The man at the center of the controversy had been forgotten. Several hundred miles away at his present job in Hanover, Vermont, he somehow slipped out of the Oberlin consciousness when students set up camp in the hallways of Cox. Now that the smoke has cleared, and disagreements have been swept back under the rug, it's time for everyone to meet their new dean, and his name is Peter Goldsmith.
Last weekend Goldsmith visited his new home for the first time after being hired as the new dean of students.
"I really only ask one thing of the Oberlin community, and that is not to make assessments of me until they have an opportunity to see me, and talk with me," said Goldsmith.
Although not a public visit, Goldsmith made several subtle moves last weekend to strengthen his relationship with the student body. He had brunch with residential coordinators, then lunch with Student Senate and then he sat down with the Review to discuss his future at Oberlin.
Goldsmith does not offer the most imposing physical appearance at first sight.
His slight stature and gentle features exhibit themselves in his personality: he's soft-spoken and showed a little nervousness during the interview. It might be unfair to make the comparison, but Goldsmith projects a slight similarity to Woody Allen.
Toting a small brown shopping bag full of Oberlin souvenirs and sporting casual weekend dress, Goldsmith looked more like a prospective student's parent than an administrator. A firm handshake quieted any feeling of weakness from this man, making it clear he knew how to carry himself professionally. He offered candid responses to questions, conversing freely and even asking to turn off the tape recorder at one point to formulate the right answer he was searching for.
Goldsmith's responses were calculated - not slick, but well-thought-out. A quick review of his resume qualifies his undoubted intelligence. A graduate student at the University of Chicago, he then worked there for 10 years. He moved on to Princeton for seven years, and then Dartmouth for the last six, all in an administrative capacity.
Oddly enough, Goldsmith praised the student activism that embroiled his appointment. Goldsmith said, "I think my main reaction to the protest is that it suggests to me that this is a student body that cares a great deal about the institution, that cares a great deal about the administrators and who they are, and the level of engagement by the students didn't surprise me remotely. In most every respect, it is a very good sign about student activism and engagement at Oberlin."
Goldsmith's Achilles' heel up till now has been his relationship with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities in Oberlin. Goldsmith admits himself that he took some missteps during his on- campus interview when confronted with questions about LGBT issues. "They asked me some questions when I was here, that in retrospect, I didn't answer very well," said Goldsmith.
"One of the reasons why the questions posed were difficult to answer well is that, while they were questions about what deans do and more particularly what I do on behalf of entire communities, the actual work of deans is far more often on the behalf of individual students," he said. Goldsmith explained that his role as dean of students will not always focus on larger, community issues, but will deal with student issues on an individual level.
"It's our obligation to understand individuals in all their complexity. To understand the issues that they bring to the table by virtue of race, or gender, or class, or sexual orientation. To have a fairly nuanced understanding of what the implications of those things are when they are brought to the table, and then to treat those students with all of the compassion and dignity and respect that any student deserves," said Goldsmith.
Experience has taught him that it is too premature to declare any lofty plans for the future. Goldsmith claimed that he has not formulated any definite plans as the dean of students. "I need to learn about this institution and how it works before developing any concrete goals," said Goldsmith.
One certainty of Goldsmith is that he will offer a beneficial mixture as an administrator and an academic. Goldsmith said, "The particular contribution that I can make stems from the fact that I am something of a hybrid as an administrator. I've been working in higher education for 16 years as a dean of one kind or another, at the same time I've also been an academician. I've continued to write, and I've continued to publish. I think the contribution in part that I can make is helping to build bridges between student services and the academic enterprise."
On a personal level, Goldsmith sacrificed a portion of his family's stability in order to take the dean of student's position. He brings to Oberlin a wife and two young children, ages nine and 12. "Probably the move is most difficult for my 12-year old daughter, just because she is a very social being. She has a lot of friends, and is very close to that community back at Hanover."
Goldsmith also had to discontinue his role as a contributor to Vermont public radio. He supplied the New England area with commentaries on folk music. Goldsmith's published work, his dissertation on African-American church life, and his more recent biography of Amoe Asche, an influential producer of folk music, exhibit his varied interests. In addition to his published work on folk music, Goldsmith plays guitar, tenor banjo and the mandolin.
Although students did not initially receive Goldsmith's appointment with open arms, he plans on sticking around Oberlin for a while. Goldsmith said, "Positions like the one at Oberlin, quite truthfully, just don't come along very often."
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 24, May 14, 1999
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