June 29, 2023
Dear members of the Oberlin community,
Today, I’m thinking about Oberlin alumna Mary Jane Patterson.
Born to enslaved parents in Raleigh, North Carolina, Patterson eventually made her way to Oberlin, where she was able to enroll in the college’s Classical Course—a curriculum described as being too rigorous for women because it required the study of Greek and Latin. In 1862, Patterson graduated as the first Black woman in the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree.
She became the principal of what is now Washington, D.C.’s Dunbar High School, the nation’s first public high school for Black children. During her tenure, it flourished, growing into a prestigious institution with rigorous academic standards. Dunbar High produced generations of groundbreaking graduates, including lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, whose masterful legal strategy paved the way for the Supreme Court ruling outlawing school segregation.
The education of Mary Jane Patterson—and the leadership role for which it prepared her—was no accident of history but a conscious choice. Oberlin was the first college in the United States to officially embrace the admission of Black students and the first coed school to grant bachelor’s degrees to women.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in college admissions, announced this morning, has left me deeply saddened and concerned for the future of higher education. At the same time, it has steeled my resolve to defend Oberlin’s most cherished values: diversity, social engagement, and academic excellence.
At Oberlin, we have long understood that diversity, in all its forms, is essential to our mission to prepare our students to confront complex issues and spark positive change in the world. Here’s something we also know: Affirmative action is a powerful tool for addressing stubborn, corrosive inequalities and for fostering a campus community that reflects the rich tapestry of our society.
Students of varying backgrounds and experiences have been coming together on our campus for nearly 190 years, and the evidence is irrefutable: A diverse student body makes for a superior education for everyone.
Oberlin is dedicated to recruiting a culturally, economically, geographically, and racially diverse group of students. The overwhelming majority of incoming students rate “understanding other cultures” and “learning to relate to people of other races and nationalities” as “essential” or “very important” skills to learn in college. They’re right. Students who have been part of a diverse campus have broader perspectives and are better prepared to enter the workforce.
They’re also better equipped to participate in civic life, the lifeblood of democracy. When students who grew up differently interact, they learn to see the world in new ways and hatch fresh ideas that become innovative solutions to our toughest problems—what Nobel Laureate and Lorain, Ohio, native Toni Morrison described as “the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one.”
The high court’s ruling to end the ability of colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in the admissions process disregards the crucial contributions students from historically marginalized communities make to the intellectual and cultural life of our campus. It also wrongly assumes that racial bias barring people from opportunity is a thing of the past, ignores the enduring effects of systemic discrimination, and perpetuates a cycle of inequality.
As a standard-bearer for equal opportunity in higher education, we will review the decision carefully to fully understand the implications for our existing and future efforts to build an eclectic campus.
To our current and prospective students, I assure you that we are committed to your success. We are here to support you and provide resources, mentorship, and programming that promote a vibrant, inclusive community.
While this decision is disheartening, it only strengthens our determination to be a welcoming place where diversity is celebrated, where all voices are valued, and where every student can thrive.
It’s true this ruling makes our work more difficult. But now is the time to draw inspiration from Mary Jane Patterson and others who demanded better for themselves and for this country. We will stand together to uphold the values that have defined Oberlin College for generations.
Carmen Twillie Ambar
President, Oberlin College and Conservatory