Campus Bulletin: Current Students, Faculty and Staff, Parents, ObieSafe

Fireside Chat with President Ambar

October 25, 2020 8:00 PM

Office of the President

Mid-Semester Updates and a Look Forward

Sunday, October 25 at 8 p.m.


It’s been awhile since our last communication, but as we reach the midpoint of this unique fall semester, it seems appropriate to review what we have been through as a caring community, how much we have achieved together, and to talk a bit about what to expect at the beginning of the spring term.

We are in the midst of a profoundly complex moment in history. As a community of students, faculty, and staff, we have labored together to stay safe while we have continued the mission of our institution. That we have been able to pursue both community health and academic and musical excellence is a testament to the tenacity and integrity of our campus.

Students: every step of the way, you have made us proud. Whether you are learning in the classroom, socializing while physically distancing on Wilder Bowl, performing jazz at the Clark Bandstand in Tappan Square, or as student athletes and coaches are continuing to practice even without the prospects of formal competition—you have made this the very best of times. You’ve shown what Obies do in the face of challenge, by tapping into your core strengths and using your imagination to explore and embrace possibilities.

You’ve learned about yourselves, and each of you has done that in meaningful ways. Your collective resilience. Your capacity to adapt.

You have unearthed talents previously hidden, and you have supported each other in this challenging journey. You have strengthened our community during this pandemic and overcome periods of real isolation. I’ve seen you innovate and be creative. I’ve watched you take care of each other, and take care of our entire community.

I want to thank you for taking our Community Agreement seriously. As of October 23rd, we’ve completed about 7,500 tests, and only 19 people have tested positive—an outcome that has exceeded our most promising projections. While we recently had a limited set of new positive cases, on the whole we can be pleased with where we are. This new set of cases, however, were an important reminder that we cannot rest on our past successes. We all have to respect every aspect of our layered strategy and diligently execute on it, every single day. And so far, our students, faculty, staff, and vendors have partnered with us to achieve these results.

One of the most obvious signs of your commitment has been your strong adherence to mask-wearing. In fact, the president of Oberlin’s City Council recently shared that an Oberlin resident observed that the city seemed to be more committed to mask-wearing because of the example that our students were setting. As you can imagine, this is a compliment that I will hold onto for quite some time. Inspiring our fellow Oberlin residents to demonstrate their own commitment to mask-wearing is an example of who you are as students, and I deeply appreciate it.

As for other aspects of our layered health care strategy, turnaround time for our testing protocol continues to be 24-48 hours with our partners in Chicago. With our local team of Mercy-Allen Hospital and Harness Health, we are processing about 3,500 tests each month, and we’ve also administered more than 1,400 flu shots in the past few weeks.

To address the symptoms expected during the coming flu season, the College is preparing to add rapid testing to our layered strategy. The College has invested in analyzers that will quickly be able to determine whether someone is symptomatic with the flu, COVID-19, or another illness.

The Hotel at Oberlin and two residence halls remain designated for isolation and quarantine. To date, the experiences of students who have needed to quarantine or isolate have been very smooth, with all students able to continue their studies. Our team of 16 contact tracers actively determines when someone may have been exposed, and consults daily with Lorain County Public Health to assess the course of action for those who are at risk.

Despite all of this work connected with COVID-19, I am also pleased that we are still moving forward with the academic mission of our institution, and I’ll admit that I am especially excited about the progress we have made.

First, let’s talk about the Junior Practicum, a program we created for juniors who were not able to be on campus during the fall semester due to our de-densification plan.

When we implemented the three-semester strategy, we challenged the junior class and said: “We know this is hard, but how might you pivot and adapt when the world around you changes?”

We also knew we needed to be an example—to show it and not just tell it. So we asked ourselves: “Is this an opportunity to transform how we prepare students for their lives after Oberlin?”

A few weeks later, we had recruited more than fifty speakers, mostly Obies, from a variety of industries. Students in the junior practicum program embraced big, challenging, complex problems through the lens of a professional career that interested them. The program also included sessions to help students with resumes, grant writing, branding, negotiation, and many other skills. Now those same juniors are on to their micro-internships and research projects, where they are applying the skills from their workshops and their first two years at Oberlin to real-world problems.

The Junior Practicum has proven so successful, that we are incorporating aspects of this program into our sophomore SOAR program. And we have already begun to think creatively about the parts of this programming we can maintain when COVID-19 is behind us.

Our work with One Oberlin also continues. We have restructured Arts and Sciences to better support our faculty, and students now have access to new integrated concentrations and collaborative programs between the Conservatory and Arts and Sciences. These programs provide more music-making opportunities for students, and we have stayed true to our march towards financial resiliency.

We’ve also launched OC Votes, an initiative related to the 2020 election that provides a wealth of programming and participation opportunities for our students. This initiative offers a way for students to think through and engage with the complex issues that this election cycle has raised. In keeping with Oberlin’s commitment to fostering a vibrant democracy, OC Votes promotes student engagement, ensures voter registration, and has voter education projects.

In the Conservatory, I’m excited about a number of innovations. We’ve created “real-time rooms,” which allow a musician and accompanist, for example, to be in different rooms but have technology that allows them to perform together. These rooms feature high-definition audio and video with zero latency. We have also added a spectrum of live-streaming technology that allows us to stream high-definition audio and video from nine different campus venues. While these changes were foisted upon us due to the pandemic, they are additions that will serve us long after COVID-19 has passed.

Faculty have worked continuously to reinvent the ensemble program. In place of larger groups, students are now participating in numerous smaller groups, often in highly original configurations. This allows our students to explore new repertoire, much of it contemporary, by composers from historically underrepresented communities.

One other area that I’d like to address is the launching of the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity. This initiative has an overarching goal of elevating our early mission as a leader in educating Black people. This commission will work to make more evident our current programming, look broadly across our curriculum in both the College and the Conservatory, review our hiring practices, and examine divisional and departmental climates to identify areas for mission-centeredness and policies and practices that reinforce our long-standing commitment to equity. But this work will not only be inward looking; it will also be outward looking. We want to ensure that our students are prepared to tackle the issues of race facing our nation, and that Oberlin continues to be a leader in higher education.

As you can tell, it has already been a full year in only two months, and we can point to some key successes even at this early stage.

But here’s what I know: We are still very much in the middle of this journey. We must remain open to the types of pivots and changes in direction that we were open to at the beginning of the semester, because the future is unpredictable. This is particularly true as we head into this new season of cold weather, which finds many states—Ohio included—experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases.

The balance we’ve enjoyed on our campus is fragile, and we must remain vigilant in protecting it. In the coming weeks, we will release a series of emails and videos related to end-of-semester move-outs and January move-ins, along with some expectations for the time in between. As with the beginning of the fall semester, the first week of classes in January will be on campus but 100% remote, to allow for proper testing and quarantine following travel back to campus. I am hopeful that we will be able to start the semester with just this one week remote, but we should be prepared for matters to change on the ground, should conditions here in Ohio warrant an alteration to our current plans.

Parents and families: it is now time for us to ask you to be as adaptive as your students have been. Normally, I’d be sharing these campus updates with you in person during the parents and families weekend visit. This year, of course, the weekend has moved to a virtual space—and has been extended to a full week—but there are still many ways to engage with and enjoy campus life. There will be recitals, workshops, concerts, and office “drop-ins”—please check the full schedule for details.

I will leave you with two final thoughts.

The first is that this historic moment that we are in has reconfirmed for me that liberal arts colleges, and Oberlin in particular, represents the most important type of education in the world today.

If we simply started with Oberlin’s most pressing issue this year, the 2020 pandemic—it is indeed a complex problem. It is a problem in human biology, for sure. It is also a public health challenge. It’s a political issue, and it’s a matter for international relations. The fact that it disproportionately strikes communities of color, that its trajectory depends on young people and others who deny the pandemic’s existence, and all of us—fallible humans—who must put the welfare of others above our own comfort… If the disciplines I previously mentioned were not broad enough, this pandemic’s complexities invoke questions for sociologists, ethicists, psychologists, economists, and more.

Responding to these types of complexities requires multiple disciplines, a willingness to embrace nuance, the brightest minds in each one of those fields sitting together, teaching together, listening to each other, researching and debating together—that’s what happens at Oberlin. Because that’s what liberal arts colleges are all about. And we need more grounding in the sort of boundary-defying, intellectual courage that only a place like Oberlin can instill.

Second, and this one is for our students: living through a pandemic is going to have a profound impact on your life. Living through an historic moment requires more of you, no doubt, but I don’t want you to lose sight of the fact that while it can require more of you, it can also offer you more.

Our efforts have to be focused on what that additional offering has for us, because it could be the very thing that you need that ultimately prepares you to go out and change the world for good.

As you head into the final half of this semester, please know that we are here to support you in this work of discovery.

Be safe, be well, wear your mask, and be a good citizen by going to vote!

All the best.