On this day in 1833, the first class was taught at the Oberlin Collegiate Institute. Thirty students gathered in the newly established community’s only frame building with the college’s first teacher, John Frederick Scovill.
It was a humble beginning to what soon became one of the boldest visions in the history of American higher education—an egalitarian college and community committed to educating Blacks and Whites, and men and women together in one program.
Scovill summarized Oberlin’s purpose in a letter to a friend dated Dec. 17, 1833, “The grand object of this Institution is to educate those who shall be prepared physically, as well as intellectually and morally, to illuminate the world with the light of Science & civilization.”
Oberlin is no longer a Christian utopian community, although the college has never stopped training teachers and preachers. Today’s Oberlin is a place of this world, but still apart from it in some ways. It remains a place where learning and labor are central to daily life, where one can lead a physically active yet also contemplative life. As it has from the beginning, Oberlin is also a place where ideas are debated and opinions exchanged that also offers space and time for reflection.
As we celebrate the 181st anniversary of Oberlin’s founding, it’s a good time to take stock and think about our founders’ vision and what it means in today’s world—a world in which many of us are feeling anger, frustration, and despair over the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, in Cleveland, and in other communities.
The deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice are tragedies. My heart goes out to their families, their friends, and their communities. The ongoing investigations remind me of my earlier work investigating civil rights matters for the Department of Justice. I understand and share the feelings of rage and sorrow that many have about these events.
In keeping with Oberlin’s history, our faculty, our students, and our fellow citizens have been discussing the shootings and their aftermaths. These discussions are going on in classes, in dorms and homes, and across the campus and town. This engagement helped fuel the peaceful protests earlier this week—here and across the nation—that were a reminder that Oberlin today is very much a part of the world.
But it is also a place apart that is dedicated to confronting tough issues through education. A place where we can discuss, debate, and learn from each other. Doing that requires open minds, willingness to listen, and a genuine desire to learn. That means we have to be able to have conversations about some of the most difficult issues facing our society—issues such as race, class, ethnicity, priorities, fairness, violence, and community safety. We encourage those discussions to continue.
The recent events in Ferguson and Cleveland have elevated the national conversation about strategies for—and the challenges of—preventing violence and ensuring community safety. At Oberlin College, we regard these events as an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to providing a safe and equitable learning environment and to continuing the campus dialogue around questions of safety and security.
To reinforce the importance of this commitment, I am convening a working group to assess best principles and practices for ensuring campus safety in an inclusive and equitable fashion. The working group, which will include significant student representation, will meet with a wide range of campus constituencies and contribute to related policy development, in tandem with any required collective bargaining. The group will be co-chaired by Tita Reed, special assistant for community and government relations, and Charles Peterson, visiting associate professor and interim faculty-in-residence of Afrikan Heritage House, who has also served as a member of the Oberlin City Council. A national expert will serve as a consultant to the working group to assist in its review.
The purpose of the working group is to find ways for everyone in our community to look out for each other. That is what Oberlinians have been doing since 1833. We come together to teach, to learn, to listen, and to try and understand and appreciate the wide range of life experiences in this remarkable community.
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