Introduction

Oberlin’s unique history of firsts makes us particularly attuned to the plight of Black people in America. Our 187-year history has been a part of the founding work of a special institution. This history of early progressivism, work before its ‘‘time,’’ compels us and is one of the many reasons Oberlin is held in high regard across academia to this day.

From an admissions policy that meets full need, to the expansion of both our curriculum and our academic departments to reflect the African diaspora, as well as more broadly Black, indigenous, people of color and women; from the diversity of our faculty and staff, to our commitment to a campus climate that reflects diversity and inclusion, this work has been at the center of our mission.

But there are national moments that call upon all of us to gather our energies and take hold of this mission, and this is one of those moments. Once again, we should assess ourselves and the role we play in educating our students to go out into the world to act upon the change that we want to see manifested in it. The murder of George Floyd is such a moment, compounded by the killing of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and many others, and the shooting of Jacob Blake. My message to the Oberlin community following the death of George Floyd was my effort to personally reflect on this moment. It read in part:

At every turn it seems we are watching in anguish a world that views African-Americans as less than human and unworthy of dignity. Not deserving of life itself. The Black community – my community – is in excruciating pain. We are contending with what appears to be an unending well of racism and bigotry.

We are witnessing an unraveling and a democracy that is now in search of its foundational societal norms. Hatred, anger, illness and death fill our screens. There is grief at the abandonment of our ideals and a tearing of the heart as we see the impact on our children.

Sending young people out into the world to reshape it, and to make it different, is how I have spent my career. Oberlin has had from its founding a commitment to solving racial inequity. We view our institution as a place where students come first to be educated, but where they also translate that education into something more. We seek understanding and creative ways of advocacy. We work so that the marginalized are no longer at the edges but rather at the center.

My hope is with our students. Hoping that they will have the courage to face the world as it is, and to be unrelenting in their desire to see it change.

To that end, this upcoming year I will establish a Presidential Initiative for faculty and students that seeks to address issues of violence, police-community relationships, and racial injustices. One could imagine courses, co-curricular initiatives, community engagements, and internships focused on the very issues that the death of George Floyd invokes. The primary goal of this initiative is not purely for learning, but for learning that demonstrably is applied to our world.

This small effort will not change what happened to George Floyd, but it is in keeping with who we are at Oberlin. I believe in our students and their impact on a generation that can place our nation back on the right path.

Charge

This academic year we are launching the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity (“PI”) with an overarching goal of elevating our early mission as a leader in educating Black people. The work of dismantling the vestiges of white supremacy, anti-Black policies, and gender inequality has long been embedded in the promise of Oberlin College. This work in the 21st century, however, looks different than it did in 1833. In part the work of this commission will help Oberlin lead in a moment critical to higher education and to the nation. This commission will work to evaluate our current programming, look broadly across our curriculum in both the college and conservatory, review our hiring practices, and examine divisional and departmental climates to identify areas for mission-centeredness and policies/practices that elevate our long-standing commitment to equity. This work will reflect the times and the issues that George Floyd’s murder invoked. This work is now more critical than ever as we look both internally and externally.

Commission’s Membership and Leadership

To lead us in this work, I have asked Meredith Gadsby, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies, and Bill Quillen, Dean of the Conservatory, to cochair this commission. Additionally, I have appointed Professor Gadsby to a two-year appointment as the Special Assistant to the President for Racial Equity to ensure that this work has long-term lasting impact. We have also asked Shaun Harper, one of the nation’s foremost experts on racial culture on college campuses, and the USC Race and Equity Center where he is based, to support our work this year.

The commission will be made up of 21 members of the Oberlin community and will include faculty, staff, administrators, and three students (chair of the Student Senate, a Oberlin Conservatory student, and a student in the College of Arts and Sciences).

  1. Carmen Twillie Ambar, President, ex officio
  2. Meredith Gadsby, Special Assistant to the President on Racial Equity and Diversity, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies and President, Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars and cochair
  3. Bill Quillen, Dean of the Conservatory and cochair
  4. Corey Barnes ’98, Robert S. Danforth Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Religion
  5. Manuel Carballo, Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
  6. André Douglas, Area Coordinator for Multicultural and Identity-Based Communities
  7. Justin Emeka ’95, Associate Professor of Theater and Africana Studies
  8. Jenny Garcia, Assistant Professor of Politics and Comparative American Studies
  9. Dana Hamdan, Executive Director, Career Development Center and Associate Dean of Students
  10. Henry Hicks ’21
  11. Chris Jenkins, Associate Dean for Academic Support and Liaison to the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Deputy Title IX and Equity Coordinator
  12. David Kamitsuka, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
  13. Gunnar Kwakye, Associate Professor of Neuroscience
  14. Kristina Mani, Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of Latin American Studies
  15. Jasmine Mitchell ’21
  16. Jan Miyake ’96, Associate Professor of Music Theory and Division Director, Music Theory
  17. Rebecca Mosely, Director for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and Title IX Coordinator
  18. Katelyn Poetker ’23
  19. Meredith Raimondo, Vice President and Dean of Students
  20. Alexa Still, NEA Conservatory Associate Professor of Flute
  21. Natalie Winkelfoos, Delta Lodge Director of Athletics and Physical Education and Associate Vice President for Athletics Advancement

Commission’s Work

The work of this commission will span this entire academic year, with an expectation that they will deliver to me a series of strategic recommendations (both short-term and long-term) by the end of the year. These recommendations should be mindful of the goals of One Oberlin, the institution’s financial framework, and the strategic directions that have already been established. The recommendations should have an internal and external framing, which ensure the institution can speak nationally and internally to these important issues. Moreover, by identifying and eliminating the barriers that hinder Black students from thriving and effectively launching into their professional pursuits after graduation, these recommendations will benefit all of our students. The commission’s work and recommendations need not be limited to, but should include the following:

  1. Data gathering and an assessment of what we already do, with a way to quantitatively and qualitatively assess the good work and determine what work we might let go of. These recommendations should elevate, and reorganize our prior good work to be more forward facing and recognizable as a collection of strategic endeavors on campus. The recommendations should also offer a sense of the prioritization of current funding across campus as it relates to this work. The point here is that we may need to reallocate resources as opposed to exclusively focusing on additional resources. Moreover, this work should include a climate assessment survey, working in conjunction with USC’s Race and Equity Center. This survey should be done with faculty, staff, and students and have a multi-year format.

  2. Recommend measurable outcomes by which we can reasonably evaluate our progress.

  3. Meaningful anti-racism education and professional development for all members of the community.

  4. A determination of some curricular elements that might enhance our work.

  5. Assesses the viability, form and structure of what a Center on Race and Equity could look like on Oberlin’s campus (including academic elements such as student fellows, faculty, integrated concentrations, and career communities).

  6. Ensures the full integration of the Conservatory in this work.

  7. A close look at hiring policy and practices, that ensures accountability in the development of diverse pools and in the assessment of candidates.

  8. Equitable and inclusive initiatives that effectively address racial disparities and result in the successful launching of Black students into graduate programs and their professional pursuits after Oberlin.

  9. A firm financial analysis should be a part of this work. This work should also be viewed from a lens that suggests what is best resourced through operational budgets and what work could be effectively pursued by advancement.

  10. Has an external impact, both locally and nationally.

Conclusion

As I often say, we can do anything, but we cannot do everything. This work should not be treated like a kitchen sink. The commission should resist creating a list of smaller, albeit important, programs and ideas that are best left to individual departments, student organizations, and administrative units to pursue within their current or reallocated budgets. This work should be about our broad institution in both its framing and its outcomes while affirming our commitment to the principles of nondiscrimination, equity and inclusiveness. The Presidential Initiative is about our institution’s strategic efforts. At its best, the work of the commission will have a long-lasting impact on both Oberlin and our national standing.

Carmen Twillie Ambar, President