Commencement

2011 State of the College Address

2011 State of the College Address

State of the College Address, President Marvin Krislov


President Marvin Krislov's 2011 State of the College Address
LISTEN TO THE REMARKS

Giving Oberlin’s annual State-of-the-College speech is always an honor. But this year is special for me because I arrived in Oberlin with the Class of 2011.

Getting to know these remarkable men and women—working, learning, and growing with them—has been a wonderful experience. So I will feel sad when they graduate. But I am impressed by their ideas, energy, and achievements. And I am excited about their futures. I don’t want to pre-empt my remarks to the Class of 2011 tomorrow in Tappan Square, but I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to thank you all for four great years together.  

As for the state of your College of Arts and Sciences and Conservatory of Music, I am happy to report that both are doing extraordinarily well. Our continued success is all the more remarkable, given the challenging trends in American higher education. Those challenges include the difficult economic times, the worrisome legislative agendas in federal and state politics, and the public statements by those who say liberal arts education is no longer relevant in today’s light-speed world. 

Oberlin is flourishing despite those challenges, because we believe in, and practice, the values that made this one of the world’s greatest liberal arts colleges. Oberlin’s enduring values embrace access and inclusion, and the constant striving to achieve academic, artistic, and musical excellence.

Every single day—here on campus, across this nation, and around the world—our faculty, students, staff, and alumni demonstrate the relevance of a liberal arts education. They do so in countless ways and in almost every field of human endeavor. Their leadership, ideas, inventions, and actions have changed the course of history.

This year—as in the 178 years since Oberlin’s founding—our students, faculty, and alumni have achieved great things here and in the wider world.

Our graduating seniors have won a slew of prestigious fellowships, scholarships, and musical and artistic competitions. I will give but a few quick examples of student achievement because there are just too many to name them all.

Once again, our students earned a remarkable number of fellowships and scholarships. This year, they were awarded Javits, Coro, Truman, Udall, Beinecke, and Goldwater fellowships. Our students also received seven Fulbright Fellowships to study abroad. A total of 14 alumni and current students have earned grants and honorable mention recognition in the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship program.

Two graduating seniors, Allison Swaim and Joanna Johnson, earned the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowships. Joanna is also one of the greatest runners in Oberlin history, a seven-time All-American in track and cross country.

Oberlin faculty members have also earned honors. Photography professor Pipo Nguyen-duy was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Christina Neilson, assistant professor of Renaissance and Baroque art history, has been awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society.

On the institutional front, the college’s financial situation is much improved from when I spoke here one year ago. Endowment is recovering from the severe recession. It now is nearing $700 million, up from around $500 million at the depths of the downturn. This is important because the endowment is a major source of support for financial aid.

Admissions had another record-setting year. Oberlin is becoming even more selective, and the quality of our incoming students continues to rise. Our ongoing efforts to upgrade our facilities took a major step forward this past August with the opening of the Robert Lewis Kahn Residence Hall. And as you can all see, even during one of the wettest springs in the past century, our campus is truly beautiful.  

All those achievements are a tribute to the hard work, intelligence, and talents of Oberlin’s students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, parents, community partners, and friends.

Before I go into more detail, allow me to introduce some of the leaders whose counsel, expertise and support have been crucial in creating the success I just outlined.  

They are Oberlin trustees: Robert Lemle, Class of 1975; Clyde McGregor, Class of 1974; Bob Frascino, Class of 1974; Tom Kutzen, Class of 1976; and Pat Fabry Shanks, Class of 1963.

I want to take a moment to give special recognition to Robert Lemle, who is stepping down as chair of the Board of Trustees. Robert has served on the Oberlin Board of Trustees since 1996 and as chair since 2005. He will be succeeded this summer by Clyde McGregor, who has served on the board since 1998.

Robert Lemle is a quintessential Obie, in that he is incredibly dedicated, he is passionate about the arts and culture, and he met the love of his life, Roni Kohen-Lemle ’76, here. Their daughter, Joanna Lemle, is a 2010 graduate.

Robert was a driving force in creating the Strategic Plan Oberlin adopted in 2005. Over the years, he and his fellow trustees—working closely with our faculty and staff—have improved Oberlin’s strategic decision making, solidified our finances, and elevated the college’s national and international profile.

Their generosity and vision have also helped Oberlin evolve toward a culture of giving. At a time when America’s institutions of higher education are grappling with financial challenges, strengthening Oberlin’s giving culture is vitally important. The percentage of alumni who give annually, for example, directly affects our standing in college rankings.

Now I’d like to recognize our former trustees, Barbara Rostov, Class of 1961; Dan Orr, Class of 1954; John Elder, Class of 1953; Amy Gittler, Class of 1972; Ali Najmi, Class of 2006.  Would all of our current and past trustees please rise.

Please join me in thanking our trustees for their tremendous service to Oberlin.
Thank you.

Now to the main reason we are gathered here.

This is the fourth time I have addressed the wider Oberlin community about the state of the college. While Oberlin is also facing some significant challenges, I’m happy to report that thanks to our media outreach efforts, as well as old-fashioned word of mouth, the good news about Oberlin is spreading.  

I was struck by that fact in early March—when I attended the presentation at the White House of the National Medal of the Arts and the National Medal of the Humanities. You may recall that in 2010, President Barack Obama awarded the Arts medal to our conservatory and Dean David Stull. The conservatory had another terrific year, highlighted by the Oberlin Orchestra’s tour of China and Singapore during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. This was a tremendous achievement and learning experience for the musicians. They received an enthusiastic reception at every stop.

At this year’s National Medal award ceremony, I heard a great deal of praise from the honorees for Oberlin’s leadership in the humanities and the arts.

Professor Stan Katz, the renowned legal historian and higher-education policy expert at Princeton University, was quite laudatory. He said in a panel discussion, that smaller institutions—and he specifically named Oberlin—have a better chance of leading in promoting the study of humanities because our size makes us more nimble and better able to do interdisciplinary work.

His words reminded me of how many people—including people who have not studied, taught, or even visited Oberlin—believe strongly in our mission and respect the high quality of our teaching, scholarship, and leadership.

That quality begins with our faculty, students, and staff. 

Almost every Oberlin alum I meet tells me about the tremendous influence a current or former faculty member has had on his or her life. In many cases, that alum is still in touch with his or her Oberlin mentor. Such friendships attest to the abilities of our students. They also speak to the hard work, passion, and engagement of our teacher-scholars. Those ties are also fostered by our relatively small class sizes.

In our faculty, a generational turnover is currently underway. This is also a nationwide trend. Some great professors are transitioning to emeritus status. I am saddened to report that some of our legendary emeriti have passed away this past year. But one of the wonderful things about Oberlin is that so many of our emeriti stay here, and they stay engaged with the college, the community, and the region. As some of you may know, Oberlin faculty members were the driving force behind the creation of Kendal at Oberlin. Kendal’s residents are a vital force for good in this area.  

Despite the transitions, the quality of our faculty is very strong. We are working hard to make it even stronger by bringing in a new generation of dynamic, young teacher-scholars. The fact that some of them have been pursued by some of America’s leading research universities speaks to their quality. I assure you, we work hard to retain our outstanding professors.

The quality of our students keeps rising. That begins with admissions, and Oberlin had another superb admissions year. The College of Arts and Sciences received a record of more than 6,100 applications. Only 31 percdent of those applicants were offered admission. The Conservatory of Music also set a new record total with 1,448 applications. Only 25 percent of those candidates were admitted. In both divisions, the quality of our enrollees is outstanding.

Those statistics attest to our growing reputation for excellence and rigor. But they also highlight some of the challenges we face in upholding our values. Due to the tough economy, the financial need of our current and incoming students rose significantly.

In the coming year, about 75 percent of our students will receive some form of need-based financial aid. That is up from around 70 percent this academic year. We give aid to a much higher percentage of our students than our peer schools provide for theirs. In fiscal 2011-12, we will spend $55 million on financial aid, up from $51 million the previous fiscal year. For an institution this size, that is a huge amount of money.  

We are justifiably proud of providing financial aid to deserving students. But given the cuts we anticipated in government-based aid, the price for that commitment may rise.  

We expect Pell Grants—which provided financial support to students from the most disadvantaged families—to survive but be diminished. State support for higher education is also declining.

While government support for needy college students declines, the cost of higher education continues to rise across America. There are many reasons for the rising costs. Those reasons vary from school to school.

At Oberlin, we are working very hard to keep costs down, and we have managed well through this challenging period. But providing a liberal arts education in this day and age is expensive because it is labor-intensive. That is certainly true here. Oberlin students are taught and mentored by top-notch teacher-scholars, not graduate students or adjuncts.

Our classes are relatively small. We offer a breadth and depth of courses that many small universities do not. And our students are offered opportunities for research, interdisciplinary study, and independent projects that are not available at most other schools. Providing those opportunities, and building and maintaining a first-rate faculty, requires resources.

Rising costs are also driven by rising expectations from students and parents for the services a college should provide. Today we have more students with disabilities, special needs, and mental health challenges than ever before. That generates personnel costs, not just for faculty, but for support staff.

Some schools are responding to these challenges by cutting back. The two big areas where they are cutting are quality and access. Colleges and universities are reducing quality by increasing class sizes and shrinking or eliminating courses or programs such as study abroad or specialized student services. Some are hiring more adjunct faculty. Some are giving less financial aid.  

Other cost drivers include health care, plant and equipment, and coping with aging infrastructure. Here, too, we are confronted with rising expectations from parents, students, and prospective students.

Class of 1961, Dascomb Hall was still new when you graduated. You look wonderful. It has not aged as gracefully as you have.

Incoming students want a different residential experience. This is a competitive issue for Oberlin. During the past few summers, we have renovated a half-dozen existing residence halls, and we will continue to do so.  

This past August, we took a major step to address our housing challenges by opening the Robert Lewis Kahn Residence Hall. Named for one of Oberlin’s greatest recent benefactors—Bob Kahn from the Class of 1957—it is a first-year residence hall located on North Professor Street.

Built at a cost of $17 million, Kahn Hall does more than upgrade the housing choices we offer incoming students. It vividly demonstrates Oberlin’s culture of creativity and innovation and our commitment to sustainability.

In building Kahn Hall, students played a key role. They told us they wanted more than a place to sleep and study. They wanted a place where they could build a community committed to sustainability. Their vision included programmatic elements. That is why the residence has a classroom and a fitness space. And the students who live there have pledged to conserve energy and water.  

Sustainability is a central component of our vision for the future of this college and this town. We are already turning that vision into reality. Besides building Kahn Hall and the conservatory’s Kohl Building to high sustainability standards, we are completing the renovation of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, which will improve the facility and reduce its carbon footprint.

When the Allen reopens next fall, it will have new geo-thermal heating and cooling. The Allen will also serve as a cornerstone for the Green Arts District we are creating on the east side of Tappan Square.

The museum has been closed for months. But its masterpieces have been featured in shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery in Washington D.C.
  
All of our plans and initiatives are directed toward the goal of making Oberlin the best liberal arts college in the country. Oberlin was founded during the Second Awakening by John Shipherd and Philo Stewart—two Christian perfectionists—as a community apart from the world. So from the beginning, Oberlin’s people have pursued a utopian vision.

Today some members of the greater Oberlin family still display a strong—albeit secular—perfectionist streak. This approach can manifest itself in fault-finding, especially as it relates to the college.

Oberlin is not perfect. Neither is the world. Sometimes we fall short of our goals. That can be painful. But we should celebrate the wonderful things our students, faculty, and alumni do as we strive to make the world better and our communities better.

We believe in building community and tackling the world’s toughest problems. The fates of this institution and this city are inextricably intertwined. Working together we are making Oberlin an exciting destination.

That is why the Oberlin Project is so important. The Oberlin Project is our partnership with the city and the schools. It seeks to make our town a model of sustainable economic development based on education and the arts.

Our commitment to revitalizing Oberlin is also evident in the work of our Bonner Center for Service and Learning and in the Oberlin Partnership Scholarships. This decade-old program enables four-year graduates of Oberlin High School who are admitted to the college to study here tuition free. I know of no other liberal arts college in America that offers such assistance. The scholarships, and the leadership of Oberlin City Schools superintendent Geoff Andrews, have helped spark a renaissance in Oberlin’s public schools and have attracted residents to this city. 

Unlike many colleges, we take prudent risks by admitting and giving aid to some students who are not slam-dunk candidates with astronomical test scores and outstanding grades. We admit them because they have demonstrated great potential, exceptional talents, and the kind of drive a person needs to succeed at Oberlin and in life.

Supported by the advising, mentoring, and caring provided by our faculty and staff, those students are succeeding. Oberlin’s graduation rate has risen to 87 percent. And in the 2010 Senior Survey, 92 percent of those surveyed said they were generally, or very, satisfied with their undergraduate education.

Oberlin’s rankings reflect our value choices. The college ranking schemes do not encourage Oberlin’s commitment to access. We could rise dramatically in the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings if we were to shift 10 or 20 million dollars from financial aid to plant and equipment or salaries.

We have not done so because that would be contrary to Oberlin’s values.

What does it mean to say we aspire to being the best liberal arts college in this era of ranking schemes and internet polls? It means building on Oberlin’s unique strengths. We possess the unrivaled combination of a premier College of Arts and Sciences, a world-class Conservatory of Music and one of the nation’s top-five college art museums.

Our commitment to academic excellence, undergraduate research, and interdisciplinary work is second to none. To highlight the impressive research our students do, Sean Decatur, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has created an annual, half-day Senior Symposium where the students present their research findings.

Aspiring to be the best is not a utopian dream. It is a goal that will require hard work and overcoming our weaknesses at a very challenging time in American higher education. But Oberlin in particular, and American liberal arts education in general, have faced and overcome challenging times before.

In 1952, Oberlin’s president was William E. Stevenson. The more I learn about Oberlin history, the more affinity I have for President Stevenson, perhaps because he was a lawyer with a strong social consciousness. I have also had the honor of getting to know and working with his wonderful daughter, Pricilla Hunt, who is an Oberlin trustee.
 
In a speech to alumni in late 1952, President Stevenson addressed some of the pressing issues of the day. Allow me to read part of his speech to you now.

There are some, however, who ask—is a liberal education useful today? We think so, and hope you do, too. We believe that the liberal arts and life itself are closely related. We believe that a liberal education is a useful education.

Liberal education, however, is based on the premise that what is learned is not as important as the qualities which are developed in the process, such as genuine intellectual humility, a decent respect for the evidence, a zeal for real understanding, an ultimate desire for truth.

We must admit, quite frankly, that we are not as interested in producing skilled people as we are educated people; educated in the sense that they can relate experience and knowledge in one field to problems in others. We certainly hope that they will not be warped people, trapped by human nature into the habit of concentrating on such a narrow strip of life that they never see the fabric of life whole.

There are those, of course, who hold that this is all nonsense. They say that what is needed in this period of high-speed, technological advance are college graduates trained in a specialty so that they can go right to work in a successful line of endeavor. Others, whose opinions we might well respect, hold contrary views. And to us they are more persuasive.

The others President Stevenson went on to cite included Albert Einstein and America’s largest corporations and leading medical schools.

Surveys show that America’s corporate leaders are still enthusiastic believers in liberal arts and science education. They believe it best positions students to lead in our increasingly diverse, competitive world because it teaches them the analytical skills and broad, international perspective needed to succeed in any field and to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

A disproportionately large number of those leaders earned a liberal arts degree at a college or university. That is what Oberlin does. We produce leaders. Men and women who lead in so many areas, from pre-school teaching and environmental activism to the highest echelons of business, government, and education and the professions. Teachers, college professors,, military officers, doctors, dentists, ministers, CEOs, CFOs, lawyers, scientists, singers, artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and actors.  

At Oberlin, students take the initiative. They are proactive. They expect the institution to support them in their endeavors. If they make a strong case, we often do. One great example of that is our program Creativity & Leadership—Entrepreneurship at Oberlin.
This year it awarded grants totaling $65,000 to six graduating seniors to launch entrepreneurial ventures they conceived.

Those ventures include:

  • establishing a cooperative food market on the near west side of Cleveland;
  • launching an innovative and affordably priced 3-D video production company; and
  • implementing an online test prep program for students in Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent.

By supporting such student initiatives, we prepare our students to assume leadership positions in our society.

Combine this student initiative with an outstanding science faculty and you get the remarkable undergraduate research that is an Oberlin hallmark. And, yes, that was a Charles Martin Hall reference.

This year, we celebrated the 125th anniversary of his discovery of the modern process for extracting aluminum from bauxite.

Mr. Hall remains Oberlin’s single greatest benefactor. His generosity transformed Tappan Square into a beautiful park. He gave us the Arboretum, a significant portion of our endowment, and much, much more. Generations of Obies not yet born will benefit from his vision and his philanthropy.

Thanks to our strong science faculty, Oberlin is recognized as a leader in undergraduate teaching in the natural sciences. That is one of the main reasons Oberlin still produces more graduates who go on to earn their PhD than any other baccalaureate institution in America.

Thanks to the rigor demanded by all our faculty in the college and the conservatory, our recent graduates often tell us that they had an advantage over their peers when they got to med school, or journalism school, or to a top graduate program in neuroscience, mathematics, music theory, or English literature.

Our work ethic, our rigor, our tradition of interdisciplinary study, our internationalist perspective, our willingness to take intellectual risks, our embrace of the life of the mind, our belief in liberal arts and sciences education, our belief in providing access and opportunity to students from all walks of life, and the leadership demonstrated daily by our students, faculty and staff--those are the strands of Oberlin’s collective DNA. They link Oberlinians of all ages. Time and again, I have seen that when current students and alumni are brought together—even if they are from vastly different socioeconomic circumstances, or hold different religious or political beliefs—they feel kinship. They feel that kinship because of Oberlin. I hope you discover that this weekend.
 
Our students, faculty, and alumni want to make the world a better place. They believe in demanding a high level of accountability from themselves and others. And they work hard putting their values into action.

Together, we can build on Oberlin’s excellence and secure our place in the 21st century as one of the world’s greatest liberal arts colleges. We can ensure that Oberlin’s values continue to inspire and transform the lives of the young men and women who come here.

That is why we are preparing to launch a comprehensive campaign intended to make this the best college—on our terms—in the country. It is our opportunity to make strategic investments that will strengthen Oberlin now and in the future. The campaign’s goals are:

  • To strengthen Oberlin’s historic commitment to access and inclusion by endowing scholarships.
  • To bolster our outstanding faculty by increasing the number of endowed professorships and supporting faculty research.
  • To create a distinctive 21st-century curriculum that includes cocurricular innovation. This will build on our standing as the only liberal arts college with an internationally renowned conservatory of music and one of America’s top college art museums.
  • To build on Oberlin’s spirit of pioneering social activism by reinventing our college and town as a global model of thriving, post-carbon economic development centered on education and the arts.
  • To honor our historic commitment to producing sound minds in sound bodies by promoting the health and wellness of our students and strengthening our athletics programs.

These are ambitious goals. But Oberlin, to paraphrase Geoffrey Blodgett, the late, great professor of history, has always been a place of driving scholarly ambition and high moral purpose. The world needs Oberlin’s leadership now more than ever.