her often aloof predecessor has often given the impression of ruling by ultimatum without the input of students or faculty. The archetypical example of this was the elimination of the Oberlin-in-London program, which was done with little explanation even to those who had run the program for years. The program was later reinstated in a modified form.
Forty-two year faculty member David Young said at the time, “This is the most outrageous decision that I can remember, and I’ve seen a lot of stupidity.”
Thirteen years is well over the average term for a college president and Dye managed to fill hers with more than her shares of achievements as well as missteps; this article lays out only a few of both. Which she is remembered for will likely depend largely on events of the next year. Starr seemed more relaxed and affable during his last year — in one infamous incident he sounded a duck call in a faculty meeting to signal that his would not be a “lame duck” presidency — but for the most part he stayed out of sight even as many of his policies continued to cause controversy.
For better or worse, Dye has set Oberlin on a new course during the last few years of her presidency and it will be largely up to her in the next eight months to determine what kind of school her successor inherits.