Commencement

2017 Crimson and Gold Convocation and Presidential Address

2017 Crimson and Gold Convocation and Presidential Address

Marvin Krislov
President, Oberlin College & Conservatory
May 21, 2017
Finney Chapel

The following is a transcript of the Presidential Address by Marvin Krislov during the Crimson and Gold Convocation.


Thank you, Lorri.

Welcome, faculty, students, parents and families, alumni, staff, members of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees, and friends. This is my 10th presidential address during Commencement and Reunion Weekend. It is also my last. In August, I will become president of Pace University in New York. Leading a larger institution with graduate and professional schools is a challenge I sought. But leaving this incredible place is hard. Oberlin will always be part of my heart.

Serving as president of Oberlin College and Conservatory—and getting to know and become friends with so many of you—has been an honor and a privilege. I will cherish those friendships for as long as I live. Thank you!

Working together, this institution and this community have accomplished much over the past decade. While there is still much to do, I am proud of our achievements. I know that you and generations to come will continue to build on them.

This morning—in keeping with tradition—I will report on the current state of the College and Conservatory. But I’m also going to take the opportunity to share some thoughts on what we have achieved over the past decade, and the leadership transition we are experiencing. And I will talk about some of the challenges and opportunities Oberlin faces in the 21st century.

Let’s start with the good news. As usual, we have a lot.

  • The College and the Conservatory continue to thrive despite the challenging national landscape for all institutions of higher education.
  • Our faculty, students, and alumni have once again produced a remarkable year of achievements.

Oberlin’s greatest achievement over the past year is the same as every year since its founding in 1833. We provide or students with an excellent education of exceptional breadth, depth, and rigor.

  • It is an education infused with our values of diversity, inclusion, and the pursuit of excellence.
  • An education that prepares our students to meet life’s challenges, and to be leaders in their chosen fields.
  • An education that prepares students to be engaged citizens of their communities, our country, and our world.

An Oberlin education is produced by the combined efforts, ideas, and generosity of thousands of individuals—faculty, staff, alumni, students, parents, and the people of this town. All of them have contributed to advancing Oberlin’s mission.

I wish time permitted me to thank every one of you by name.

During my tenure, I’ve been fortunate to work closely with a group of supremely talented, wise and hard-working people—our Senior Staff. To give you a quick indicator of the strength of the staff, three of them have been selected to be president of other institutions.

So would current and former members of the Senior Staff please stand and be recognized?

Thank you all so much for your hard work, advice and counsel.

The driving force of an Oberlin education is, and always will be, our faculty. They are terrific scholars who are also devoted to teaching.

Before I came here, I knew Oberlin had a strong teaching tradition. I have come to appreciate the dedication and excellence of our professors. I was also surprised by how under-recognized they were—even by some of our students and alumni. So I asked our deans and some of their faculty colleagues to try and rectify that situation. Thanks to their efforts, two Oberlin professors—Steve Volk and Brian Alegeant—were named U.S. Professors of the Year.

The best measure of a teacher is—of course—the success of their students. I’m happy to report that this year Oberlin students—guided by our faculty, staff, and coaches—have produced many outstanding and historic achievements.

To give a few highlights, two members of the Class of 2017—Kirk Pearson and Paulus van Horne—have been awarded the prestigious Watson Fellowship for travel and study abroad. And 14 Oberlin students have received Fulbright Scholarships in 2016/2017 cycle. That ranks Oberlin 4th among all Bachelor’s institutions.

Our students also won a slew of other awards for graduate study and travel from Oberlin Shansi and external organizations such as the National Science Foundation.

This year Oberlin created a new honor—the Nexial Prize. The Nexial Prize is a $50,000 award made annually to the member of the graduating class who, in addition to demonstrating excellence as a science major, has stood out through serious study of culture.

The prize was created by an alumnus to acknowledge the contribution Oberlin’s liberal arts education made to his successful career as a scientist and manager, as well as to his intellectual and cultural growth. Tim Elgren, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, was instrumental in creating this.

The first-ever Nexial Prize winner is Adam Chazin-Gray, Class of 2017. Adam is a biology and neuroscience double major with interests in public health, climatology, and infectious disease research. He was also an outstanding varsity soccer player.

Adam’s career highlights the interdisciplinary nature of Oberlin education. That is such a defining element of studying here regardless of what major a student pursues. For example, Oberlin is a science powerhouse, as many of you know. To use but one measure, 23 Oberlin alums are currently members of the prestigious National Academy of Science. That’s close to one percent of the total membership. No other small college comes close to that presence.

This past October, we hosted a National Academy of Science Reunion and Symposium at the Oberlin Science Center. Twelve NAS members returned and shared their expertise, insights and memories of Oberlin with our students and faculty.

It was a spectacular gathering. Listening to our guests, I was struck by the importance they placed on Oberlin’s diversity, and the residential, inter-disciplinary, and extra-curricular experiences they had here. Those experiences included taking humanities classes, living in a Co-op, playing varsity sports, participating in musical groups, performing in student productions, or working student jobs. Each of those 12 distinguished scientists said those experiences shaped their lives and careers.

That was a good reminder of what a powerful, interdisciplinary experience we offer on this campus. Sometimes, I think we take that for granted. We’re so used to living in close proximity to our brilliant Conservatory and to one of the best academic art museums in the country.

But they are pillars of the Oberlin experience. The words Oberlin Conservatory are synonymous with musical excellence. In 2009, the Conservatory was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama. Our faculty, students, staff and alumni perform, record, and teach not just here but in venues around the world.

This year, the Allen Memorial Art Museum is celebrating its centennial with a series of events which I hope you can attend. The Allen is a tremendous resource and a civic treasure. It stages thought-provoking exhibitions. It has a superb, comprehensive collection of art. And it is open to the public free of charge.

It also shares its collection with our students. Some of you Obies may have hung a Picasso or a Renoir or a Jim Dine in your dorm room thanks to the fabulous Art Rental Program. That program was created by the legendary professor Ellen Johnson and it is going stronger than ever.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of visitors—students, faculty and staff from the College and Con, local school kids, art lovers from around the world—who have passed through its doors. Think of the generations of Oberlin students who have benefited from studying its great works of art first hand with an Oberlin professor as their guide. That’s one of the reasons so many Oberlin alumni can be found in the top ranks of museum directors, curators, and art history departments around the world.

That direct connection with great teachers and mentors isn’t confined to the Conservatory or the Allen or even the academic program. It happens throughout this institution and this town. It was especially evident, for example, in the tremendous success this year of our athletics and health and wellness programs.

This year, individual Oberlin athletes and teams made history and rewrote our record books. Our teams had one of their best overall records in decades. I went to many events and enjoyed seeing so many students, faculty and staff cheering on our scholar athletes and taking pride in Oberlin. Academics will always come first here. But sports and health and wellness add a lot to the experience.

I don’t think any Oberlin president since William Stevenson has been able to say what I’m about to say—there just isn’t enough time this morning to do justice to all the great athletic accomplishments of our scholar-athletes. But I must mention the incredible success of the Yeowomen track & field team. These strong, swift, smart, and determined women made Oberlin history. They won the North Coast Athletic Conference indoor and outdoor championships. Those were the first outright conference titles in program history.

The team was led by a powerful group of throwers. First among them is Monique Newton ’18—who is a double-major in politics and law & society with a minor in Africana studies. This past winter, Monique became Oberlin’s first female NCAA National Champion when she won the indoor shot put.

Our many athletic accomplishments and the resurgence in our health and wellness programs reflect the hard work put in by our students. They were guided by the vision, leadership and hard work of Natalie Winkelfoos, our Delta Lodge Director of Athletics, and her coaches and staff.

Athletics is one of many areas where Oberlin has made significant progress over the past decade. It’s important to remember the context for our achievements. The past 10 years were fairly tumultuous in the world and sometimes on our campus.

Consider, if you will, some milestones in our country and our world:

  • Barack Obama was elected President of the United States—twice. After his victory in 2008, the celebration in Oberlin rocked Tappan Square until the wee hours.
  • Not long after, we had the Great Recession—the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
  • Over the decade, income inequality expanded and continues to expand.
  • Technology has been evolving by leaps and bounds. In 2007, driverless cars seemed light years away. Not any more.
  • The Internet and social media have exploded over the past 10 years—for better and for worse.
  • Same sex marriage and gender non-binary have become more commonly accepted.
  • Race and racial discrimination have become even more contentious national issues than it was in 2007. The killing of unarmed Black men by police officers spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • And in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States after a long, ugly campaign.

To quote he Grateful Dead—what a long, strange trip it’s been.

That’s a glimpse at the national landscape since 2007.

Here in Oberlin, there has also been significant change. To begin with, the face of the campus and the town is different. With help from the College, the East College Street project became a reality. It is now a pillar of our vibrant downtown business district.

We built badly needed new facilities such as the Gateway complex and the Hotel at Oberlin, the Conservatory’s Kohl Building, the Kahn Residence Hall for first-year students, and the Knowlton Athletics Complex.

When the Apollo Theatre looked like it was going to close for good, the College bought it. We transformed it into a modern facility that serves our community with first-run movies. We added a first-class home for our Cinema Studies program.

There are many other, less obvious changes. We began addressing decades of deferred maintenance issues. We renovated existing residence halls and faculty offices to make them more functional and energy efficient. We launched an array of sustainability initiatives and economic development such as the Oberlin Project. Those investments were paid for by generous donations by alumni and friends, and creative financing including New Market Tax Credits. These new facilities will serve our community well for decades to come.

We also strengthened the human ties between the College and the City of Oberlin. Many of you have heard me say this before. But it’s important so I will say it again—neither the College nor the town can thrive alone. Our fates are inextricably intertwined.

There has been progress. I’m very proud of the way the College has supported Oberlin City Schools through programs such as the Robinson Scholars, the Ninde Scholars, Spanish, poetry and math in the Schools and our support for the International Baccalaureate program. Seeing kids graduate from Oberlin High School and come to the College and flourish has been a joy.

There is another change that may not be obvious—a change in Oberlin’s culture. The perfectionist strand in Oberlin’s institutional DNA goes all the way back to our founders—the Reverend John Jay Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart. Inspired by the utopian enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening in the decades before the Civil War, they created this College and community with the aim of perfecting humankind through higher education.

That’s a lofty and unattainable goal. But that history inspires us to be idealistic. It has inspired generation after generation of faculty, students, staff and local residents to care deeply about this place. I have never seen an institution where the people care so deeply about it.

But sometimes that perfectionist impulse gets in the way of acknowledging the good things we do achieve. We must acknowledge and celebrate all the wonderful, special things that happen here.

There is nothing wrong with being earnest and idealistic. Without ideals what would living mean? But if we can’t celebrate success what can we celebrate? Oberlin may seem like an idealistic bubble at times. But we exist in the real world. And that world can be a very tough place right now—especially in higher education. Changes are coming fast for colleges and universities in this country. Our challenge is to manage the changes and—when we can—take advantage of them to enhance the quality and relevance of an Oberlin education.

Technology, for example, can be an amazing tool. We carry computers around in our pockets. The Internet enables Oberlin parents who live far away to see their student play sports or perform with the Oberlin Orchestra.

Technology enabled us in 2015 to do the first alumni phonecast in Oberlin history. It was a live, call-in, question-and-answer session moderated by Chuck Spitulnik ’73, the then-president of the Oberlin Alumni Association.

The phonecast was a big success. We called some 37,000 Oberlin alumni and connected with a total of over 5,000 at the peak. While not all of them stayed on the line through the two, 45-sessions, a few thousand did. Charles Grandison Finney would have loved to have such an audience.

So change can be useful and exciting. But it can also cause anxiety. As I mentioned earlier, Oberlin is going through important leadership transitions right now. But the fact that members of our senior leadership are moving up to new jobs elsewhere, speaks to the strength of our staff. And their success has helped us attract strong pool for their successors.

At Oberlin, as at most residential liberal arts colleges, there is particular anxiety about finances. We are in reasonable financial health, especially compared to many small, residential liberal arts colleges. Our greatest asset—as I described earlier—is our people. But we also have considerable financial resources. Our endowment is currently about $800 million. That is larger than that of many other liberal arts colleges. But it is more modest than we would like it to be—in part because we rely on it to support our financial aid.

But we cannot be complacent about our finances. Our model needs to change with the times. Running an institution like Oberlin is very expensive. Student charges are our biggest source of revenue. Wages, salaries and benefits are our biggest expense. The pool of college-aged students is going to decrease. And the number of students needing financial aid is growing. In the coming year, about 80 percent of our students will receive financial aid. We must work to constrain tuition increases and to invest in our faculty, staff and programs. To do this, we must think carefully about our priorities and make sound financial decisions.

That’s why we need to spend the next few years making important decisions that will ensure Oberlin’s financial strength well into the future. These decisions must be made thoughtfully and in consultation with all stakeholders. Making them hastily would be a mistake. I am confident Oberlin can adapt to these challenging times. I’m confident in part because I’ve seen Oberlin’s giving culture grow so much stronger over the past decade.

The Oberlin Illuminate campaign raised some $318 million dollars. I know many of you here today supported that campaign. Many, many thanks for your support. I’m also encouraged that so many current students and recent alums are giving what they can to support Oberlin.

That’s a vote of confidence in the future of this great College and Conservatory.

As I close, gratitude to the Oberlin family, to my family, my children…thank you for your love and support. To my Oberlin family, thank you for teaching me and inspiring enthusiasm.

Our greatest asset is our people. I continue to be moved at the lives you lead and your commitment to making the world better.I am deeply grateful for all your support, advice, counsel, and generosity. I believe we have advanced Oberlin’s mission in profound ways. And I am confident this great college, conservatory, and community will grow and blossom for decades to come.

It has been an honor and a privilege to have served as your president. From the bottom of my heart, thank you one and all.