Office of Alumni Engagement

John Colborn '86

John Colborn '87, a 2020 Alumni Elected Trustee candidate

Professional Background

  • A 34-year career in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector
  • Wide-ranging governance roles in national, local, religious, and civic organizations
  • A lifelong passion for connecting people, ideas, and resources to advance social justice


What attracted you to Oberlin?
My college tour began by charting a 10 day all-you-can-ride greyhound bus trip from Minneapolis (my home) to Boston (where my sister lived). Oberlin was on my route. But it was the historic legacy of integration and co-education, the focus on the arts and music, and the political vibe of the campus that really got my attention. The nodding heads of older people I respected remarking on the educational excellence of the institution sealed the deal.

Later, I would realize that it was Oberlin’s attraction of social misfits -- people who in high school were “too smart” or “too serious” or “too political” or “too awkward” or just “too out-there”—that made the place so compelling to me. It resonated with my own sense as an outsider and my yearning for a place where I might fit in. 

Service on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees represents a significant commitment of time and effort. What draws you to this service? 
I choose board service opportunities when I think I have skills, perspectives and relationships that can advance work I believe in. As Oberlin charts is future, I see my background in higher education, my history of leadership in complex organizations, and my deep reverence for Oberlin’s traditions and unique place among colleges and universities as assets I bring to this work.

I look for organizations where, by virtue of the circumstances they face, I can support their leaders in charting new paths and approaches. The One Oberlin plan represents an exciting new phase for the college. Implementing the plan is nevertheless fraught with both execution challenges and values choices that require the integration of a range of skills sets and stakeholder perspectives. I am excited to be part of this work.

Finally, I look for opportunities that allow me to work with fun and interesting people and to personally grow and learn new things.

Share an Oberlin experience that shaped who you are today.
It was perhaps in the third hour of one of the weekly board meetings of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. The agenda was hopelessly behind schedule and tempers were wearing thin. I was new to Oberlin and new to OSCA and I was in awe of how the co-ops managed to channel collective action – something that ignited in me a career-long focus on using the social sector for problem solving.

But at that moment in the board meeting, it seemed we were far from solving problems. The issue – I can’t remember the details – was thorny. There were financial considerations, legal issues. An emerging divide between those motivated by practical considerations and those motivated by deeply held values looked impossible to bridge.

Then, OSCA’s president said the simplest thing and famed the issue for consensus: “If it’s the right thing to do, we’ll do it,” She said we could always work out the legal and financial issues, the important thing was to commit to doing the right thing, and then work out the details. For someone who usually starts from practical considerations, it has been one of my most deeply abiding lessons from Oberlin and shapes my management style and personal inclinations to this day.

What elements of your personal and professional life would be helpful to you in your service as a trustee?
Governance Experience and Board Service: I have both reported to and served on boards throughout my career and in my personal life. This experience has given me a sensitivity to the role of boards, to the dynamics that make for a well-functioning board, and to the listening and communications skills that contribute to effective participation and sound decision making.

Experience in Higher Education: As a program officer at the Ford Foundation, at the Aspen Institute, and in my current leadership role at a large human service organization, I have worked at the intersection of post-secondary education and economic opportunity. This has included developing and implementing student success programs, building partnerships between higher education institutions and the private sector, and working to influence institutional and public policies to improve access, success, and equity for less traditional college populations. While distinct in many respects from the Oberlin context, this background directly connects to the wider challenge in higher education to flex institutional traditions, structures, and ecosystems to ensure relevance, equity, and sustainability in the years to come.

What about Oberlin resonates with you today?
I have a long-held belief that the single greatest limiting factor for social justice work is not money or ideas, but talent. Oberlin is part of the solution to that problem. That’s why I participate in the WISR community, do informational interview for students, and sponsor internships. The combination of rigorous training, intellectual curiosity, deeply held values, and real-world skill building makes Oberlin grads uniquely suited to the call to make the world a better place.

Tell me of one specific instance in which you wished to understand someone with different values from yours.  What happened?
It was 1992 and I was wrapping up a three-year stint in Vermont working with the Bernie Sanders crowd there on housing and urban policy. Though not quite a full-blown “Sander-nista,” I loved the far-left-of-center consensus of my colleagues and friends there. And I was leaving bucolic, socialist Burlington for an MBA program at the Wharton Business School in Philadelphia.

I joked that I would be the lone heretic in capitalism’s high temple. I made plans to volunteer with a local nonprofit, certain that I would not find friends at school. I avoided the social events that marked the start of my program.

But as I got to know my classmates in that first semester, I realized I liked these people. They were smart, came from diverse and interesting backgrounds, and held values not so different from my own. Their and my social solutions would often radically diverge, but the discussion of market- versus state-based approaches was energetic and respectful. I lost a lot of arguments, but learned to listen better, to adjust my tact around losing ideas, and to give credit for good intentions. Later on, as my work focused on advancing employment for disadvantaged people, my experience at Wharton helped me to connect with employers seeking workers and to forge partnerships with business leaders around strengthening the skills of their workforce and advancing economic opportunity.

What do you spend your time working on and thinking about?
The values that Oberlin helped crystalize for me – a passion for advancing social justice and making change in the world – are never far from my work or thoughts. 
Living and working in Philadelphia, the poorest large city in the United States, gives this work immediacy. In my current role, I am challenged daily to address the ravages of opioid addiction the city, connect low income people with better paying jobs, advance educational attainment for young people and adults, ensure people with disabilities live meaningful everyday lives, provide independent living supports for the frail and elderly, and improve the jobs of the people who work on the frontline of these issues.

What else do you want your fellow alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?
Oberlin is fortunate to have energetic and visionary leaders to guide it. And the One Oberlin plan is a bold framework for navigating the changing and challenging higher education environment. 

Service to Oberlin for me means ensuring that the painful and exciting changes Oberlin must undertake to secure its future are informed by the values and traditions that have made Oberlin distinctly great and wonderfully weird. Its dedication to intellectual inquiry, to the celebration of art and music, and to making change in the world are central to the identity and the future of the college. I look forward to joining the Oberlin Trustees in helping to chart this path.

2020 Alumni Trustee Election Home